Outlook General Assembly spotlight: An interview with the stated clerk

Presbyterian Outlook Editor Teri McDowell Ott got a chance to sit down with PC(USA) Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson to discuss his MLK address, the reaction to his description of the continued occupation in Israel/Palestine as “21st-century slavery,” and how he understands the church today.

Outlook Editor Teri McDowell Ott sits down with the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II. Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook.

On Monday, June 20, I spoke with the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Nelson was first elected at the 222nd General Assembly (2016) and reelected for a second four-year term as the PC(USA)’s chief ecclesial officer at the 224th General Assembly (2020).

Before being elected stated clerk, Nelson directed the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., and was well known in the denomination as a prophetic preacher and leader with an intense commitment to justice.

Nelson has spent his entire ministry preaching against the “powers and principalities” (Ephesians 6:12) and advocating for “the least of these.” (Matthew 25:40) He’s endured the critiques that inevitably come when heeding the prophetic call and has been arrested in many civil protests. But the past six months have been even more challenging with heated critiques of Nelson’s January 17 reflection on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. in which he named the continued occupation in Israel/Palestine “21st-century slavery.” On MLK Day, Nelson called on Americans, and particularly the American Jewish community, to advocate for an end to this “immoral enslavement.”

A group of more than 200 pastors and other Presbyterians signed a petition expressing “deep concern,” saying that “the timing of the Stated Clerk’s January 17 statement, on the heels of the terrorist attack at Congregation Beth Israel in Texas, has created anger and anguish for many of us, as well as among Jewish colleagues and friends and across the Jewish communal world. The statement plays into antisemitic tropes about the concentrated power of Jews that can lead to violence.” Other groups, such as the PC(USA)’s Israel Palestine Mission Network and the National Black Presbyterian Caucus, issued statements of support. Nelson responded with a video statement where he added context but did not back down from his previous message.

Protest against actions on Israel/Palestine being considered by General Assembly 225 of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Even as we were getting ready to publish this interview, the conflict between interfaith relations and advocating for the oppressed continued to play out at General Assembly. On Tuesday, June 28, the International Engagement Committee voted to recommend naming Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and lives as “apartheid.” This vote happened while pro-Israel groups like Presbyterians for Middle East Peace protested outside the Presbyterian Center with a large hot-air balloon emblazoned with the words: “PCUSA: Fight Racism. Not Jews.” On the same day, the Ecumenical and Interfaith Engagement Committee recommended that the assembly receive a study document denouncing antisemitism and Islamophobia and distribute it throughout the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), affirming the belief that the PC(USA) can support Palestinian rights while fighting antisemitism; these things are “not mutually exclusive,” said Whitney Wilkinson Arreche, a member of the denomination’s Committee on Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations.

I wondered if the stated clerk would be willing to revisit his statement on MLK day and the reaction it received in our interview. He was. He was open and transparent, lingering to talk long after the interview was over. During this post-interview conversation, Nelson said one reason he felt compelled to speak was that Black voices had been missing from the debate over Israel/Palestine.

We sat in the Presbyterian Center’s chapel on the Monday after Nelson delivered an impassioned Juneteenth sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8, recalling the struggles of the prophet. “When the joy turns into sorrow and your brokenness and pain begins to overcome,” Nelson preached, “you have to turn back to God and say, ‘Not my way Lord, but yours.’”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ott: As you’ve lived into this role since 2016, what do you think the joys and the challenges are of being the stated clerk?

Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, preaching at the Juneteenth worship service in the chapel at the Presbyterian Center. Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook.

Nelson: When I was first elected to this office, one of the things that I think was burning in my spirit was the need to really see the denomination move out of this place of holding onto old stuff. We were still fighting the war of who’s in, who’s out. People were tired, they were kind of broken, churches had been broken apart. And what do you do in this time, coming in and trying to deal with repair? We had to see a way forward. We had to find new ways to do this work and to believe that new things are not bad.

