As the 224th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) drew to a close, the assembly revisited the possibility of considering new business. And for some commissioners the answer was a strong, fervent yes: they wanted this assembly to make a statement about the impact of racism, violence and oppression on Black women and girls.
Earlier in the afternoon when co-moderator Elona Street-Stewart invited new business, there appeared to be none offered. New business would have required a suspension of the standing rules and is an undebatable motion that requires a 2/3 vote of all of the enrolled commissioners — which would be 326 yes votes for this assembly.
However, later in the plenary it became clear that some commissioners did want to propose new business — and Street-Stewart said now was the time.
The first new business proposed came from Brian Entz, a minister from Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area. He moved to suspend the rules in order to consider a statement to lift up and name how Black women and girls are disproportionately impacted by racism and oppression. The statement he asked the assembly to consider should the rules be suspended had been crafted by the Disparities Experienced by Black Women and Girls Task Force, whose moderator is Kerri Allen. She also is chair-elect of the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment.
Throughout the assembly, many participants had voiced concerns that the disproportionate oppression and vulnerability of Black women and girls be named and addressed. In fact, the June 27 morning plenary began with a silent protest as commissioners logged in to Zoom with the hashtag #trustBlackwomen in place of their names.
Nonetheless, the motion to suspend the rules failed by a vote of 306 to 144 — meaning under the rules, the assembly could not discuss or vote on the statement. Shortly thereafter, Louise Westfall, a minister commissioner from Denver Presbytery, asked if the assembly could acknowledge the concern regarding Black women and girls and pause for a moment of silence for lament and confession. Street-Stewart allowed for this and invited J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, to pray.
After a time of silence, Nelson prayed, “Mother God, you suffer because you have lost so many and so much … girls that have grown up knowing their lives are in jeopardy and danger every day. … We pray in this hour and in this church because, yes, even some of the atrocities we name have happened in the church, help us Lord to repent, to be who we ought to be. … Restore those who have wounds that are still there … we’re waiting, our girls, our women are waiting … their families are waiting.”
Following Nelson’s prayer, another motion to suspend the rules was put forth by George Records, a minister commissioner from Palo Duro Presbytery, to develop a task for how the PC(USA) might “protect the lives of the preborn.” The motion to suspend business failed and the item was not considered.
After all the motions to suspend the rules had been exhausted, the assembly attended to a mandate passed the night before in resolution, “Responding to the Sin of Racism and a Call to Action.” The resolution directed “the co-moderators of the 224th GA to facilitate a time of silent vigil of 8 minutes 46 seconds as a symbolic representation in solidarity with our BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of color] siblings, and of corporate lament and personal introspection of our complicity in perpetuating systemic racism and racial injustice before the adjourning of the 224th General Assembly.”
Street-Stewart invited the assembly to observe this time of silence and closed the 8 minutes and 46 seconds – the amount of time that a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against George Floyd’s neck – with prayer, asking that God would guide Presbyterians as they “live out the church’s Great Ends into the streets.”