I’m currently in St Louis, attending the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), our biennial national meeting. The first GA I attended was 22 years ago in Albuquerque, where we were living at the time. My son Alden was a baby in a stroller at that assembly, and he was there with me when the commissioners voted in restrictive language to keep people who are gay and lesbian from being ordained to church service.
At that Assembly, I remember looking at my baby and thinking that I needed to work to make sure he inherited a different church, a more loving and welcoming church, when he grew up.
Over the years, we have removed that restrictive language from our Book of Order. We’ve allowed for same gender marriage. We’ve begun to address issues of race and racism in substantive ways.
Earlier this week, hundreds of us marched to deliver $47,000 collected as an offering to pay the bail of non-violent offenders. Someone commented that I looked like I was dressed for church as I marched. And perhaps church clothes aren’t my normal protest attire, but it felt like I went to church, as we marched in the heat, chanting “this is what theology looks like” and “end cash bail”. I’m grateful for a denomination that recognizes that church is what happens when we go out into the world to stand for justice.
At this Assembly, that baby in the stroller from ’96 is here as a Young Adult Advisory Delegate. I’ve been here for my work with the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a group that was founded in the aftermath of the ’96 Assembly, and to advocate for passage of a number of overtures, approved by various presbyteries across the country, written to affirm Presbyterian commitment to religious liberty that does not discriminate, and two other overtures that celebrate the lives of people who are transgender, and more one to celebrate the gifts of ministry of people who are LGBTQIA+.
Here’s part of the text from one of the overtures:
“Standing in the conviction that all people are created in the image of God and that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for all people, the 223rd General Assembly (2018) affirms its commitment to the full welcome, acceptance, and inclusion of transgender people, people who identify as gender non-binary, and people of all gender identities within the full life of the church and the world. The assembly affirms the full dignity and the full humanity of transgender people, their full inclusion in all human rights, and their giftedness for service. The assembly affirms the church’s obligation to stand for the right of people of all gender identities to live free from discrimination, violence, and every form of injustice.”
And from the other:
“Celebrating the expansive embrace of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the breadth of our mission to serve a world in need, the 223rd General Assembly (2018) affirms the gifts of LGBTQ[IA]+ people for ministry and celebrates their service in the church and in the world.”
All 3 of our overtures not only made it out of committee, but also were approved by the Assembly on the consent agenda. (A consent agenda is way to group “routine business items” into one item, so that each of them doesn’t need to be voted on individually.) I’m going to give you a moment to process that. The celebration of LGBTQIA+ lives and the understanding that religious liberty and non-discrimination are connected–were passed on a consent agenda, as non-controversial routine items of business.
I wasn’t sure the day could get better. But I was wrong about that.
The Assembly also passed overtures about possibly adopting Martin Luther King, Jr’s Letter From Birmingham City Jail as a confession of our church, we repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, and set aside money to repair Native American churches, among other amazing things.
Last night, on the floor of the Assembly, when debating another item of business, a YAAD spoke about how proud he’s been of his church the past few years as we’ve moved to become more welcoming and affirming. And then he came out. His friends, and some other commissioners, immediately surrounded him in a giant hug.
I can’t even tell you what it means to know that the denomination I love and serve is the safe place for a young person to talk about their sexuality. Last night on Twitter, I commented:
There is a lament behind our celebration. I’m mindful of how many people have been turned away from church service, and from full inclusion. My new friend Holly Clark-Porter, when advocating for the Transgender Welcome overture, spoke about how her experiences of welcome and inclusion “bent time” to begin to heal her experiences when she was treated as an issue and not as a person.
We still have much work to do in the church. And I will get back to it shortly. But right now, I want to pause and celebrate what happened yesterday. And thank the people who started the work so many years ago. And thank the people who stayed in the struggle, even when the church wasn’t a safe place for them. And pray that it might begin the process of time bending for the people for whom it is coming too late.