ST. LOUIS – On Thursday, June 21, the General Assembly was treated to a live concert by Kirk Whalum. This was billed as a celebration of the Hands and Feet initiative in St. Louis and a launch of the initiative in Baltimore.
Stated clerk J. Herbert Nelson took the stage in a snappy blue blazer and bow tie to share opening remarks for the concert. He thanked Northern Trust securities for sponsoring the concert; because of their sponsorship, all of the proceeds from the ticket sales are going directly to the work of the “Hands and Feet” initiative.
Nelson talked about the development of the Hands and Feet initiative and how it came to be in St. Louis. He said, “We came to St. Louis knowing what we were going to do and that’s the worst thing you can do.” Nelson acknowledged that they had to check their preconceived ideas and instead listen to local churches and partners on the ground. He led the audience in the chant: “Whose streets? Our streets!” Nelson said that those words were more than just a slogan, they meant the capacity of a group of people to claim something. By listening deeply to the local churches and partners in St. Louis, they were able to align the Hands and Feet initiative and the 223rdGeneral Assembly with the work that God is already doing in the city. Nelson went on to say: “This is not only what needs to happen in St. Louis, it needs to happen in the PC(USA), and that is the direction we are trying to move. As we connect to the reformation, we need to walk away from the attitude of dying – no, we aren’t dying. Look at who marched in the streets, look who gave $47,000 to bail bond relief. We have to move from the tendency of scarcity to living in abundance. We’re not poor people, we are people who have abundance because God has promised to give us that.”
Nelson closed by saying, “It’s your night for us to say thank you for the hard work you’ve done this week and to say we aren’t dying, we’re reforming.” Then he invited Erin Counihan, pastor of Oak Hill Presbyterian Church, to the stage.
Counihan said that the first GA she attended was two years ago in Portland, Oregon. She said she listened when Nelson, the newly elected stated clerk, shared a vision of what could be with the Hands and Feet initiative, and she thought to herself, “Oh, that’s interesting.” Then she realized that she was the newly elected stated clerk of the presbytery that would be hosting the next GA, so she would be partnering with Nelson in this initiative.
Counihan stated: “One of the great things about visionary, bold leadership, is that they push you and stretch you. But sometimes they don’t listen. However, J. Herbert Nelson listened. He heard us say, ‘God is already doing something here, the community is already doing something here, the church can join that.’ He listened and the project shifted. I watched this leader who listened to us and said, ‘alright, let’s try that.’ I’m grateful we got to be the denomination’s ‘first pancake’ in this new movement of the Hands and Feet initiative.”
Counihan went on to thank everyone who came out to volunteer with the two designated Hands and Feet sites, STL Urban Mission and Amen St. Louis. She stated that it really was a labor of love. She closed by saying: “The church I serve, we’re 111 member y’all, we aren’t a big church. Small churches can do this too! When the church I serve started this program, they didn’t have a budget, they didn’t have a plan, God gave them a vision and they stepped out in faith. You can make this work. Now I’m excited to see what the ‘second pancake’ looks like in Baltimore.”
Following Counihan, Kate Foster Connors, executive director of The Center Baltimore took the stage. The Center is a ministry of the Presbytery of Baltimore whose mission is to inspire and equip churches and individuals to engage boldly with their neighborhoods – to get involved where Christ’s love and justice are already at work. The Center Baltimore will be the hub of the Hands and Feet initiative for the next two years before the assembly meets in Baltimore. She described the work they are doing in The Center to address issues of racial reconciliation and poverty in their community including facilitating intergenerational and cross-cultural choirs and facilitating short-term mission teams. She said that there are so many stories of transformation and partnership through the work at The Center. She closed by saying: “This is our hope for the next two years: that you will come and join us! God is already at work in Baltimore and has all kinds of things in store for you.”
Next, Jackie Taylor, general presbyter of the Presbytery of Baltimore spoke. She said: “This work that Kate talks about of bringing groups together is a wonderful and amazing thing. As you might imagine, it can get a little bit messy. So when we said yes to the Hands and Feet, we also needed to hire Hands and Feet fellows.” She stated that the Presbytery of Baltimore has the facilities to host a variety of groups and that they are hopeful that Presbyterians will consider Baltimore for service and learning over the next two years. She introduced the two fellows that will be serving the Hands and Feet initiative.
She closed by saying: “As our stated clerk said, when you turn on the news, you just see the bad stuff happening in Baltimore. But there are also excited, committed servants of the God most high. We are servants of the living God and we look forward to seeing you as you bring more hands and feet to the work that God is already doing in our presbytery.”
Following Taylor, Gail Porter Nelson, wife of J. Herbert Nelson, introduced Kirk Whalum, a Grammy award-winning jazz saxophonist and songwriter. Among his work, he is known for “The Gospel According to Jazz” album series. Nelson shared that he is the son of a preacher, brother of a preacher and is a minister in his own right. Nelson said: “He gained his love for music from his grandmother, Thelma. As you listen to the music of Kirk and these wonderful musicians that accompany him, you will feel the spirit of God as you relax and enjoy.”
Whalum and his band played a two-hour concert interspersed with thoughts and reflections on jazz, ministry, and where God is at work in the world. One of his reflections included: “There’s a book in the Good Book called Lamentations. That’s just a fancy word for the blues. People aren’t experiencing catharsis because they aren’t experiencing lamentation. The blues are like, ‘I know God is gonna fix this, but can we just talk about how I’m feeling right now.’ So we’re going to do a little song called ‘Cain’t Stay Blue.’ This is from the ‘Gospel According to Jazz.’ ”
Whalum closed the concert with a stunning jazz rendition of “Jesus Loves Me” and prayer that reminded those gathered that there is not a sacred place that is called the church, but that it is the people who are the church. He prayed that we need God now more than ever. He asked God to show up amongst the poorest of the poor and the most marginalized. The crowd gave him a standing ovation. J. Herbert Nelson closed the night stating, “I didn’t come here feeling bad, but I’m leaving here feeling so much better. This concert is about hope and possibility. God never leaves us and never forsakes us. We have been given an opportunity to help build the kin-dom of God.” The band came out for an encore and Whlaum closed with a jazz flute piece.