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Meet those standing for moderator of the 225th General Assembly

A Q&A with Ruth Santana-Grace, Shavon C. Starling-Louis, Josefina Ahumada and Marilyn McKelvey Tucker-Marek.

Ruth Faith Santana-Grace and Shavon Starling-Louis

Ruth Faith Santana-Grace
Teaching elder
Executive presbyter
Presbytery of Philadelphia

Shavon C. Starling-Louis
Teaching elder
Pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina
Presbytery of Charlotte

Josefina Ahumada and Marilyn McKelvey Tucker-Marek

Josefina Ahumada
Commissioned ruling elder
Moderator and pulpit supply at Papago United Presbyterian Church in Sells, Arizona, on the Tohono O’Odham Reservation
Member of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona
Presbytery de Cristo

Marilyn McKelvey Tucker-Marek
Teaching elder
Pastor of Forsyth Presbyterian Church in Forsyth, Georgia
Pastor of the UKirk campus ministry at the Mercer University campus in Macon, Georgia
Flint River Presbytery

Why do you feel called to stand for moderator?

Santana-Grace: My decision to stand for co-moderator was unexpected. In February, I received a call from a person I deeply respect encouraging me to stand for moderator. The sensation in the pit of my stomach thrust me onto a spiritual journey of prayer and conversations. Was God calling me to use my voice, now compromised by a vocal dysphonia, to bring something of value to this assembly?

I grew up the daughter of Felix and Carmen Santana, a Presbyterian pastor and elder in Hispanic Presbyterian churches in New York and New Jersey. I’m the proud mother of an extraordinary gay man. This personal formation along with my service to a congregation in Pennsylvania and mid councils on both coasts has shaped my identity. My call as a bridgebuilder – bringing people together across race, language and theology – has framed my heart. Could these experiences be helpful for a time such as this?

The Holy Spirit has brought me thus far, leading me to stand with Shavon C. Starling-Louis. Recent strangers, now sisters bound by our love for this church. Our theological framing “Unbounded We Thrive” speaks to the incarnational hope and spirit we aspire to bring to the 225th General Assembly.

Starling-Louis: I sensed the call to stand for co-moderator through a series of holy nudges. The thought, and the temptation to shrink from it, was unlocked in my imagination one day when a sibling-colleague encouraged me to consider standing. Then, I felt a twinge of holy curiosity in a cohort conversation about the moderator office. Again, my spirit felt an invitation to be available after I was elected as a commissioner. Months passed, and I noticed the moderator’s position on the commissioner’s calendar. At that moment, I surrendered: God, if you would have this nudge become a call, I trust that you will make it happen.

I was very content not to think about it again until March when I returned a message from an unfamiliar yet very holy name: Ruth Faith Santana-Grace. In our first conversation, those twinges of a call came like flashes back to my spirit. I could hear in her voice a continuation of God’s call to be available if the way be clear. My family, professors, colleagues and loved ones echoed the support. Holy nudgings have guided me to stand. I offer my spiritual and theological groundedness for the potential responsibilities as a moderator and ambassador.

Tucker-Marek: When Flint River Presbytery elected me to serve as a minister commissioner to the General Assembly, I sensed a call to stand for co-moderator. I hope that in standing, I will serve the denomination I love by listening widely and attentively, responding faithfully and lifting up the vitality of smaller congregations and worshiping communities so that, together, we may celebrate, learn from and better equip everyone to serve Christ.

I serve as solo pastor for a small, strong, inter-generational congregation in a rural community and as campus minister of a UKirk community that strives to offer a judgment-free zone to all its participants. Relational ministry rooted in mutual respect and shared joy in the promise of Christ’s resurrection bears witness to the Gospel and changes lives. By serving as co-moderator, I hope to highlight the ways in which this kind of ministry enriches our denomination.

As a life-long Presbyterian, I delight in our rule-by-elder way of being church. At its best, our polity enables us to discern the will of the Holy Spirit together, and our polity works best when we involve people with a wide variety of experiences, backgrounds and perspectives.

Ahumada: This January, I had my “Road to Damascus” moment when I received an email message that Marilyn Tucker-Marek of Forsyth, Georgia, was seeking a partner to stand as co-moderator for the 225th General Assembly. It was an impactful moment; I certainly had thought long and hard about my decision to stand for commissioner from my presbytery, but I had not before considered standing for the role of GA co-moderator.

When stepping forward to be a commissioner candidate for the Presbytery de Cristo, I shared that I strongly believe that we are called to be peacemakers. Today, we are witnessing divisions in our communities at both the local and national levels. As a commissioner, I believe I could serve as part of the union of peacemakers, listening and discerning the role of the church in this complicated and often chaotic world.

