Hands and Feet initiative inspires Presbyterians to learn and serve in St. Louis 

J. Herbert Nelson preaches at justice center in St. Louis.

St. Louis – Stated clerk J. Herbert Nelson articulated a vision for the 223rd General Assembly well before Presbyterians arrived in St. Louis. At the 2017 Montreat College Conference, Nelson said: “I do not believe that the church can go into the General Assembly as it has in previous General Assemblies … spending expensive bills across the city sightseeing, and then leave the community no better than it was when we first came. If we continue to do that, we are committing a major sin. So beginning in St. Louis, we are starting something we call ‘Hands and Feet.’ We are going in with our hands and feet: to have teach-ins, … to do some work, make community gardens, do resiliency training … and the list goes on and on. Our test case will be St. Louis, we ought to perfect it by Baltimore [site of the 224th GA in 2020], and by Columbus [site of the 225th GA in 2022] it ought to be old hat.”

With this vision, the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency began working with the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy to identify local mission and ministry partners that were already at work in the region, and asked the questions: Where is God at work in this place and how can we support the work that is already being done?

Through this process, they found multiple ways to engage with the community in contextually appropriate ways outside the walls of the convention center:

J. Herbert Nelson preaches at justice center

Local work sites were identified where churches and college groups could send short-term mission teams in the year leading up to the General Assembly, and during the week of the assembly in June 2018. Amen St. Louis, run by Oak Hill Presbyterian Church, and STL Urban Mission, run by First Presbyterian Church of Ferguson, hosted multiple work teams throughout the year (including one from OGA) and had three work teams on site during the assembly. At both sites, Presbyterians not only served, but also learned about issues of racism and justice facing the city.

OGA identified Arch City Defenders as a partner organization to receive the offering from opening worship. During worship on June 16, the offering raised $47,200 to pay the bail for individuals who are incarcerated for minor offenses, but don’t have money to pay their fines.

Multiple local partners organized and staged a march with hundreds of Presbyterians on June 19, walking from the convention center where the assembly was held to the City Justice Center where hundreds of people are held for low-level offenses and cannot afford to pay cash bail. This march sought to call attention to the injustice of the cash bail system and to do something concrete about it by delivering the offering from opening worship. It received news coverage in the St. Louis Dispatch and on two local television stations.

Local “artivists” helped with an “art build,” which created art used in the June 19 march. The artivists are an outgrowth of the social justice movement from Ferguson. They help bring people together and use art to create solidarity and cooperation.

The PC(USA) Office of Immigration Issues and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance hosted a rally at Baer Park in downtown St. Louis on June 19 to address immigration issues including separation of children and parents at the border, ICE raids and other issues. More than 100 Presbyterians attended the rally and heard impassioned speeches given by Presbyterian leaders. The rally was also covered by local St. Louis television media.

The Hispanic/Latinx caucus organized an evening of service with a local mission organization called “Churches on the Streets” on June 19. Presbyterians partnered with them in their weekly “Family Dinner Outreach” event and helped to serve food, bottled water and snow cones and also distributed clothing and non-perishable food items. The event was open to all GA participants and brought together dozens of Presbyterians and members of the Hispanic/Latinx caucus. The local director of Churches on the Streets, Angela Valdes, said, “God calls us to get out of our comfort zone, and that’s what people are out here doing.”

The assembly hosted Kirk Whalum, a Grammy award-winning jazz musician, for a benefit concert on June 21 to support local community partners. The event raised money for the “Hands and Feet” initiative, thanked the local partners in St. Louis for their help and introduced the partners in Baltimore for the Hands and Feet initiative at the 224th General Assembly in 2020.

March to St. Louis Justice Center

At the Kirk Whalum concert, Nelson took the stage and 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 listen to the local churches and partners on the ground. By listening deeply to the local churches and partners in St. Louis, they were able to align the Hands and Feet initiative and the assembly with the work that God was 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.”

The Hands and Feet initiative had strong visibility at the 223rd General Assembly, and the stage is set for it to continue to grow for the 224th General Assembly in Baltimore in 2020. This initiative is charting a new way forward for the identity of the General Assembly, a new way of “being the church” in the 21st century.