Before going about the business of the 224th General Assembly, on Friday, June 26, 2020 at 11:00 a.m. EDT, commissioners, advisory delegates and observers watching from home were called to a time of worship. Co-moderators of the 223rd General Assembly, Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and Cindy Kohlmann, led the service as their final contribution to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in this official capacity. Using the assembly’s theme, “From Lament to Hope,” the service delved deeply into the suffering of so many in this particular time and place, while uplifting the power of the Holy Spirit to transform hurting lives and unjust systems. Particularly noting the grief and loss around both the coronavirus pandemic and systemic racism in the United States, the service was a time of recognizing collective brokenness while affirming God’s ability to restore and resurrect. (Click here for the bulletin.)
Hymn. Written by Mark Miller and Adam Tice in response to the murder of George Floyd, they hymn “Lament” was composed to speak words of truth to the distress and suffering experienced by so many due to the killing of another unarmed Black man by a police officer. The refrain common to many biblical laments (“How long, O Lord?”) gives voice to ongoing suffering. The piece implores God to “use our anger to melt the swords of hate; use our tears to water thirsty ground.”
Prayer of confession. During the Prayer of Confession, worshippers asked God to forgive the immorality of segregation, as they together recognized the sin of white privilege that protects some from violence and virus, “while at the same time exposing poor, brown and black bodies to disease and death.” Different voices named victims of racism: Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Taylor Hayes, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, along with their ages, reminding worshippers that they aren’t merely statistics but those who dreamt of a future “until there was no future.”
Sermon. The Word was proclaimed by Cintrón-Olivieri and Kohlmann, using the Scripture passage that shapes the General Assembly, Lamentations 5:20-21: “Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days? Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old.” Ephesians 3:14-21 (be “rooted and grounded in love”) was also read and listeners were encouraged to lament, confess and repent in community in order to be restored.
Cintrón-Olivieri proclaimed that there is much to cry out about, but people prefer celebration over lament. Yet, in this time and place, she encouraged Presbyterians to take the time to grieve the lost possibilities. She encouraged listeners to acknowledge the “hole that has taken residence in our collective chest.” In order to get to that the desired restoration, first people must journey through confession and repentance.
“Our hope rests in the love of Christ,” Cintrón-Olivieri reminded. She implored worshippers to have hope because of the promise found in Ephesians 5:20 — that God is able “to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Drawing from ordination promise, she recalled the commitments made to serve the people with “energy, intelligence, imagination and love.” The church does not do this work alone, but has God’s power and presence in this journey.
Kohlmann shared her great hope in the PC(USA)’s commitment to the Matthew 25 initiative; over 500 churches and mid councils have claimed this vision: to dismantle structural racism, eradicate systemic poverty and build congregational vitality. Lament doesn’t stay in lament, but moves to hope and restoration when people have the courage to confess and repent, Kohlmann said.
Creed. A portion of the Confession of Belhar was led by Y. Dianna Wright, interim director of ecclesial and ecumenical ministries for the Office of the General Assembly, worshippers affirmed an obligation “to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another … together serve God in this world … and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity.”
Offering. Karen Brown called for the offering with a video of the newly formed Youth Rising Coalition in Baltimore. This assembly is partnering with this group that supports the young people of Baltimore seeking to create fulfilling lives for themselves by starting their own businesses. One youth shared his need for a support system, a place to go for advice and that the Youth Rising Coalition filled that need.
Communion of God’s people. Cintrón-Olivieri and Kohlmann presided at the table with pottery from The Annapolis Pottery in Annapolis, Maryland. Sounghee Baranowski, elder at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Joppa, Maryland, joined them in beseeching the Holy Spirit’s presence to “enliven this bread, awaken this body, ignite your church, make us, while many, united.” Worshippers were invited to partake of the elements prepared in their own homes, asking God to “make us – the broken – whole; make us – despite death – alive.”
Hymn. Over two dozen singers lead the closing hymn, “The Church of Christ Cannot be Bound.” Prerecorded, this choir of voices was constructed virtually and was one of the many ways this worship service brought the church together as one body, united in the commitment to recognize the suffering of this day while clinging to the hope that God is always faithful. It is in this spirit that the work of this General Assembly will commence.
reporting by Sarah Colwill for the Presbyterian Outlook