Unity, justice and reconciliation: Presbyterians respond to the approval of Belhar

GA reporting by Greg Allen-Pickett and Mihee Kim-Kort

On June 22, the 2016 General Assembly experienced a kairos moment through an overwhelming vote to add the Belhar Confession to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Confessions.

As reported earlier, Godfrey Betha, vice moderator of the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa, was invited to address the assembly. The assembly gathered was moved by his words: “It is the 22nd … the 222nd GA. I will never forget this date.” He continued: “Your decision affirms you say to your children, you say to all, ‘When you come to us looking for a glimmer of racism, don’t come to our church.’” Quoting Philippians 1:6, Betha closed by saying, “I am confident of this, the one who began a good work in you will continue to perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus – Viva Belhar Confession! Viva!”

The next day the assembly and wider church continued to buzz with excitement about the news. Of the acceptance of the Belhar Confession, Larissa Kwong Abazia, vice moderator of the 221st General Assembly (2014) lifted up the reality that the work needed in order to live into the confession is only beginning: “The Belhar Confession is a witness to the hard work that has been pursued and continues to be needed within the denomination. Our actions must accompany the newest words to our Book of Confessions. Power will have to be shared, resources reallocated, leadership acknowledged and lifted up, and financial priorities changed.”

Likewise, Greg Klimovitz, associate presbyter for Philadelphia Presbytery expressed gratitude that “Belhar is now us. The same Spirit that moved our sisters and brothers to break the chains of apartheid now dares us to do the same in the midst of pervasive racism in our cities and nation. … I am beyond grateful to have been in the room when it happened. Our greatest tribute to and celebration of our sisters and brothers who wrote the beautiful and prophetic confession is now to go and live it.”

Cliff Kirkpatrick, who is former director of world mission, former stated clerk of the PC(USA) and co-chair of the Special Committee on Belhar, voiced, “Belhar is a tremendous source of hope for the gospel, the global church, and for the PC(USA). So much of my life in ministry has been tied in some way to Belhar and the life of the church underneath it. … It is the witness and quality of faith in the church in so many parts of the global south that has kept my faith and hope in the church strong, and the Belhar is in the center of that. The confession was written in a few days in an impossible context and reflects the heart of the gospel of justice and reconciliation, and it provides hope for me. ”

Cliff Kirkpatrick and Matilde Moros, co-moderators of the Special Committee on Belhar, upon seeing that Belhar passed.
Cliff Kirkpatrick and Matilde Moros, co-moderators of the Special Committee on Belhar, upon seeing that Belhar passed.

Matilde Moros, co-chair of the Special Committee on Belhar, saw this move as daring. She said, “Belhar, for the PC(USA), will translate as a word from God to take courage, that the fear of change is not where God calls us to be or to stand, that if we truly are proclaiming what our confession ends with, that Jesus is Lord, it is time to see ourselves once again in that Reformed perspective. As people who stand on and with the word of God and the mission of Jesus.”

Ruth Faith Santana-Grace, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, shared how powerful it was to witness this moment: “This is a historic moment – one that brought tears to my eyes. As a woman of color in a denomination that longs to reflect ‘every tribe, tongue, and nation,’ I am deeply moved by this sign of hope within our community of faith.”

Cheni Khonje, a teaching elder commissioner for West Jersey Presbytery, tweeted: “So emotional. Glad voices of geographic south included in confessions,” and later reiterated: “The passing of the Belhar Confession means … the justice movements of South Africans deepen Christendom’s understanding of the experience of a God who is present in our struggle for life lived fully in freedom.” Jan DeVries, the executive presbyter of Grace Presbytery, offered one reason why this is so important: “It is now our only confession from the global south of Christianity. It is amazing to me to remember the 1984 GA in Phoenix where Alan Boesak was the preacher for the entire GA (we did it differently then), and Presbyterians stood in solidarity with Christians in South Africa – the year after we voted on reunion.”

Other voices chimed in on Twitter: Laura Viau, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Apopka, Florida, said: “We can’t read Belhar aloud, together, without looking to see who is not in the room saying those words with us. It challenges us to take seriously the hard work of reconciliation God has been calling us to for generations.” And more from the Twitterverse:

Kirkpatrick concluded that we are ultimately responding to the love and soul of God: “There was a real sense that the Holy Spirit was present in the vote last night. Belhar reminds us the heart of the gospel is in unity, justice and reconciliation.”