This year’s Big Tent conference took place in St. Louis and had the theme, “Race, Reconciliation, Reformation.” As I prepared to go, reading the workshop titles proved daunting. “Human Caused Disaster Ministry,” “Presbyterian Response to Native American issues: The Apology and Doctrine of Discovery,” “Cuba, Israel-Palestine, South Sudan, Korea, and Mexico: The Church’s Stories and Struggles of Reconciliation,” “Disrupting Racism: Building the Intercultural Community,” “The Least of These: Engaging Presbyterians in the Work of Preventing and Alleviating Poverty,” to name of few offered on just the first full day of the conference. Abuse prevention, climate change, ministry in local prisons, responding to the global crisis for LGBTQ people – these were additional topics offered up for learning and discussion. I have a friend whose preaching professor told the class to have sermon titles that when put on the church sign would motivate people to “get off the bus.” Let’s be frank: For many, these workshop titles would cause them to not just stay on the bus, but cower under their seats.
Who wants to engage in such huge, messy, seemingly intractable issues?
Apparently, 600 or so Presbyterians do, and I am grateful to have been one of them.
Opening worship in Graham Chapel on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis revealed a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Presbyterians of many tribes and nations, backgrounds and experiences, ages and colors worshipped together in a multitude of languages. Music swelled from the pipe organ, and later the cello, piano and maracas all took their musical turns. At one point, the liturgical movement expanded beyond the pastor’s hands raised in benediction to the congregants’ slight hip swivels and swaying arms – a little awkward yes, but absolutely heart-felt. The scene was not unique to my Presbyterian experience, but felt both rare and special.
The tabernacle of Big Tent looked blessedly different, larger and more expansive than the pop-up variety with which I am all too familiar in this denomination. The view removed the scales from my eyes, and I could see that all the “issues” of the long, complex workshop blurbs represent real stories – stories of people, stories of Presbyterians, stories of brothers and sisters, stories of beloved children of God. Therefore, to be paralyzed by the problems of racism and poverty and division and exclusion is to be oblivious to the people, the Presbyterians, the brothers and sisters, the beloved children of God, who feel and live with their impact every day.
I wish the publicity for Big Tent could have conveyed not just the gravitas and mandate of wrestling with race, reformation and reconciliation, but also the joy, grace and mercy that the Holy Spirit ushers in when we come together and seek God’s wisdom in addressing these huge, messy, difficult, vital issues.
Big Tent was indeed a divine tabernacle, temporary and fragile, erected for a few short days, but nonetheless a place of refuge during this wilderness journey. I left the shelter of the tent renewed in my commitment to stay on the journey of justice and reconciliation, knowing it will be long and arduous, but never God-forsaken. I left with a fuller family history than when I arrived and committed to learning more of my family tree, even the branches that did not bear good fruit.
Thanks to a workshop led by Beth Hessel of the Presbyterian Historical Society and William Yoo of Columbia Seminary, I left having met my sister Lucy Craft Laney, born in Macon, Georgia, in 1854, daughter of a Presbyterian minister, founder of the first school for African-American children in Augusta, Georgia, a school that began in the basement of Christ Presbyterian Church. Her school would become the Haines Normal and Industrial School, whose graduates would go on to such institutions as Howard and Yale Universities. Lucy Craft Laney was one of three African-Americans selected by then-governor Jimmy Carter to have their portraits placed in the Georgia State House.
The other two? Martin Luther King Jr. and Henry McNeil Turner.
I also got to know my brother George D. Anderson, a Presbyterian pastor whose ministry took place in the state where I now reside, Virginia. If you Google him, you’ll learn a lot. You will read about the ministry he did during the yellow fever outbreak in Norfolk in 1855. He was heroic. He also planted many churches and taught at my alma mater, Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. The biography I found listed many of the books he’d written but left out at least one, the one from which an excerpt was read during our workshop – “The Christian Doctrine of Slavery” written in 1857, the one in which he theologically, biblically promotes the institution of slavery.
I need to remember George D. Anderson, too, because as we met in St. Louis, a branch of the KKK held a rally July 8 in Charlottesville, Virginia, the town in which I currently call home, tragic proof that the legacy of George D. Anderson lives on.
Thanks to Sterling Morse, coordinator for African American Intercultural Congregational Support, I met John Gloucester, the first pastor of the “Mother Church of African American Presbyterianism,” First African Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. In 1809, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court chartered First Colored Presbyterian Church, as it was then named. Gloucester was enslaved in Tennessee, and people raised money to buy his and his family’s freedom so that he could come and start the church. Archibald Alexander, and the Evangelical Society he founded, raised the funds with the less-than-holy fundraising appeal: “It will be cheaper to build them churches than prisons.”
Our family tree is complicated.
Learning about the heretofore missing photos in my Presbyterian family album both inspired and chastened me. But the stories I will treasure are the personal ones told to me around the dinner table and the Bible study circle. My Native American sister shared how she felt when missionaries came to the “res” to “save the savage.” My African-American brother told of growing up in North Carolina under Jim Crow, and the daily challenges and indignities such laws wrought upon his family. I heard from an alumnus of my seminary how he and his fellow students picketed department stores in Richmond, where lunch counters were for whites only and where blacks could buy clothes but not try them on or return them. I heard from those who walked the walk, going out at dawn in pairs to pray in cities around the South, daily, until segregation laws were overturned.
I will never forget the letter shared by a member of Cote Brilliante Presbyterian Church, a letter from her white friend, written following the death of Michael Brown, in which she apologized for her naiveté and audacity in thinking our country had moved past racism.
Workshop descriptions don’t capture the Spirit. A headline of “Race, Reconciliation, Reformation” might make one imagine such topics are too loaded or too large or too lofty to tackle. Those of us who are white and whose congregations are mostly, if not exclusively, white may have thought, “What’s this have to do with me?” or “My congregation has other more pressing problems.” Three-day conferences can’t solve 200-plus-year-old problems. And yet, getting to know one’s family, past and present, offers an invaluable blessing.
Now, even when I am huddled in my tiny Presbyterian pop-up tent, I will imagine the Big Tent in which I tabernacled for a short while. The glimpse of heavenly worship compels me to work for earthly worship that mirrors it. The issues will never again be uncoupled from people, my Presbyterian brothers and sisters. The stories I learned are part of not only God’s story, but my story too, and the narrative isn’t complete without every character and chapter.
As I wonder, and, yes, sometimes worry, about the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I will not ever despair, because even in the wilderness, God has given us a big, beautiful tent in which to dwell in love together. May the Spirit make it so.