TWO YEARS AGO, I had the privilege to serve as a commissioner for the 222nd General Assembly. Though feeling inadequate to make decisions on behalf of 1.5 million Presbyterians, I returned with great pride in being useful. I would’ve campaigned for another commissioner appointment, but others should be offered the experience. So to all the commissioners, here is my list of tips.
Remember, the General Assembly is a congregation. Our word for ecclesiology comes from a Greek word meaning an assembly of citizens of city-states to vote. You will gather as the church of St. Louis, a reality as substantive as the Corinthian church. The Hands and Feet initiative is a physical remembrance of that truth. Vote well and take time to serve. Don’t think of your work as business for the church, but being the church. The process is more important than the result. It’s more about how we can be the church that loves in our differences than getting one’s agenda accomplished.
Eat at local restaurants, because no matter how decent the meals you get from the convention center, they will be safe, generic and boring. Ask a local you meet in the street for her favorite and go for a dish you’ve never had. Traveling injects boldness into your veins, so take advantage and try a new dish. Not only will your tongue thank you for the new experience, but you will feel more adventurous for having experienced new ideas as well as new dishes. Exploration of new dishes and ideas are not disconnected.
Speak your heart. Not with the goal of swaying votes. If your endgame is winning, you will stay silent, either because the votes are overwhelmingly against you or because you are assured of favorable outcomes. Empathy is the real reason for open floors. Speak from your heart and not from your mind. In arguments, no one gets any understanding of the heart of an issue, which is how it affects people who live daily with the issue. Share your story. It might sway the vote to what you believe to be right. It might not. But someone will begin to feel why the decision made might not be best and absolute, because no decision should be final and absolute.
Shut up. The other part of speaking is listening. You may want to speak on every issue. Your internal speech will keep jabbering on while others speak. Try to shut that inner speech too. Listen like you were a counselor. You will be practicing empathy, and empathy leads to good things. I believe a lot of Jesus’ miracles started with Jesus being “moved to compassion.” If you’ve been to the floor more than twice, then you should really shut up and put your nervous energy into encouraging people around you to speak.
Use all your per diem. Be grateful for it — it’s the fruits of the offering of God’s people. You haven’t earned it. It is grace. Spend it on the people asking you for a dollar. Eat together. I found it much easier to help people out knowing the money wasn’t coming out of my bank account. And really, is anything in my bank account mine in the first place? Isn’t every dollar in my hand as unearned as per diem? Isn’t this the way God’s people should live? I have enough for the day to share liberally. I ended up using all my per diem before the end of the assembly. My card bounced when I sat for some noodles with my friends. A friend used her per diem for me. Others stepped up and I got through the week. Generosity goes around. I went home promising I will never turn away from a needy hand. I would always offer to buy a meal and if time allows, to eat together. One such homeless person I met in Phoenix I met again when I moved to Louisville. He bought me pho.
SAMUEL SON is the manager for diversity and reconciliation in the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).