LOUISVILLE — Hospitality to immigrants. Lament. Education. Appreciation. Those concepts permeated the second day of the 2018 Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE) annual event, being held Jan. 31-Feb. 3 in Louisville.
The second day of the conference started with an “interactive” plenary. Allison Harrington, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, and Teresa Waggener, manager of immigration issues in the Office of the General Assembly, invited about 675 conference attendees to “imagine what it would be like to leave home behind and embark on a perilous journey” in the footsteps of those who migrate from Central America to the southern borders of the U.S.
Harrington said “65 million people are on the move across our globe – fleeing poverty, war, natural disaster,” and asked: “Will our hospitality be deep and wide? Or will it be … narrow, so that only a few can squeeze their way in?”
A card was placed at the seat of each attendee with the backstory of an individual from Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras. Waggener and Harrington led the attendees through imagining leaving home as the migrant or refugee persona printed on the card and experiencing loss, hardships and obstacles to seeking asylum.
Harrington noted that 6 of 10 women taking this immigration path from Central America to the U.S./Mexico border are victims of rape or sexual assault, according to Amnesty International. Many, she said, are also victims of kidnapping or at risk of death due to dehydration during their travel to the border.
Participants were invited to assume the identities on their cards and discuss with those seated nearby decisions they might make or the potential risks encountered. Small groups were then asked to discuss how others might show these asylum-seekers practices of hospitality.
Clips from “Genesis of Exodus,” a film coordinated by staff in the Office of the General Assembly, were shown with a full screening also offered to participants in the afternoon. The film shares the stories of migrants, their families and those working with them.
Anne Wilson, a member of the APCE leadership team from Texas, offered a brief theological reflection and noted that she hopes the conference will be an opportunity for participants to be transformed “into hospitality apprentices.”
Worship: Lament and the Good Samaritan
The daily worship service was one of lament, with readings and songs from Psalms and an artistic rendering of lament created by Scott Neely, an artist from Greensboro, North Carolina, during the gathering singing.
J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), offered the sermon based on Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Addressing a room full of Christian educators, Nelson said that “teaching the gospel is life-saving work” and may be the most important work the PC(USA) can do today.
Distilling the message of Jesus’ parable, Nelson said: “Anyone we come in contact with becomes our neighbor, becomes our kin, has a relationship with us. In the law of love, there is no exclusion of anyone from becoming our neighbor.”
He continued: “You know what, friends? This church doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to God.” Sometimes splits happen, he said, “because of our own brokenness and sin.” However, “it is a time by which we ought to step up teaching the gospel, and telling the truth.” But, Nelson cautioned, there’s a sin core in humanity, and that makes people not want to hear the truth.
The PC(USA) has “a long history and heritage of doing the same kind of work” as the Good Samaritan, Nelson said, echoing the theme of hospitality that’s a focus of this year’s conference.
We must teach theology, worship, how to “sit through a session meeting and really have a Holy Ghost party” rather than an argument, Nelson said. “We must teach again. … If we do not begin today, we will probably be no more than a remnant.”
Some have already written the obituary for the PC(USA), Nelson said, “but I want you to know one thing: We’re not dying, we’re reforming.”
But reforming won’t do anything without education, he stressed, saying the church needs to teach “that the world we’re living in will be turned upside down by the very people that the world has already counted out.”
“I believe in a God who never fails or forsakes or leaves us alone, and has a holy hand on us right now,” he concluded. “Stand firm in the liberty in which Christ Jesus has set you free.”
Awards presented to APCE members for their service and contributions to Christian education at this conference include:
Educator of the year. Rebecca Davis is associate professor of religion and the director of the Christian education program at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, and teaches as a visiting professor at Union Presbyterian Theological Seminary’s Charlotte campus. She previously served as associate pastor for children and their families at Myers Park Presbyterian Church in North Carolina and served on staff of the Children’s Defense Fund and the National Council of Churches committee on justice for children and the families.
Life achievement award. Forrest Palmer served churches in Virginia, Florida and North Carolina while also serving on presbytery, synod and General Assembly committees. He taught educational ministry in an adjunct capacity at Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia. In retirement, he continues to preach and do pastoral care at First Presbyterian Church in Dunbar, West Virginia. He has been involved with APCE since 1976, including service on the leadership cabinet and as president from 2013-2015.
Empower award: Deborah Wendell recalls teaching Sunday school to stuffed animals as a child, before serving churches as a professional Christian educator. She is currently on staff at Pine Shores Presbyterian Church in Sarasota, Florida, where she takes joy in supporting others who are involved in the education of the church’s children.