I ultimately decided to stand for co-moderator because I thought about the long-term work and influence of a co-moderator compared to a commissioner. I believe that the work of discerning the church’s prophetic and pragmatic mission for our times is guided and influenced by the Holy Spirit. As a co-moderator, I can offer my experience and skills in serving the denomination in the long term.

What is the most pressing issue facing our denomination?

Tucker-Marek: Christians in the 21st-century United States find themselves living in a post-Christian culture. The pandemic created a prophetic moment, revealing more clearly some of the sins of the system in which we all participate: the necessity of the labor of essential workers and the low wages that deny them the dignity of working for a livable wage; the urgent need for a health care system that puts people first and profit second for the sake of the well-being of both patients and health care workers; and the racism that continues to motivate actions that claim the lives of beloved children of God.

We must decide how we will respond. Will we try to reconstruct what we think we remember? Or will we seize the opportunity presented by this moment of prophecy and change to trust God’s promise, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (Isaiah 65:17).

I hope we find new ways to practice our faith intentionally and authentically, collaborating with our Creator to “seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly” with God (Micah 6:8).

Ahumada: We are now slowly coming out of a period of over two years sheltering from the COVID pandemic. Our families, our communities and the greater world have been radically and profoundly changed and challenged. Lives and livelihoods have been interrupted and disrupted.

A pressing challenge for us as a denomination is to envision the new normal post-COVID — to envision how we will spiritually and physically function as the body of Christ. It is our job to consider and to discern how to respond to the trauma issues that have surfaced during the pandemic.

Over the past two years, we have come to realize the long-term social, racial and economic fissures in our society. These inequities existed long before COVID, but they were hidden out of view. Now, these inequalities are prominent and not to be ignored. In these times, we have seen families without access to health care, without access to affordable housing and without adequate food and other essentials. The list is endless. We are indeed challenged. It is our challenge as a denomination to be part of the healing process for our congregations and for our communities. God’s grace is with us as we navigate these challenges.

Santana-Grace: The past two years have been framed by pandemic, social unrest and the bold resurgence of racism. All these things have contributed to a sense of isolation, anxiety and exhaustion. As we emerge from this season, reclaiming our identity as a people of resurrection hope is a central issue. We need to gather to tell and hear the stories of faithfulness that reflect God’s abundant grace in a broken world. In these stories, we will find that life-giving holy breath of heaven that inspires our souls. I am moved by the transformative work of our congregations. The local church stands as a timeless witness, faithfully meeting the challenges before us. I am encouraged by the ministry of mid councils as they consider creative ways to come alongside those congregations. I am energized by the reimagining of our seminaries as they lean into creative ways equipping a new generation of leaders for a new expression of church. In a world saturated with negative headlines, we need to share these stories and claim these transformative spaces. They reflect the mountaintop experiences that will sustain us through the hard work of resisting forces that keep us from God and one another.

Starling-Louis: I sense the most pressing issue facing our denomination is embracing our vocation with deeper joy, embodiment and grace. God is offering opportunities to share our journeys of communal self-discovery or rediscovery as we discern God’s call for the future. We are being invited to organize in collaborative, creative, authentic and transparent ways in our varied yet interconnected contexts.

We have a holy-joyful opportunity to be covenantal communities in the ways we share how our vocation of justice, mercy and humility matches the words and deeds that we proclaim in our biblical teachings, worship services and confessional documents.

God empowers us to mind the miry gap of shame that would have us over-identify with the places of incongruence. We can instead practice receiving the ultimate challenge to our limitations — grace. We can reconnect with our dependence on God as imperfect people capable of sin. By God’s providence alone, we can receive liberating grace, healing and new life. In the spaces and places we show up, it is vital that we embrace anew our theology of God’s joyful, embodied and grace-filled calling.

What issue do you want to address in the next two years?

Santana-Grace: I would like to be a voice of encouragement for the faithful saints who serve as Christ’s hands and feet in our congregations. I have experienced the courage and boldness of communities of faith as they responded to the challenges of this time. We need to continue to build on initiatives such as Matthew 25 that focus on congregational revitalization and worshipping communities as a critical component in our gospel mandate to address structural poverty and racism. I hope to help resist the temptation of the cultural theology of scarcity — a mindset that focuses on what we do not have. We are a people who claim resurrection, who are grounded in the theology of flourishing — a conviction that, with God’s grace, we are enough. By leaning into this deeply rooted belief, we will capture the creative opportunities before us. Even in transitional moments when churches die to what has been, we can reinvest the legacy and spirit of those saints by birthing and reinvesting in new expressions of ministry. Through those investments, the hearts of those saints who brought us this far will continue in new faithful stories.

