Hands and Feet initiative scrapped for #GA226

GA attendees are encouraged to worship with local churches.

At the 222nd General Assembly (GA) in 2016 in Portland, Oregon, the National Hispanic/Latino-a Presbyterian Caucus tried something new. Rather than hold a banquet in a ballroom, the caucus decided to sponsor a mission service project at a homeless shelter and donate to the Union Gospel Mission of Portland.

Tony Aja, who was the moderator of the caucus at the time, initiated this activity.

“When I became the moderator of the caucus, I was always concerned that the caucuses were having these elaborate dinners at GA that cost a lot of money,” he said. “The leadership of our caucus decided to do a service project instead, working with the Hispanic churches in the area. The caucus got on board, people participated and volunteered, and we gave money to the shelter, the equivalent of what we would have spent on the dinner.”  The newly elected stated clerk of the General Assembly, J. Herbert Nelson, took notice of this event.

For the 223rd General Assembly in 2018, the “Hands and Feet” initiative was born, envisioned by J. Herbert Nelson and implemented by the Office of the General Assembly and the hosting presbytery to expand the work of the assembly in the city where the event was being held. The vision was to build on the community work that local congregations, mid councils, and the denomination’s national office were already doing. Its focus was to expand the work of the General Assembly beyond the convention center and into the communities to “proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in action.”

J. Herbert Nelson speaks in front of a crowd on the stairs of the City Justice Center, St. Louis, 2018.

The Hands and Feet initiative came to life in the months leading up to and during the assembly in St. Louis, Missouri, with community mission experiences coordinated through AMEN St. Louis, a ministry of Oak Hill Presbyterian Church, as well as a march to deliver money that was collected at a worship service for bail bond relief and demand an end to the system of cash bail. On the steps of the justice center, Nelson gave an impassioned speech saying, “We are making a declaration in this era that we will return to the justice understanding of our faith that we had back in the 1960s when our stated clerk marched with Martin Luther King, when our stated clerk stood on the Lincoln Memorial and marched with ‘Jobs and Justice.’ We are returning to the days when we can actively engage all over this country, calling on the powers and principalities to release those from captivity, and to allow them to be in a place where they can make a life for themselves.”

One of the marchers, Rick Ufford-Chase, moderator of the 216th General Assembly, pointed out one of the committees meeting in the convention center was considering a report from the “Way Forward Commission.”

“Perhaps this kind of movement is actually the ‘way forward’ for our church in the 21st century,” Ufford-Chase said.

Following the event, Nelson said, “Our test case will be St. Louis, we ought to perfect it by Baltimore [planned site of the 224th GA in 2020], and by Columbus [planned site of the 225th GA in 2022] it ought to be old hat.” The assembly concluded with a concert by saxophonist/songwriter Kirk Whalum that celebrated the success of the launch of the Hands and Feet initiative in St. Louis and looked with great anticipation toward the next assembly in Baltimore, Maryland.

The initiative’s success in St. Louis led to further investment after the assembly to include a fellowship program in Baltimore for two young adults who would help the presbytery manage volunteer opportunities for Presbyterians before and during the assembly as well as the appointment of a staff member in the Office of the General Assembly to support the initiative.

William Barber, then-leader of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, speaks during the 2020 digital rally that also served as the Hands and Feet event for the digital assembly, hosted during the peak of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, disrupted the momentum of the initiative, which was built around gathering in-person, getting out of the convention center and spending time in the city. The 224th General Assembly in 2020 was moved entirely online. The Hands and Feet event for that assembly invited all commissioners and Presbyterians to participate virtually in “The Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington,” a digital rally organized by The Poor People’s Campaign. Part of the virtual rally included a video of faith leaders from many religious traditions and Christian denominations, including J. Herbert Nelson in his role as stated clerk, reading a unified statement of support of the goals of the Poor People’s Campaign. While the Hands and Feet initiative looked different because GA was virtual, the rally provided a way for Presbyterians to learn about issues affecting those living in poverty directly from those experiencing it, and it offered ways to get involved.

J. Herbert Nelson, the stated clerk; Jimmie Hawkins, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness in Washington D.C.; and Shannon Craigo-Snell, a professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary have a conversation about cash bail. Screenshot by Gregg Brekke.

Two years later, the 225th General Assembly was hybrid with committee meetings held in person in Louisville, Kentucky, and the plenary held online. For that assembly, the Hands and Feet initiative returned to the focus on ending cash bail, with a streamed event on July 7, 2022. The pre-recorded program included Shameka Parrish-Wright, director of The Bail Project in Louisville. During the video, which included testimony from pastors and ruling elders who were involved, members of Central Florida Presbytery reflected on their experience at the General Assembly in St. Louis and how they heard the call to “get outside and sweat,” which encouraged them to continue the work against cash bail in their presbytery. Once home, the Presbyterian congregations of Central Florida agreed to raise funds for The Bail Project. The remainder of the “Hands and Feet” presentation was a panel discussion between Nelson, the stated clerk; Jimmie Hawkins, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C.; and Shannon Craigo-Snell, a professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

As planning began for the 226th General Assembly, the decision was made to continue with a hybrid format, this time with committee meetings to be held online and the plenary sessions to be held in person. In addition, after seven years as the stated clerk, J. Herbert Nelson, stepped down from that role on June 30, 2023. With his departure, and the hybrid format of the assembly, the Office of the General Assembly decided to discontinue the Hands and Feet initiative.

Rick Jones, who in March was named director of the PC(USA)’s unifying communications ministries, wrote, “There will not be a Hands and Feet initiative at the 226th General Assembly this summer in Salt Lake City. The Office of the General Assembly is hosting a hybrid gathering and due to the tight schedule for plenaries, we do not have the bandwidth to plan and organize an event. Instead, commissioners, advisory delegates, and other visitors are encouraged to worship in local Presbyterian churches on Sunday, June 30th.”

The option for commissioners, advisory delegates and visitors to worship in local churches is something that has also been done at past assemblies with the Office of the General Assembly coordinating shuttles that run from the convention center to the local churches.

Tony Aja.

Tony Aja reflected on this change stating, “I’m disappointed because this is a great opportunity for Presbyterians to show that they care about changing society for the better. We are missing an opportunity to not only talk about social change and antiracism but actually to do something about it by working in tandem with a local agency or congregation. A convention is wonderful, but it doesn’t leave any kind of permanent witness in the community where we were. Service opportunities with local agencies during the assembly adds credibility to what you do.”

It is not known if other groups or caucuses that attend the General Assembly will plan events to continue the spirit of the Hands and Feet initiative in Salt Lake City this summer by getting out of the convention hall to learn and serve with local churches and organizations. If you know of any caucuses, committees or organizations that are planning to continue the spirit of the Hands and Feet Initiative at the General Assembly in Salt Lake City, please reach out to the Presbyterian Outlook so that we can share the story. Email: