Attending General Assembly as a commissioner was an intense experience! I think I needed a couple of weeks to reflect on it before I could really consider sharing it with you. This will be the first of a short series of posts describing 1) the moderator's election and worship services 2) committee work and 3) plenary sessions.
In case you're new to the PCUSA or need a refresher: General Assembly is our biennial meeting that makes decisions about our policies as a denomination. Commissioners (lay people [ruling elders] and pastors [teaching elders]) are elected from each presbytery to go and discern the leading of the Spirit as they vote and make decisions. This GA met in Pittsburgh, PA from June 29-July 7, 2012. I attended as a Teaching Elder commissioner from Detroit Presbytery.
The first major task of the Assembly is to elect a new moderator. The moderator serves for a term of 2 years as the figurehead of the denomination, as well as moderating (leading) the plenary (large-group) sessions of the current General Assembly meeting. This year, there were four candidates and their vice moderatorial candidates, all of whom are Teaching Elders, or pastors. I had read up on the candidates ahead of time and was still a bit uncertain about who I would vote for. In the past ten years or so, there have been two really dynamic, exciting moderators and that's what I was basing my hopes on. Rick Ufford-Chase had been a strong advocate for peace and justice, and had tons of experience serving on the US-Mexico border. Meeting him in college was a really powerful experience. Bruce Reyes-Chow was the moderator three/four years ago and he was strongly committed to using social media to serve the church and reaching out to young people. None of this year's candidates struck me as having a strong platform in any direction. However, getting to hear each of them speak in a roundtable setting was helpful, as were the questions from the floor during the plenary session.
The one candidate I was most interested in was the Rev. Neal D. Presa who is a pastor in Elizabeth Presbytery in New Jersey. He was really focused on unity in the church. Neal's vice-moderator candidate was the Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe. It had come out in recent weeks that Tara had signed the marriage license of a lesbian couple earlier this year in Washington, D.C. Same-sex marriage is legal there, though the Presbyterian church still disallows such marriages. That difference puts pastors in a tough position if they are trying to offer pastoral care and worship to gay and lesbian people, if they believe that marrying them is appropriate. For Neal and Tara, this situation kind of exploded. However, they didn't dance around it and took the issue head on, which was impressive. Neal does not believe that same-sex marriage is appropriate. Tara obviously does. They are also really good friends, who love and respect each other as people, as Presbyterians, and as children of God. They chose to stay in the election. The told us that their leadership would be a model for the church about how to live together - and be friends - even as we disagree. For me, this spoke volumes! No matter where you are on this issue, we need people to lead us who are in different places, but still committed to conversation and true relationships.
I voted for Neal and Tara. After four ballots, they finally got 50% of the vote and were elected. Later in the week, however, it came to light that a number of people were upset about having elected someone who had done something (signed a marriage license) that was outside the PCUSA's polity. Tara felt that she had to resign the position or folks were going to make the situation even uglier. It was a really tough and sad part of the week for her and for many folks there. The new vice-moderator is the Rev. Tom Trinidad. He had to jump into the position without having really planned for it and did so gracefully. Neal, Tom, and Tara all would benefit from our prayers over these next years!
The election took place on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, all the commissioners went out to worship in local churches in Pittsburgh. I had eagerly signed up to worship at a community called Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community. About 10 years ago, this church first got its start in the Pittsburgh neighborhood called Hot Metal Bridge, which is named for the bridge that crosses the river nearby. They are an eclectic community designed to meet the needs of younger adults who may never have encountered Christ, may feel they've been burned by the church, or who don't fit in a "typical" church. Each service includes the Lord's Supper and a dramatic interpretation of the scripture, as well as a different style of band/music each week. After each service, they transform the worship space into a fellowship space and share a meal.
While I was there, the band played kind of a rock version of some bluegrass-y music. It was really cool and very fun to sing songs like "Amazing Grace" in a totally new way. We packed the house that day, as a busload of Presbyterians invaded their small worship space. The dramatic re-telling of the Good Samaritan showed a new take on the story. They showed that perhaps the Good Samaritan was actually not the one who "saved" the man who'd been robbed. Rather, the man in need might actually have saved the Samaritan by taking him out of his comfort zone and allowing him to serve. What a neat way to think about it! And how true for so many people - maybe us, included!
The meal was so generous and gracious and I got to talk to a young married couple who live in the neighborhood and attend the church. They grew up in conservative Christian environments, but were eventually turned off by that atmosphere. They have found a home at Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community, which is more in tune with their way of understanding God.
The images below are taken from the beautiful artwork on Hot Metal's walls that depicts the growing, preparing, and serving of Communion. These are just a few images in the series, but they give you a taste of what the sacrament is all about! Worshiping there was a great start to the week that made me feel connected to Christians, even in far away places.