I was appalled to find out how many rules we had going into a General Assembly. It’s confusing, which is why we have all of these individuals around interpreting the rules. People come here from communities where, quite frankly, this is not the way they make decisions. They may follow a Book of Order. But the arena, in a sense, was becoming too big.

So, let’s start talking about growing the church, let’s start talking about what it means to nurture people, such as children and young people who are going into many of our camps and conference centers. Let’s start talking about the energy that we can bring to the table. About changing the narrative for what it means to be church. How do we understand church in the 21st century? We talked about this a lot in the Office of General Assembly – that we are actually in the 21st century, but we are acting as though we are in the 19th century – and we have to figure out now what works in the 21st century.

Ott: All those things that were challenges in 2016 are still challenges. So where are you and where is your team? Where’s your spirit as you continually face these challenges?

Nelson: Internally, [the challenge] has helped us rethink what the 21st-century church has to look like. That means a lot of brainstorming. It means a willingness to try, fail. Take what works and then turn right around and use it. Experiment with it and tweak it.

We also asked ourselves, how do we get some energy in a General Assembly? We come in, we have these meetings, we fight with each other, people leave the church, and then we find ourselves arguing all the way back to the next assembly. So we started things like “Hands and Feet” where we get out of the arena. We spend some time in the city and educating people about the contextual realities of that city — what the people might be struggling with. The first opportunity to do that was in St. Louis. We learned some valuable lessons there.

In St. Louis, the community told us, “We would like to have your help, but we don’t need it. We have been marching and organizing since Michael Brown got shot. Every single day we have been coming together as a community of people who are mourning. You want to come and help us? We can tell you what we’d like for you to do.”

They wanted us to march with them in the streets — march without a permit. Do you know how many people in this denomination lost their mind over that? We sat down with the police and we had to negotiate. We leveraged the money we were bringing to the city. We said, “We’re going to march with these folks in the street. This is the march for the Presbyterian church in relationship to the persons who have been injured and who are mourning and who have been out here marching, the least of these.”

We were not dictating the action for a city. The city has the responsibility to help us understand more about them. And to do what is necessary to make it better. That’s what faith is about. That’s what Jesus did. Now we’re in a space where we are moving toward innovation, where we are doing new things knowing that it can be done in the right way.

Ott: Let me circle back to breaking the rules for Jesus. I know you often tell stories of getting arrested during protests. How does your prophetic call play out in this role as stated clerk?

Nelson: The prophetic call has been built into my DNA. I learned it from my father serving as the president of the NAACP in South Carolina during the height of the civil rights movement. Then [I learned it by] watching three students from South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, getting shot and killed by highway patrolmen and 26 students wounded trying to integrate a bowling alley. I knew civil rights leaders coming in and out of our home who couldn’t stay in hotels. And preachers who came for meetings. My mother lost her job because my father would not get out of the civil rights movement.

Growing up in a home like that, I learned that you have to challenge powers and principalities and wickedness in higher places. I also learned that there’s no guarantee when you get engaged in this that you’re going to live a long life on this side of heaven. But there’s a reward beyond that.

My call was concretized at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta and attending a predominantly African American seminary. There was a unity of spirit and a sense of purpose among us. James Cone’s liberation theology was taught. We heard from individuals who had been in the movement and now were professors.

I also had the opportunity to go to South Africa for six weeks during the height of apartheid as a seminary student. After coming back from that trip, I got off the plane and saw exactly where we were in the United States. That’s when things started coming together, the driving edge of my work, my ministry.

So when I was elected stated clerk, there was no ambiguity around who I was. I made it clear in the process, you know, that I can’t just come in and manage the desk. That’s not what I do.

Ott: There is an overture coming to the General Assembly naming the occupation in Israel/Palestine as apartheid. Calling out that injustice in your MLK Day reflection has certainly brought you critique. Was there something that inspired you to include Israel/Palestine in your reflection? I’m curious, because of all the injustices, which do you pick? But you went after that one at that time.

