Each day of plenary, early in our time together, a person of color would share a bit of his or her story with us. The last time a General Assembly gathered in Portland, Oregon was 1967, the momentous year in which we adopted a new confession of faith and transitioned from a singular confessional standard to a plural Book of Confessions. The Confession of 1967 has reconciliation as its central theme and speaks directly about the need for racial reconciliation. Fifty years later we gathered in Portland once more this time approving the addition of a new confession to our books, the Belhar Confession developed in Apartheid, South Africa, which has much to say about unity– and the sin of racism and racial division/oppression. And, given the events of the past few years, it was high time– far past time– that my predominately white and multiply privileged denomination sought to have a greater racial consciousness. And it was to this end, I believe, that these moments of testimony (each of which ended with some portion of either C-67 or Belhar) was aimed.
Before I share the biggest ah-ha moment that arose for me as I listened to one of these testimonies, I want to share a (probably) unintentional error that may have been a good tool for consciousness raising. On day one, before our new moderators were elected even, we were being oriented to the work of plenary, and, in particular, to the use of the voting machines (blackberry like devices provided to all commissioners and advisory delegates). The thought was that we would learn how to use the devices and learn a bit about the composition of this assembly. There were various errors on the lists of choices (a whole decade of ages omitted, for example), but my favorite was that on the list of racial ethnic identities “white or caucasian” was not listed– forcing 80+ percent of the delegates (myself included) to label ourselves as “other.” How fabulous is that? We who are typically normed… we who other others… were othered! And it was pretty great to see that the percentage of white folks was less than 90…. if that was an accurate measure.
Several days in we heard a testimony from a Native American woman who shared that it was difficult for her to hear on every news broadcast, for days, that the horror which unfolded in Orlando a few weeks back was the deadliest shooting in American history. She reminded us of Wounded Knee, and other bloody battles between American Indians and Settlers… (and when I just did some web research I see that these battles led to massive Indian and Settler deaths)… she suggested that when folks claim Orlando is the deadliest shooting she feels dehumanized. The battles with Indians don’t count apparently. They aren’t part of American History. The Ah-Ha for me was realizing that that labeling of the Orlando shooting had never sat well with me, but I couldn’t quite say why, and with her testimony I realized how blind I am to Native American experience and history, much of the time.
I sat, throughout plenary, next to an African American pastor from a western state. Our whispered conversations were some of the richest I had all week (though I’m sure we drove folks around us a bit batty with our side conversations). He asked me to help him understand the discourse of white privilege and racism (a humbling request)– as he feels he has not been hindered by his race one bit and that he experiences a great deal of privilege. I shared stories, particularly from brothers and sisters from the Village, our church in Nashville, to help him see. And I hope the testimonies shared on stage were helpful to him too. He and I are very different politically and, to some extent, theologically. But we found ourselves in agreement on several key points– open communion? Absolutely! need for change in Synods? Absolutely! On the second point of frustration on which I shared yesterday, we parted company. He came to GA to serve on the polity and church order committee and was committed to seeing a change back to the Minister of Word and Sacrament title. He found the arguments from young clergy compelling and, I suspect, his background in Roman Catholicism was a factor in his preference as well. In the course of helping me, and mind you, this was all whispered… to understand his passion about this, he told me the most amazing call story I have heard in a long time. It is not mine to share, so I won’t. But it sounded like something straight out of the pages of Acts. I have no question that he is called by God to be a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and I have no question that I am called by God to the same. His call was a bit more improbable, but both are valid. Our church drives him a bit crazy. It drives me crazy too, for some of the same and some different reasons. But as he put it “God has not released me from this calling, so I’m not going anywhere.” And so it is for me. Ah-ha!