Starling-Louis: In our time of discernment for our stand as co-moderators, Santana-Grace and I have thought how we would like to lead for next two years should we prevail. I am prayerful that we will work to strengthen the connectional fabric of the denomination. As we emerge from the disorienting season of pandemic isolation and the rupture of social and political unrest too long dismissed, we are being invited to be mindful of how we can gather in ways that are fruitful and faithful. We have real grief to lament. We have lost loved ones in the body, and we have lost loved ones in severed relationships.

Our Lord and Savior has called us to be in communion with each other, yet we have been distanced from so many of the tables where we listen, share and pause to check in and celebrate each other’s presence. Over the next two years we have a challenge to be practical theologians, people of faith who live out our theology of the table at all tables – places of gathering – that we find ourselves with humility and hospitality.

Tucker-Marek: According to the 2020 statistics, 89.5% of our congregations have less than 300 members. And our denomination’s beautiful diversity can be seen in the breadth of its members’ racial/ethnic backgrounds, work experiences, languages, gender expressions, ages, sexual orientations, abilities, socio-economic opportunities, educational experiences and political affiliations. I hope our denomination will find new ways to celebrate this diversity of experience and express gratitude for the complex tapestry that our denomination weaves when we learn from and with one another and practice our faith together.

Being unified does not mean being uniform. We are all Presbyterians, and yet each worshiping community has its own gifts to share and challenges to face. Because one size does not fit all, I hope that our denomination and the resources we provide as a connectional church will increase in flexibility while still rejoicing in our shared commitment to being Christ’s church in the world.

Ahumada: For the next two years (and beyond), the body of Christ will be recovering from the pandemic. I believe it is important to acknowledge the resiliency of our congregations and communities. Yes, there are challenges (as I outlined in my previous response), but people have faced these issues and, with God’s grace, shown the capacity to thrive in the face of adversity. Affected congregations and communities problem-solve issues, and it is important for our denomination leaders to listen, learn and solidify the relational bonds with our congregations.

We are a connectional church. As part of the church’s servant leaders, I would want to see how best to strategically incorporate what our congregations have learned these past two years and to set a pace for healing from the trauma of the pandemic and to envision the healing of historical trauma that has been revealed. I would want to envision and support congregations to take risks in the “new normal” as they not only serve their respective congregation members but also the greater community. Too often when traumatization occurs, withdrawing inward happens to avoid further traumatization. Perhaps this is necessary for healing. At some point, however, like the caterpillar in the cocoon, we are to emerge.

What do you see in the PC(USA) that gives you hope?

Tucker-Marek: I see young people create a judgment-free community in their campus ministry week after week. I see elderly people, no longer able to worship in person, faithfully pray for every person and need on the prayer list. I see children joyfully reach for the communion bread. I see people change their minds because of their willingness to actively listen and stay in relationship. I see people embrace bold new decisions to become a more welcoming community. I see people of all ages choose again and again to live their faith in the world beyond the church walls and Sunday morning worship. I see lives changed by the power of the gospel not just preached but lived. I see congregations growing flexible, finding ways to feed hundreds, developing disciples, and balancing their responsibility to maintain divine worship and shelter, nurture and provide for the spiritual fellowship of the people
of God.

God gives me hope. The things I can see give me confidence that the faith we share is well-placed, and I dare to hope that by God’s grace I will see greater things than these.

Ahumada: As we emerge from the pandemic, we must ask who we are to be in this world and who are we to be in our relationship with God. I see hope in how we work at answering these questions, responding to the Spirit gently flowing in our lives.

I find hope in our spiritual practices, which spark our passion for witnessing our Creator’s mercy and love.

I find hope in the denomination’s leadership that asks the hard questions about mission and ministry. In its antiracism work, the church has acknowledged its own history of complicity in advancing racial injustice. The church repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, which greatly affected the community that I serve on the Tohono O’odham sacred lands. Matthew 25 has given me hope in knowing we are to put our faith into action. I am inspired that we acknowledge and address the insidious dogmas of superiority found in our culture. I am hopeful that we, as Presbyterians, will seek social justice as we move towards authentically seeking reconciliation with the marginalized of our community. I am inspired as we strive to live our lives as a community of faith witnessing Jesus’ message of love and hope.

