Louisville, Kentucky – The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) gathered online for worship before the start of the fourth plenary session of the 225th General Assembly. Committees met over the last two weeks in-person at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, Kentucky, in four groups of four committees each. Today the assembly began hearing from committees about their work and deliberations to discern a final decision for each item of business.
During today’s opening worship, the global congregation was welcomed in several different languages as part of the denomination’s efforts to display the breadth and depth of its ethnic and cultural diversity, though nearly 90% of the denomination is white and the rest of the service was in English with Spanish and Korean simulcast. Much of the business before the assembly addresses a desire to be more ethnically and culturally diverse and engaged, as with most assemblies the past few decades.
To further inspire worship and seemingly draw worshippers beyond themselves, the worship bulletin and video were filled with abstract images from local Louisville artist Suyun Son. She states on her website, “What we consider realism is a human construct of visual elements. Human constructs often turn things we see, such as nature and people, into objects of commodification. I disrupt this habit by breaking down what we see to its fundamental visual elements – colors, shapes, composition and textures – to seed doubt of our immediate perception and affect critical curiosity for the history of images and challenge viewers towards different ways of reconstructing the world.”
Though separated by physical distance as worshippers gathered online at www.ga-pcusa.org, a collaborative choir from the host presbytery, Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, drew worshipers together with the opening hymn, “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit.”
Instead of the usual prayer of confession in Reformed worship, Inho Kim led everyone in an “Assurance of Belovedness,” saying, “We are dear to the heart of God whose steadfast lovingkindness follows us in all ways … God surrounds us with communities of care so that we don’t have to be alone even when we are by ourselves. God call each of us beloved.”
The sermon was delivered by Yenny Delgado’Qullaw (prounced ku-law) – a ruling elder, licensed psychologist, and founder of PUBLICA, a blog forum where “theology, society, culture, and politics meet in thoughtful and timely reflections and articles” (from the website).
In keeping with the theme of the 225th GA, “Lament into Hope,” Delgado’Qullaw shared her own story of growing up in Peru, moving to Costa Rica to study theology, and then moving to the United States where she joined a Presbyterian church. Reflecting on her grandmother’s journey as well as her own, Delgado’Qullaw said, “[O]ne of the memories that has endured … [is being] part of Christian communities wherever we were, because these communities felt like home.”
Delgado’Qullaw’s grandmother grew up in a village in the Andes mountains of Peru. Her grandmother learned to read at the age of 30 by reading the Bible. Delgado’Qullaw said, “As part of the native population with no access to education, the church was one of the few places she was welcomed and encouraged to learn, this was her beloved community. In the same way decades later when I move to the United States, as a new immigrant, the Bible helped me to learn English.”
Delgado’Qullaw reflected on her experience through the lens of Luke 4.18-21, in which Jesus is beginning his public ministry, borrowing from Isaiah 61.1-2, saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me … to bring good news to the poor, … proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” After he said these things, Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. As everyone was watching him closely, he declared, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Delgado’Qullaw invited the assembly to consider, “Who are we in this story? Are we proclaiming the good news? Are we receiving it? Or are we those in the crowd just questioning what this man Jesus is talking about?”
Challenging the PC(USA) to reflect on its own journey, Delgado’Qullaw said, “We are … a church that is slowly beginning to think about its historical legacy and role in oppression. We are indeed a community of faith that is at a decision moment. … Because this land has a painful past of captivity, impoverishment, and lack of vision to address social problems. How can we navigate this passage with all the weight of history? … [T]he church’s history shows us that there has been a continual struggle to be that community that practices God’s good news. We know it is not easy being an open, ecumenical, and diverse church of God in the United States. … Our denomination, like many others, is struggling with the long history of exclusionary practices or simply neglecting societal problems as we seek greater diversity within our community. … Our theological knowledge struggles to maintain an honest reflection: God is manipulated, the life of our active community is reduced, our thoughts become limited …”
She went on to challenge the church, saying, “To transition to a better place, we must recognize our failures. Through a process of honest reflection and lament we can begin the process. Lament helps us express sorrow for the past and allow us to see the future with hope. The church in the United States has so much to offer. Our theological experience and reflections can help us open the door to move to a better place as a community, a place of healing, acceptance, growth, and liberation. If we read carefully Jesus is also speaking to us, his church. Rather than envision ourselves as the proclaimers, we must see that we are the ones that need freedom.”
Delgado’Qullaw is no stranger to naming harms caused to native populations by Euro-centric Christianity. In a tweet on June 28, 2022, she wrote: “The Implications of the European Christian message in Abya Yala have a deep root in the exclusion and denigration of the native population.”
According to an article referenced in the tweet, published on PUBLICA on April 6, 2022 by Delgado’Qullaw and Claudio Ramirez, “Abya Yala theology assumes a contextual, historical, and ancestral reflection, which is the axis of our theological proposal. The name comes from the Guna language and means ‘land in full maturity and land of vital blood.’ … In the 1970s, the term Abya Yala was adopted by many activists, historians, politicians, and theologians as the unified name instead of using North America (primarily English speakers) and Latin America (primarily Spanish and Portuguese speakers) that perpetuate colonial divisions.”
“Lament into Hope” was at the center of Delgado’Qullaw’s message, seeking to draw the PC(USA) together into a shared vision. She concluded by saying, “Today, let us in the United States be a church who learns, practices and teaches reflection and healing. Let us be a church that responds to Jesus’ message. Let’s bring to the table a diverse multi-ethnic community with different ancestral memories, languages, and spiritual practices hand in hand. Together, we can join [Jesus] is in saying, ‘Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’”
A benediction was offered at the end of the service by Corey Greaves, president and founder of Mending Wings, an outreach to Native youth on the Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington. Speaking in the Yakama tongue, Greeves said, “Our Highest Decision-Maker, help all our people. Help all our children. Light up their heart and body and well-being will be in their body and mind.”
Following worship, co-moderators of the 225th GA, Shavon Starling-Louis and Ruth Santa-Grace welcomed everyone to the fourth plenary, appearing together live at the Presbyterian Center. Shortly after the opening of the assembly on June 18, it was announced that Santa-Grace had contracted COVID-19 and was recovering in isolation.