ST. LOUIS — On the fourth ballot, the 2018 General Assembly elected as co-moderators Cindy Kohlmann and Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri – a minister and a ruling elder; a mid council executive and an educator; the daughter of a military family, born in Greece, and a Puerto Rican native for whom Spanish is her first language; one from the north (Boston) and one from the south (Florida).
They also elected a team – both in their early 40s — that exuded a sense of warmth, hope, welcome and commitment to justice. After the election, Cintrón-Olivieri and Kohlmann walked to the platform hand-in-hand with their husbands (both of whom are Presbyterian pastors), a line of four, dancing all the way.
It took the assembly four ballots to choose Kohlmann and Cintrón-Olivieri over the second-place finishers – Eliana Maxim and Bertram Johnson, two ministers also standing as a co-moderator team. The final vote was 266 for Cintrón-Olivieri and Kohlman; 253 for Johnson and Maxim; and 5 for Chantal Atnip, standing for moderator, and Ken Hockenberry for vice moderator.
The lead changed hands as the night went on – shifting between the second and third ballots from Johnson and Maxim to Kohlmann and Cintrón-Olivieri (a rare switch for an assembly) – and with the commissioners eventually not following the lead of the young adult advisory delegates, who voted on the first ballot strongly for Maxim and Johnson.
That was a sign that the assembly felt it had good choices: there was no one definitive answer and, as one commissioner put it afterwards, “no bad vote.”
In their opening remarks to the commissioners, Cintrón-Olivieri described themselves as “audacious, spirited, bold, unapologetic women” who stood together as a team modeling the parity between the offices of minster and ruling elder, combining passion and ministry experience.
Kohlmann said their team expresses “the beautiful diversity and variety of the people of God” – differences seen across the PC(USA) in a variety of languages, ages, identities and sexual orientations. She said they wanted to stand as equals, coming from different cultures, and “claim to the church: this. This is part of what God desires for us.”
As they spoke, they switched back and forth at times between Spanish and English.
The team of Kohlmann and Cintrón-Olivieri gained ground through the four ballots it took to pick a winner – surpassing the team of Johnson and Maxim on the third ballot, but falling one vote short then (252 to 261) of the required 51 percent majority.
On the first ballot – the first test of where the assembly stood – the votes fell this way: 45 for Atnip and Hockenberry; 229 for Kohlmann and Cintrón-Olivieri; and 250 for Johnson and Maxim.
Kohlmann serves as resource presbyter for two presbyteries: the Presbytery of Boston and the Presbytery of Northern New England. She earned a master of divinity degree from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and previously served as pastor of New Jersey Presbyterian Church in Carlisle, Ohio, and later at Clinton Presbyterian Church in Clinton, Massachusetts. She is married to Eric Markman, also a PC(USA) minister, who is pastor of Hartford Street Presbyterian Church in Natick, Massachusetts.
Cintrón-Olivieri, a native of Puerto Rico and an English as a Second Language teacher, is a ruling elder who has served on the Committee on Theological Education and as a translator from English to Spanish at numerous General Assemblies.
Cintrón-Olivieri earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Puerto Rico and a master’s in education from Turabo University. She lives in Miami with her husband, José Manuel Capella-Pratts, pastor of First Spanish Presbyterian Church. Last year, she served as moderator of Tropical Florida Presbytery.
Kohlmann promised their team would work to confront systemic injustice. “It’s because we love Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior that we choose welcome” to the stranger, the immigrant, the migrant, she said.
Kohlmann and Cintrón-Olivieri offered the assembly a message of hope in a time of change: speaking of new possibilities, faithfulness, a sense the Spirit is moving. Look around, Kohlmann told the commissioners (chiding them with a big smile when they did not move). “Think of the stories you bring. … God is not done with us yet.”
In a very close second place finished a team of two ministers – one from the East Coast (New York City) and one from the West (Seattle). One is a gay black man, the other an immigrant from Colombia. They met years ago before either was ordained, both exploring a sense of call, and their friendship deepened through the years. Neither started out Presbyterian — Johnson became connected to the Presbyterian church in college and Maxim immigrated to the U.S. as a young Catholic girl. They promised the assembly they would work for social justice and would model inclusion.