Santana-Grace: One of the richest values of the PC(USA) is our theological understanding and practice of discernment in covenant community. We are called to invite and engage the voices of others in courageous conversations as we seek to embody the values of Christ more fully in our corporate decisions and actions. Our Book of Confessions is a testament to this value. We have historically wrestled together with what it means to speak into the structural sins of a particular time and place. This covenantal understanding is a gift we bring to the church and society. The willingness to engage “the other” builds on the theology of the table – Christ’s table – where Jesus invites all to be welcomed and seated. As we know from the biblical narrative, the table can be risky — we will encounter betrayal and denial. But it is also at that sacred table where we break bread, serve one another, deepen relationships, see the humanity in one another and receive grace. This is a value we must build upon — welcoming more voices seeking to be faithful together. It is a powerful witness to the world.

Starling-Louis: I find excitement and hope in the ways our congregations are committed to the work of cultivating, promoting and embodying life more abundantly in a society that is full of quick quips and click bait. So many churches found clarity in the blessed rhythms and ways that grounded over them in the past few years. On the journey of communal liberation, many also released rhythms and ways that were ballasts of perfecting and performing tied to power-over the other versus a power-with each other. This willingness to prune gives me hope for what can shoot forth. There are churches reconciling their histories and their budgets in alignment with their vision and Christ-like values. I watched colleagues and congregational participants partner with others inside and outside of the church with a heart for compassion having learned a lot about how we are truly interconnected. In PC(USA) worship, meetings and leaders, I have seen the hope-filled gift of ubuntu, a Zimbabwean/South African term that reflects holy interdependence: “I am because we are, and we are because I am.”

In the PC(USA), hope shines in imperfect people interculturally, joyfully, inclusively, humbly and creatively learning with others. Hope springs forth as we develop a richer theology of flourishing with our ever creating, liberating and sustaining God. 

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Santana-Grace: I am inspired and in awe of how individuals and communities continue to respond to God’s call. This is cause for joy. This theology of God’s calling reassures us that God continues to creatively be at work, inviting us to be co-creators on the journey. We are reminded that God is the source of all that has been and will be. Although the road before us is unclear, I am confident that the church of Jesus Christ will faithfully bring transformative grace into a broken world.

The question of our denominational structure is before us. This structural re-formation must be grounded in strengthening the witness of our congregations and worshipping communities. Doing so, will ensure a transformative Christ presence across our communities, our nation and the world. I believe the challenges of re-formation in this season will give way to hope-filled opportunities. It is reflected on the empty tomb on Easter morning. All that remained were the cloths that once contained the resurrected Jesus. Starling-Louis and I believe there’s a holy hope in the hard work of resurrection that leads to possibilities. “Unbounded We Thrive” in the assurance that God has gone ahead to meet us where we are called.

Starling-Louis: I am unsure where the journey will take us as a team but even more so as a denomination. However, I am blessed to have connected deeply with a sister in the faith with passion and vision in Santana-Grace. I have been reminded that communal discernment in Christian ministry is complex and textured by context, but I can sense the Triune God stirring our spirits, bodies and minds to move in wise ways that are a delight to God and reflect a love of our neighbor and ourselves. The faithful engagement of the call before all of us will untether us from practices that don’t serve our new life in Christ. It is the prayer of Santana-Grace and me that “Unbounded, We Thrive!”

Tucker-Marek: I find it deeply humbling when someone’s open honesty grants me a glimpse of their soul. Such moments require and create sacred trust. I have found, as moderator of a session and a presbytery, that faith communities have their own soul or spirit. We carry in our souls our deepest convictions and greatest fears. A community expresses its soul by committing to shared values and struggling with shared fears.

When serving as a moderator, I seek to ensure we fulfill our responsibility to discern and lead with our whole selves: body, mind, strength and soul. To do this, we must understand the state of the community’s soul, turning its values into actions and naming its fears so they do not take control.

To moderate in this way, I seek to lead from a place of honesty, humility and confession so I may do my part to foster that sacred trust and leave room for the Holy Spirit to stir and guide in powerful and unexpected ways.

Ahumada: May I share with you my lived experience on the U.S.-Mexico Border? In these borderlands, we have seen a diverse wave of humanity coming across the border. Families as far away as Afghanistan and as near as Sonora, Mexico, have arrived. From the recent conflict in Ukraine, we now have begun to welcome Ukrainian refugees. Our community and churches have opened their doors to welcome the stranger.

These are challenging and exciting times for us as Presbyterians. As church folk, we are called to engaged in the work of building a healthy and thriving community for all, whether we are refugees or long-standing residents. It is complicated and complex work to bring diverse voices together for the common good, but not impossible. In this work, we grow and come to see the humanity that we all share and come to respect the differences that we have. Our faith sustains us in this work and moves us towards a shared vision, especially when all is dark and there is barely a sliver of light to guide us.