What does it look like when more than 1,000 Presbyterians come to a city for the biannual General Assembly? How can they make a positive impact on the community where they hold the meeting? How can they “be the church” when gathering for a week?
These are the questions that drove the start of the “Hands and Feet” initiative at the 223rd General Assembly in 2018. Under the leadership of stated clerk J. Herbert Nelson, the assembly in St. Louis became a pilot program in rethinking and recreating the ethos of the gathering by partnering with local churches and organizations to make a positive impact in the host community. Nelson said, “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.”
There is now a website dedicated to the initiative (handsandfeet-pcusa.org) that helps connect Presbyterians in the lead-up to GA in Baltimore that will be held June 20–27, 2020. The website states: “Hands and Feet is a new initiative to highlight and strengthen local and national efforts by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to facilitate change and communicate God’s love. The project builds upon the grassroots, community work congregations, mid councils, and the national office are already doing; and dovetails with the biennial General Assembly gathering. Work is underway via Hands and Feet and The Center, a ministry of the Presbytery of Baltimore.”
By all measures, the pilot program in St. Louis was a success. It relied almost exclusively on volunteers from the St. Louis community with some support from Louisville-based GA staff. A decision was made to double down on the initiative for the 224th GA in Baltimore by intentionally partnering with the local presbytery two years in advance; connecting with The Center: Mission Outside the Box, which is an ongoing ministry of the Presbytery of Baltimore; appointing a coordinator in the Office of the General Assembly in Louisville; and funding two fellows, Liv Thomas and Melva Lowry, to help drive the initiative forward.
Lowry describes the Hands and Feet fellows’ roles as having two primary goals: “One is to be the Hands and Feet fellow as part of the Office of the General Assembly. An initiative that is really forward thinking for how the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as a denomination engages with the communities where our churches reside and the cities we visit for large denominational meetings. This insight to intentionally build our local engagement and support of the ministries, work and lives of those who are members of this denomination; and through ecumenical and civic partnership is huge. It is the gospel of engagement, literally! The second focus of our work is to be the Hands and Feet fellows for The Center. Liv and I get to be deeply involved with churches within the Presbytery of Baltimore.”
When asked how they are getting involved, Lowry said: “We have begun this work by meeting with the congregations that are – or have – partnered with The Center recently. We are moving towards reaching out to churches who have expressed some interest in partnership and/or are part of the presbytery that we have yet to meet. The Center’s focus on mission informs the depth and breadth of this OGA initiative. The Center uses the concept of mission to empower local churches to engage with their surrounding communities.”
The Center hosts short-term mission teams that come to the region. From the moment the teams arrive in the city, the staff and volunteers try to teach a paradigm of mission as accompaniment and partnership, seeking where God is already at work in the communities through local organizations and residents — as opposed to having outsiders come in and dictate what ought to be done.
Thomas writes: “At The Center we believe that it’s not our job to deliver God to our partner communities, for God is already present in the communities our groups might visit! Instead, it’s our job as visitors and new friends to look for and join in the joyous and creative ways the Holy Spirit is dancing.”
The Center hosted short-term mission teams in Baltimore before the start of Hands and Feet, however they have increased the number of teams they are hosting, and now have the fellows working with them to help with the additional workload. They have hosted 17 teams since the close of the last General Assembly ranging from middle schoolers to college students to intergenerational mission teams from all over the country. They are currently gearing up for their nine-week summer mission program time with 16 additional teams coming between June and August. And their schedules are already filling up for fall of 2019 and spring of 2020 in anticipation of the assembly in June.
Lowry writes: “Liv and I are meeting with pastors throughout the Baltimore Presbytery, learning more about the neighborhoods and the people who live there. The diversity runs deep, not just from person to person, but from block to block. Each church has a unique perspective of Baltimore as it relates to the area and the street on which their church is located.” Authentically connecting short-term mission teams to these neighborhoods, people, churches and diversity is a big part of what they do. Building relationships with neighbors takes priority over building projects. This work of relationship building in the local community that will host the next assembly is at the heart of the work of The Center and is driving the Hands and Feet initiative.
Andrew Yeager-Buckley, from the Office of the General Assembly, serves as the Hands and Feet coordinator. “In order to help interpret the ministry of The Center, I’ve made a few trips over the last year to experience and engage in the work being done on the ground firsthand.”
Recently he accompanied a group from State College Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania as it spent the week in Baltimore. They spent their first full day worshipping and serving with Amazing Grace Lutheran Church and its food distribution program.
“You can only learn so much about the practice of redlining or the concept of food deserts when talking about them in a classroom,” said Yeager-Buckley. “Leadership from The Center Baltimore did an excellent job helping us see some of the boundaries that have been created over the generations that have caused such epic inequalities. The Presbytery of Baltimore has something really special here!”
Hands and Feet is growing into a core initiative of the General Assembly. It’s funded by per capita dollars and individual gifts. All Presbyterians are invited to get involved, plan a trip to Baltimore in the coming year, or see the work firsthand at the 224th General Assembly in June of 2020.
GREG ALLEN-PICKETT serves as the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Hastings, Nebraska.