Outlook Editor Teri Ott sits down with the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II. Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook.

Nelson: Even before I came to this office. I had done the work while leading the Washington, D.C., office. I was also on the Hill with the Jewish community. What really triggered that was that in my DNA wrong is wrong. And there’s only one answer to deal with it and that’s to confront it. We, as a church, started initially working toward this and then it just became, in my estimation, a hanging overture that was just there.

I don’t believe it’s our responsibility to make pronouncements and then turn around and act as though it doesn’t exist. That was the first problem I had. The second problem I have is that you don’t continue to cozy up with friends who do damage to other folks. It doesn’t mean you walk away from them, but you have to find a purpose to help them understand what they are doing to someone else and where your position is in that, and you can’t waffle.

The first time I went to Israel/Palestine was with World Mission, and it was fascinating — not in a good way. I’m looking at Orangeburg, South Carolina, in the 1960s. I’m looking at something even worse than that, to be honest with you. And we are bringing food and supplies and having conversations with both sides. We go around to see good sites and we talk about it and debrief and then we come back, and we do it again. So, my question becomes: when people are suffering like this, why do we keep coming back to see the same thing? And in between that, there doesn’t seem to be any organized way of even speaking to it.

One of the pieces that triggered me [was when] a gentleman … came in and we were “listening to both sides.” Okay. I grew up in Orangeburg, South Carolina. There are no “both sides.” This is wrong. But I had to listen to him talk in a way that just totally disregarded the Palestinian people. And I was supposed to be leading that session. Yeah. I got up and I walked out. I just couldn’t take anymore. It was in that moment that I realized I don’t need to come back here. I need to do something about it. And that’s what I was doing when I made the statement.

My push was not that we should not do mission. This is where some things were misunderstood. It’s not about not doing mission. [But] mission has to also be accountable to a prophetic witness. We are not just simply handing stuff out. We have to be about the business of eradicating the problem that’s there in the first place.

I think the second piece that folks struggled with was the issue of my equating this to slavery. This is the nomenclature that we know in the United States of America. I’m not talking to people in Israel/Palestine. I’m writing this statement for the people here in the United States of America. And if they read what I wrote for MLK Day, I’m talking about children going to school every day and not getting an education. I addressed several issues in that particular statement. But the one thing that was picked up was Israel / Palestine. And I’m wondering, how can we forget school children? No word said about that. No anger about that. Children who will go to school every day and can’t get a high school diploma in “the land of the free,” in the “home of the brave.”

Ott: Where do you hope we go from here, this General Assembly and looking forward? What’s your hope for us?

J. Herbert Nelson, II, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Nelson: I hope that we will be able to open our eyes to a much larger sense of openness. I see some of it happening now to people who’ve been perplexed in the system that we are in. I also pray that we can strengthen our mid councils. That’s where the action is: at the mid council level. We have to have some good people in those places who can get ahead of things as opposed to waiting for [issues] to come to their desk. And I think that’s a challenge, again, [for] this church; we have to struggle with what it means to get out in front of something. Not so much in front of paperwork. I’m thankful that we have cut out probably three-fourths of our Standing Rules, some of which were in the way. And we had to do it because of the pandemic. I think that we have found, in many ways, a right-sizing of the denomination at the national headquarters. And I think that’s going be helpful going forward.

I think another part is going to be, how well we can influence the ecumenical world. We’ve got an overture that’s coming up on Israel / Palestine at this General Assembly. That was done with the World Council of Churches. I think engaging in ecumenical work going forward is vitally important.

I love this church. This is my denomination and I don’t plan to go anywhere else but at times we move too slow. We jump too many hoops to get to where we need to go. We’ve come sometimes and we’ve been late. We’ve done too much talking. We’ve done too much voting, deciding and backroom stuff. By the time we get engaged, the ship has sailed. That’s the challenge right now. We’ve got to be more nimble.