So what does it mean for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to be a Matthew 25 church?
Why are congregations, presbyteries and synods signing up to be a part of that initiative — which promises that Presbyterians will work to eradicate and dismantle structural racism and build congregational vitality?
Or if they aren’t, what are some of the barriers?
Those questions were part of the discussion Nov. 19 as roughly 175 moderators of presbyteries and synods gathered virtually at the start of the 2020 Moderators Conference, which is being held via Zoom Nov. 19-21 for training and building connections among these mid council leaders.
The session began with Gregory Bentley, co-moderator along with Elona Street-Stewart of the 2020 General Assembly, preaching from the 16th chapter of Exodus, describing how God led the Israelites out of 400 years of bondage, with the Red Sea becoming for them an open road like an interstate, and how they now were in the wilderness — as many people now feel they are today, with the COVID-19 pandemic surging.
The wilderness is “a place of peril, a place where we can actually perish, a place where there is no cellphone reception, there is no Kroger, no Publix,” Bentley said. “The wilderness is a place where we can actually lose our lives. We have to lean and depend on the Lord.”
With so much anxiety, mid council moderators may face criticism — those who accuse the leaders of incompetence, of maliciousness, of leading in the wrong direction, he said. But the God who provided manna for the Israelites to eat promises, “I’ll be anything and everything you need me to be,” even if the nourishment provided is unfamiliar and new.
“It’s in the hard places of life that God will actually bless us,” Bentley said.
And Street-Stewart reminded the participants that when people speak of “settling the wilderness” in the context of U.S. history, “that’s the same terminology that was used when colonial settlers came” from Europe. “They called this a wilderness … a place where there was nobody,” Street-Stewart said. “This was not a wilderness. This was the home of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of nations” of Native people, who “knew how to eat and govern and celebrate and worship.”
This was a land occupied by intelligent people, by “persons who welcomed those settlers,” Street-Stewart said. “Then the response was one of violence and annihilation.”
So the concerns addressed by the Matthew 25 initiative – those of structural inequities and injustice – go back even before the founding of the nation and of the PC(USA), she said.
Diane Moffett, president and chief executive of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, gave the latest numbers on how many congregations and mid councils have officially signed on to the Matthew 25 initiative.
Moffett also described the history of the initiative — stressing that it grew out of General Assembly actions. “This has come from the bottom up,” not top down from the national church, Moffett said. “This has come from congregations and (General Assembly) commissioners.”
In small group discussions, the moderators discussed why congregations and mid councils are signing up to be part of the Matthew 25 initiative — or if they’re not, what’s holding them back. Following those discussion sessions, some representatives reported back to the full group.
Carlos Baladez, from Mission Presbytery in Texas, said that of about 125 congregations there, about a dozen have signed on to the initiative. In describing obstacles to participation, Baladez said some have raised concerns about the language being used.
Some Presbyterians are put off by what seem to them to be “gaslighting terms,” such as white privilege and racism, Baladez said. As they see it, “it’s almost demonizing every white person out there,” and people respond by saying: “I’m not prejudiced. I never owned slaves.”
What may work better is to say: “Tell me about your experience. Let me listen to your story, tell me your narrative,” rather than characterizing people on the basis of race or gender, he said.
Debbie Gohman, who was in the Synod of the Northeast discussion, said the Presbytery of New Brunswick has been encouraging congregations to join the Matthew 25 initiative by celebrating what churches are already doing — using the idea of the 2020 Census to take a census of the ministry work congregations are a part of, “to lift up what is going on to eradicate poverty or dismantle racism or just increase vitality.”
For those reluctant to participate, the language used to describe the initiative “has to some people a little political edge, and then they won’t want to go there,” Gohman said. “They don’t want to sign on because it feels political.”
David Shelor, of the Synod of South Atlantic, said some have raised questions about what it means to actually implement the initiative. “It’s a wonderful thing to sign on to,” Shelor said. “Who wants to be against apple pie, baseball and Mom? But what does this actually mean for us?”
Rachel Brown, from the Presbytery of Western New York, said some pastors have paid a personal price for their activism for racial justice. As they have protested and preached about systemic injustice, “they’re finding retaliation from their congregations and their sessions,” Brown said. “We have lost two pastors from our presbytery from being a voice for the voiceless,” who stood up for Black Lives Matter and justice issues.
“We’re moderators. We’re leadership. We’ve got to protect these people,” Brown said. “God bless them for standing up.”
In the Presbytery of Wyoming, only a handful of churches have signed on to the Matthew 25 initiative, said Diana Hartman. Those that have “find some resistance in the older people of the church when they begin to talk about racism. That’s a very tough subject for some folks.”
And “in the West, in a lot of our mostly rural churches, I don’t think this program has come to light,” Hartman said. Congregations that may be doing Matthew 25 ministry – that are working in outreach to their communities, feeding the hungry and helping those in poverty – are asking “why we needed to put that name and check that box” to be part of an initiative if they are already doing the work?
In closing, Bentley responded by saying that the Matthew 25 initiative focuses on dismantling systemic racism, not on individual behavior or attitudes. It’s about “how structures and systems function to create misery and to create disadvantage, to create haves and have nots.”
And Moffett said the PC(USA) is a connectional church, and “we are making a statement that we believe we are called to follow Jesus Christ in a particular way. We are Presbyterians. We believe our footprint matters to God.”
She acknowledged that talking about systemic racism “is an uncomfortable place for a lot of people,” but that “we cannot correct that which we will not confess.” Even if some consider it gaslighting, “we have to talk about white supremacy” and privilege.
“Let me tell you, your silence is political, too,” Moffett said. “Your silence is political because it gives more power to the status quo.” Jesus often offended people, “which means we have to pick up our cross and suffer some. … We have been called to lift up our voices as trumpets and preach,” even if it makes some uncomfortable.
If Presbyterians aren’t willing to do that, “we will also bear the consequences of that, of being totally irrelevant. … We lose our integrity,” Moffett said. We have to be willing to take up the cross and follow Jesus. We’ll find our life through it. I really believe it.”
The conference continues through Nov. 21 with parliamentary training, discussions of the impact of the pandemic on churches and more.