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The spirit of connection: Reflections on faith, community and stories

If you ask commissioner Alan Olson about #GA226 in five or ten years, he won't remember the business. He will remember the people.

GA attendees speak at the opening reception. Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook.

I’m sitting in my hotel room in Salt Lake City. It’s about nine or ten hours after the conclusion of the 226th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and I am overwhelmed with gratitude, fatigue and a sense of connection to something so much bigger than myself.

As some of my younger friends might say, I have all the feels.

Alan Olson speaks at General Assembly. Photo submitted.

During one of the plenary sessions, a teaching elder commissioner from Northumberland Presbytery spoke on a motion. I don’t remember the motion, but I recognized the speaker’s name: Doug Orbaker.

I first met Doug in 2010, when he was serving as a mission co-worker in Nicaragua. At the time, I was a member of Sixth Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh and one of ten members to go to Nicaragua to visit a coffee farm supported by the church.

We met with Doug in Managua before traveling to the coffee farm deep in Nicaragua’s interior. Doug told us that effective mission work was all about building relationships. Over the years, many people asked him if all the time and money they spent to visit Nicaragua was worth it. Would be better if they just made a monetary donation?

I wondered that, too.

As I remember it, Doug replied, “If you’re coming here to do something nice for these people; if you’re coming here to show how generous you are; if you’re coming here to do things for them, or teach them something; then by all means: Send a check!”

“Unless you’re a doctor or a nurse or a dentist, there’s nothing you can do for these people that they can’t do for themselves, and they’ll do it better than you can. But,” he continued, “if you’re coming here to learn; if you’re coming here to build relationships; then by all means, come on down. You’ll do more good for these people by telling their story.”

“…if you’re coming here to learn; if you’re coming here to build relationships; then by all means, come on down. You’ll do more good for these people by telling their story.”

These words stuck with me.

A group from Sixth Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, prepares to depart for Nicaragua, June 2010. Photo submitted.

I discerned my call to ministry in the months following that trip, starting seminary in 2011. Over the next three years, I learned Greek and Hebrew, academic theology, Presbyterian polity, but more than that, I learned the importance of sharing stories.

Stories allow us to grasp abstract concepts. We teach theology by telling Bible stories and then relating them to our lives. Stories are powerful. Stories help to bring theology to life.

I thought about stories this week at General Assembly. After all, Presbyterian polity can feel as abstract as the Trinity or the incarnation. Until you go to General Assembly and see the rules and the people in action. When you’re in the room, you see that it’s all about the movement of the Holy Spirit. And stories. And relationships.

When you’re in the room, you see that [GA is] all about the movement of the Holy Spirit. And stories. And relationships.

After hearing Doug speak last week, I noted where he sat, and I introduced myself at the next break. He didn’t remember me, and I didn’t expect him to. I think he was glad to hear my story and to learn that a seed he had planted many years before had borne fruit.

If you ask me in a month – or maybe even a year – what happened at GA when I was a teaching elder commissioner, I’m sure I’ll be able to talk about some of the business we discussed and passed.

If you ask me in five or ten or 15 years, I’ll remember reconnecting with Doug. We talk a lot about being a connectional church. This past week, I learned that to be true.

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