ST. LOUIS — Inclusivity, #MeToo, people of color, suicide, a moratorium on all executions, religious freedom without discrimination, and affirming and celebrating the full dignity of all persons without discrimination. The Social Justice Committee of the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) met on June 18 to consider these issues represented by a number of overtures and five commissioners’ resolutions.
Here’s a look at some of the overtures that were discussed and approved:
#MeToo. The committee heard stories of abuse, and they heard the courage of survivors telling their stories. The committee heard where the institution has failed, and they heard how hard it can be to move forward.
The committee voted to create a new five-member “safe and sacred task force” in consultation with the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) comprised of victims and advocates for victims of sexual misconduct. The task force’s responsibilities will include: examining policy, judicial process and rules of discipline; evaluating the need for a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator within each presbytery; and assessing the number of sexual misconduct allegations and charges occurring within the bounds of the denomination. The task force will report back to the 224th General Assembly (2020) with recommendations on how the PC(USA) can be more effective in ensuring justice, accountability and pastoral support for individuals, families and congregations when charges of sexual misconduct have been made.
Capital punishment. The committee heard from 10-year-old Mark Taylor from Philadelphia who spoke about capital punishment, saying,“We need justice not revenge.” On the day of his 10th birthday, he said he came to talk to the committee about an outdated system that remains on the books and was speaking in favor of the overture calling for a moratorium on the death penalty. “It’s called the justice system, not the revenge system.” He said he had been learning and speaking out about the death penalty since he was seven years old. The committee voted in favor of the overture.
Celebrating diverse gifts. Olivia Thomas, a Presbyterian Peace Fellowship intern from Memphis, Tennessee, spoke during open hearings for an overture (that the committee eventually approved) on celebrating the gifts of people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities in the life of the church. Thomas said: “I am a Presbyterian, and a proud Presbyterian. … I am gay and no longer do I carry shame about that. I am standing on the side of pride because most of all it is a force of good in the midst of wicked decay of silence. I am a child of God, and she will make me with pride.”
Prophetic witness. The committee also discussed and listened to open hearings related to an overture on recognizing pastor Henry Highland Garnet’s prophetic voice for today. Committee members noted that the church has a history of speaking retrospectively, and that this is a history the church needs to remember, claim, make known and empower others to proclaim.
Committee name change. The committee wrestled with language of the name change for the Advisory Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns to Racial Equity Advocacy Committee (ACREC). Sophia, Alecci, a Young Adult Advisory Delegate (YAAD) from San Gabriel Presbytery, said that it is important as a white person, because “it is my area of privilege. People have occupied this space have offered this. People who are requesting this are living in this space, and we should hear them even if we don’t understand.” This comes as a mandate from the last General Assembly 222 to change the name from ACREC.
Mental health and substance abuse. Understanding the need for education for counseling, mental health awareness and healthcare, the committee passed a commissioners’ resolution on suicide prevention. Angela Williams, Theological Student Advisory Delegate (TSAD) from Providence Presbytery, aided the amendment passing to read, “recognize and share the Gospel message of life, hope and resurrection in response to suicide in coordination with professional and medical assistance.” The committee also passed an overture advocating for effective drug policies, a commissioners’ resolution on responding to those impacted by opioids
Racism. Walter Manuel, a Young Adult Advisory Delegate (YAAD) from Southern New England, confessed that he thinks the church needs to name the current administration in response to racist nationalism. The committee approved an overture on responding to racist nationalism, from the Hudson River Presbytery, adding “the Trump administration,” so it asks the assembly “to respond to expressions of racist nationalism supported by the Trump Administration and echoed in the statements and actions of the politicians and government officials by” approving an and publicizing the resolution. Another commissioner said, “Walter, I commend you. [The young people] have learned to be bolder than we were. Someone at some point needs to make a difference.”
Editor’s note: The committee voted on June 19 to amend this overture responding to racist nationalism with the following edits: strike “by the Trump Administration,” so it reads, “The Presbytery of Hudson River overtures the 223rdGeneral Assembly (2018) of the PC(USA) to respond to expressions of racist nationalism supported and echoed in the statements and actions of politicians and government officials.”