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Stories along the river: Meeting God in conversation at General Assembly

Photo credit: Robyn Kleinschmidt

Every morning at the 223rd General Assembly in St. Louis last week, I jogged to the silvery arch perched on the banks of the Mississippi River.

From a distance, it looks like half of the McDonald’s arch, a city’s marketing ploy to reel in tourists. But when you stand under it to touch its steel skin, your eyes cannot take in the whole arch. Your neck arches back to its farthest point to take in its summit. It’s a massive parabola — 630 feet in both height and length. The arch casts its gleam on everything around it: the river, the sky, the city line. The arch becomes your perspective, not so much by framing your view as much as bending everything towards it. At the feet of the arch, you feel small and insignificant. And so it becomes a holy moment because a holy experience, after all, is when you remember how small you are.

If aliens come and the steel arch is still standing, but no humans or Wikipedia pages exist to explain the history and function of the arch, I think they will interpret this as a holy site, a Stonehenge of the 20th century. They will write scholarly books on the spiritual meaning of creating a steel parabola of equal height and length.

But as elegantly strong as it is, my money’s on the Mississippi River. I think the supple waters of the river will outlast the strength of steel. After all, the river was cutting the land long before any steel plowed a footing.

As hundreds of people entered and exited the main hall for plenary meetings during the assembly, they looked like a mighty river. Their conversations sounded like cascading waterfalls — noisy, loud and strangely soothing. Inside, they were wordsmithing, perfecting motions, trying to erect statement that will have clarity and strength to direct our denomination. However, if I had to bet on what is going to change the landscape of our churches, my bet is on the people and the rivering of their relationships.

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
-Amos, justice worker/prophet

On a muggy Tuesday afternoon, a river of Presbyterians rushed out of the convention center, flowed down the streets of St. Louis and washed through to the City Justice Center to free people in jail without any judgment simply because they could not afford the bail.

You will hear and read many comments on the referrals produced in St. Louis at General Assembly. But, I want to introduce you to some of the people I met by the river.

I got into a long conversation with a server named Jim in the convention center. Jim told me his friends teased him jealously about how he’s looking younger with every birthday. He’s 50 and he hasn’t had a single white hair. (I’ve got carpets of it and I’m younger.) Jim’s brother is two years older and he’s balding. Jim didn’t think DNA should get credit, but the work. He’s been serving since high school. “This convention center,” he said, “is two city blocks,” as he stretches his arm and expands his muscular shoulders, “so a full day of work is like hiking a mountain and mountain hikers have been known for good health and longevity.” He also told me he’s never seen the ocean. I urged him to go. He replied: “I don’t got the time. I’ve got to be back in two days tops! And besides…” as he then rubbed his thumb and finger. 

One night, on my way to a food market, I met a short woman with her 12-year-old son who asked for help with food. She was wearing a red Lebron James tank top that hung like a cloth on a hanger on her bony shoulders. I asked her to walk with me to the store and I would buy them a meal. On the way there I got to hear a little of her story — that her house burned down, they had no insurance, her parents were already gone and an aunt had no space or patience for them. His son was still in school but they were in summer break. They felt unsafe in the shelter, so they were sweating it out in the streets. When we got to the store, it was already closed. I apologized and gave them the only thing I had in my hand which was a half-eaten bag of Doritos (please don’t ask). They thanked me as the mother squeezed it into her red handbag that matched her red jersey, but whose seams were fraying.

We parted ways. As I was ready to enter the hotel and escape the humidity of the city, the mother tapped me on the shoulder. They had run back. They wanted to thank me for being kind which surprised me because I thought she was going to ask for more. So we talked some more and I learned that her son likes math. Then suddenly she began to tear and with the blue square towel, with which she was wiping the sweat off her forehead, she dabbed at the rivulets from her eyes. My guess is that it wasn’t the chips.

I met a Korean-American woman who is the “senior” pastor of the congregation she serves. A female-senior-pastor-leading-an-immigrant community is a rare species because the Korean church environment has not always been nurturing to women in leadership. Her look fits the stereotype image of the Korean-American ahjumah (old auntie). She sported a short bob haircut, kind oval face, saucer glasses and a white professional suit. I asked her where she served. When she answered the Bronx she immediately won my respect. I grew up in the five boroughs and know how tough urban ministry can be. So I asked her more questions and learned part of her story.

She’s been serving a Korean church for more than 20 years. She said that Koreans who made enough money in the Bronx would keep their business, but move out east towards Long Island. The space left by this suburban exodus were usually replaced with new Korean immigrants but during the 1990s, Koreans stopped coming to America. The economics in South Korea had caught up with America.  Hispanics moved into the apartments Koreans left for Long Island homes. The Korean church dwindled. She saw that the church would not survive as a Korean church. So she created a second service in English, focused on reaching out to Hispanics because some of them were already coming to church after being invited by their Korean friends.  Their basketball court was a draw. Kids came to play. The teachers then took them out for dollar burgers at McDonald’s. They set up life-coaching programs, helping them with reading, writing, completing college applications and preparing  for job interviews. This was difficult ministry because it was a costly one. The ones they served could not give back.

Some would join worship. Some wanted to get baptized. One year, three of of them got baptized. They went to college, graduated,and got a job. When they got a job, they began to tithe.

“Our church is small, not successful,” the pastor said when I told her I wanted to tell her story. A friend of mine working in one of the largest Presbyterian churches disagreed with her: “We average 20-plus in the new members class, but we only had one baptism last year.” 

One more story about her.

She went to seminary to study theology simply to learn more about God who filled her heart and mind. A professor challenged her to consider mission work in China where there was need of ministers. It required ordination. Having never seen a female pastor, she sought divine direction. Immersed in the ethos of Korean spirituality, she believed fervent prayers get answers — so she went up to Rama Naioth Retreat Center. That first evening, she went to the cafeteria for dinner. A male pastor was also there for prayer. Though she never raised the subject of women’s ordination, this pastor began pontificating on all the biblical passages that speak against women’s ordination. That was when she knew God wanted her to become a pastor.

In the corpse’s core, the stone fist

of his heart began to bang

on the stiff chest’s door, and breath spilled

back into that battered shape. Now

it’s your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water

shatters at birth, rivering every way.

Mary Karr (poet) from her poem, “Resurrection”

After the closing worship, we dispersed, rivering everywhere, carrying with us stories of hope, rich and nourishing like loam, into our mission fields we call home.

SAMUEL SON is the manager for diversity and reconciliation in the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).