The last two hours of the 2020 General Assembly tell a story of their own – a story about the nature of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), beyond the budgets and resolutions approved.
A series of events during that time, starting just before 6:30 p.m. EDT on June 27, have shaped the analysis of this assembly’s legacy, igniting reflection and lamentation about the future and ethos and challenges of the 90%-white PC(USA) — particularly about white privilege. On June 30, three days after the assembly adjourned, a group of 16 former assembly moderators and co-moderators released a statement saying that “what occurred at the 224th General Assembly was nothing short of white supremacy, white privilege, misogyny, and hypocrisy expressed as indifference, apathy, and outright inaction.”
An open letter released by a group of Presbyterian leaders of color July 2 said, in part, “People are lamenting, living with fear, and you galloped past into hope and celebration with condescension — and without the genuine truth-telling, repentance, and humility which biblical hope invites.”
Here’s some of what they were talking about — using as an imperfect lens, a pathway of bread crumbs, the last hours of the assembly’s last plenary session, which started late in the afternoon on June 27. It’s worth noting: This discussion is not just about what policies a General Assembly does or doesn’t approve. It’s about power, white privilege, racism and sexism, whose voices are listened to and whose are not, accountability, discomfort, struggle, the willingness – or unwillingness – not just to make policy statements but to live them out for the sake of justice even when doing so involves work and money and pain.
The day before, on June 26, this assembly approved a resolution on systemic racism: declaring that Black lives matter and that the church has been complicit in perpetuating injustice. It also had voted not to reconsider the action to explicitly add language or even to discuss oppression and violence against Black women and girls.
Near the beginning of the last plenary session June 27, co-moderator Elona Street-Stewart and parliamentarian Tricia Dykers Koenig first explained the rules for how the assembly could consider new business. Then Street-Stewart asked if commissioners had any motions they wanted to make. She waited for a bit, then a bit longer – then seeing none, moved on to discuss budgets, which were next on the agenda.
The assembly had just approved a PC(USA) unified budget for 2021 and 2022 and a General Assembly per capita apportionment of $8.98 per member. Street-Stewart, who was moderating this session, said that she and her co-moderator Gregory Bentley had heard that some commissioners wanted to submit new business and that perhaps not enough time had been given earlier for the motions to appear in the queue. Now would be another chance to consider new business, she said – explaining that setting aside the standing rules to accept new business would take a two-thirds vote of the enrolled commissioners, or 326 votes in favor. A motion to suspend the rules is not debatable.
Street-Stewart also reminded the assembly that the resolution the assembly approved on June 26 gives Presbyterians at the national and local levels the policy they need to work against racial injustice over the next two years.
“We can do the work, and if we won’t do the work, it won’t matter what the assembly says,” she said.
Commissioner Brian Entz, a minister from the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, made a motion to suspend the standing rules to adopt a statement addressing the “ways that Black women and girls are disproportionately affected by the systems of white supremacy and misogynoir in communities, the church and society at large. As the 224th General Assembly, we cannot adjourn without making a statement on Black women and girls, we cannot sit by and allow Black women and girls to remain invisible.”
Entz thanked the Disparities Experienced by Black Women and Girls Task Force (whose report the assembly referred to the 2022 General Assembly, part of a wave of business deferred for two years during this abbreviated online assembly) for providing for the wording of the motion.
Kerri Allen, moderator of that task force and a corresponding member of the assembly, had repeatedly urged the assembly to find a way to speak about oppression and violence against Black women and girls – to listen for and recognize the voices not being heard – gaining enough support that some commissioners and Young Adult Advisory Delegates (YAADs) changed their Zoom screen names to #trustBlackwomen.
The YAADs vote 67-7 (with 91% voting yes) to suspend the rules.
Commissioners vote 306-144 (with 68% voting yes) to suspend the rules. So more than two-thirds of the commissioners present and voting wanted to discuss the matter, but that total was 20 votes short of the 326 votes needed under the standing rules (two-thirds of enrolled commissioners). Not enough commissioners showed up to act, and the rules wouldn’t permit the conversation.
On Twitter, Presbyterians responded quickly. “The PC(USA) doesn’t support black women,” tweeted pastor Ashley DeTar Birt. “The PC(USA) does not care about black women.”
The day before, this assembly had voted 239-212 not to reconsider the resolution it had approved condemning racism, after being asked to do so specifically to add language about Black women and girls.
Ryan Landino, a white minister who serves on the PC(USA)’s Special Committee on Racism Truth and Reconciliation, wrote in a personal blog: “I have been learning more and more that there is a growing awareness now that #BlackLivesMatter applies in our cultural imagination more to unarmed Black men, while leaving victimized Black women and girls (including Black trans women and girls) out of the discourse. … Considering that we are experiencing a second pandemic of police violence that is killing Black people RIGHT NOW, I understood the move to reconsider as a way to say ‘I see you and your work, I see you Black women and girls, while we can’t take up as much of the fight as we want to now, we acknowledge that we are in this.’ ”
After the vote to suspend the rules failed, commissioner Louise Westfall, a minister from Denver Presbytery, asked if the assembly could pause to acknowledge in prayer the concerns about systemic racism against Black women and girls that Allen had repeatedly attempted to raise. Westfall asked that the assembly “pause for a moment of lament and confession.”
Street-Stewart called on the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, J. Herbert Nelson, to lead the assembly in prayer. Nelson called for a moment of silence, and then began a prayer with: “Eternal and gracious Mother God.”
Street-Stewart called upon commissioner George Records, a minister from Palo Duro Presbytery, who moved that the assembly suspend the rules to allow a new item of business, to ask the Office of the General Assembly to create at ask force to study and make recommendations to the assembly in 2022 “how the PC(USA) might protect the lives of the preborn.”
The YAADs voted 48-27 (that’s 64% yes) to recommend suspending the rules.
Commissioners voted 104-350 against suspending the rules — well below the 326 votes needed.
Street-Stewart reminded the assembly that, the previous evening, the assembly had voted as part of “Responding to the Sin of Racism and a Call to Action” to hold a silent vigil of 8 minutes, 46 seconds — the amount of time Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee against George Floyd’s neck.
“This vigil is not simply to remember the tragic murder of George Floyd, but to remember all the injustice suffered by Black, Indigenous and people of color due to systemic racism and white supremacy,” Street-Stewart said. “To remember the economic oppressions upon people who are poor. To remember the denial of many immigrants the rights of U.S. citizenship. To remember the inequities suffered by those whom our nation has forsaken. And to remember and repent for our sins of ignoring and marginalizing our siblings and our churches throughout our denomination.”
She told the assembly: “We are going to take the next 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence to be resolved. Let us be resolved and to repent to live out the justices of God’s kingdom. Let us be resolved to use our resources and privileges to live out the church’s great ends in the streets, our communities, our cities, our nations, and our world. Let these 8 minutes and 46 seconds begin now.”
The assembly was meeting on a Zoom platform — so commissioners, advisory delegates and corresponding members could see the faces of those participating, but observers watching the livestream could not. Apparently, during the silent vigil, Records, the commissioner from Palo Duro who had sought and failed to bring new business, held a sign in front of his camera that said “PRE-BORN LIVES MATTER” and changed his name on Zoom to #prebornlivesmatter until his screen was cut off or he logged off (screenshots shared on Twitter show the sign).
A group of Presbyterians including some commissioners sent a letter June 27 to Nelson objecting to “this wholly inappropriate, insensitive, and hostile demonstration” on the floor of the assembly – saying: “If we as the body of Christ cannot even come together for a moment to pray and hold peace together, then we are truly lost.”