This election marks the second time in a row that the assembly has elected a team of two women, and brings its second set of co-moderators – the first being Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston, elected in 2016. Two of the three teams standing for the office used the co-moderator model, and one the older moderator and vice moderator approach.
In a narrow, yet obviously significant way, this was an election – at the end, one team won.
In another way, it was a night of trying to articulate what kind of church Presbyterians want their denomination to be. Commissioners asked questions that reflected their hopes, their frustrations, their uncertainties, their faith. And the candidates answered – hoping to sway votes, but also to lead the PC(USA) to a better place.
One example: a question from young adult advisory delegate Walter Manuel about how the PC(USA) can connect with young adults who are “spiritual but not religious,” part of the increasing numbers of Americans who don’t claim a connection with organized religion.
Maxim responded that she sees many people in Seattle – teenagers, young adults, older people too – who don’t want to sit in the pews “and hear somebody pontificate” but want to see faith lived out. The focus is “not about getting them back in the building. We have stymied ourselves by remaining inside the building,” she said. “We need to get outside where the young people are and engage them.”
Cintrón-Olivieri responded, “Maybe we need to do church differently. Maybe we need to get out there. Maybe we need to be present. … We don’t see the other,” and too often feel disconnected.
Atnip told the assembly she stood for moderator because she felt called by God to do so – a call she felt during a synod worship service more than two years ago. That is hard to describe, but “it filled me body and soul,” Atnip said.
Her message to other Presbyterians: “If I can be called, so can you” – sometimes to something unexpected.
Other commissioners asked how the PC(USA) can support congregations that want to address issues of racism and privilege, but don’t have the language or experience to do it.
Kohlmann answered with specifics of what’s happened in the presbyteries she serves, where Presbyterians have read Debby Irving’s book “Waking Up White,” as Edmiston and Anderson encouraged the church to do, and where “we have discovered there actually are a lot of resources.” They’ve watched Ted Talks on racism, injustice and privilege. They’ve studied the Belhar Confession and the Confession of 1967.
And they’ve tried to recognize when “we, we are the ones being racist,” Kohlmann said.
Asked to describe their strengths and weaknesses, Kohlmann said she and Cintrón-Olivieri have a combined 42 years of ministry experience. “We’re very loving,” Cintrón-Olivieri said. “If you haven’t realized this, I’m a hugger. I hug everyone. And I cry a lot” (when she feels moved by something).
How can they cultivate relationships with those in the church who see things differently?
Cintrón-Olivieri said she sometimes feels that way herself – aware in her interactions that she comes from another culture, that some look at her or listen to her speak, and see difference. “But I keep showing up,” concentrating on what they both cherish and share: love of the church and hope for a better future. “We need to be able to listen to each other. And that means listening without judgment.”
Kohlmann chimed in: “In the midst of that, repenting” for ways in which they may have contributed to division, seeking the reconciliation and forgiveness that God promises.
After their election and installation, Kohlmann and Cintrón-Olivieri were asked to offer a word to the commissioners. Kohlmann spoke of a common love for Jesus. “I’m thinking in Spanish right now,” said Cintrón-Olivieri – then addressed the assembly in her native tongue.
The two women, the PC(USA)’s new leadership, stood together, standing for equality, holding hands.
Many thanks for the comments and responses to our coverage of the election of co-moderators Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and Cindy Kohlmann. We are sorry we did not include co-moderator Cintrón-Olivieri’s words in the original piece. Below are her words both in Spanish and in English. Again, thank you for your comments.
Jill Duffield, editor
“Estamos profundamente agradecidas por la oportunidad de servir, por la oportunidad de amar, por la oportunidad de escuchar, y por la oportunidad de guiar la Asamblea en lo que el Espíritu Santo quiere que se haga en esta semana. Sea la bendición de Dios sobre nosotros y nosotras. Y sea el Espíritu Santo guiando todas y cada una de las oportunidades y mometos que tengamos juntos y juntas.”
“We are profoundly grateful for the opportunity to serve, to love, to listen and to guide the assembly in what the Holy Spirit wants to accomplish this week. May God’s blessing be upon us, and may the Holy Spirit guide each and every one of the opportunities and moments we will have together.”