Big Tent 2019, the sixth one to date, took place from August 1-3 in Baltimore. Here is a recap of how things went from Cindy's perspective. For another view on the event, including a discussion of the gathering's theme in the context of President Trump's recent comments about the city of Baltimore, read this article by Leslie Scanlon from The Presbyterian Outlook.
While we arrived in Baltimore Tuesday, Thursday was the beginning of our co-moderator responsibilities at Big Tent. Vilmarie and I started the morning with bringing greetings to the pre-conference gathering of African leaders, representing the African diaspora in the Presbyterian church as well as some of the leaders from partner denominations in Africa.
In those greetings, we celebrated the role of the ruling elder, which is an essential role in the African Presbyterian church, often preaching weekly at church out stations and expected to watch over the sector or neighborhood assigned to them. Still, there are definite hierarchies, so we also reminded them that, not only is Vilmarie a ruling elder and co-moderator of the PC(USA), we have had many women ruling elders who served as moderators for over thirty years.
We also took the opportunity to speak to the need to come together across races and ethnicities, offering to the United States and the world a witness to unity and reconciliation, showing that we do not have to look like one another or talk like one another or even think like one another to be in loving and respectful relationships that build each other up. This is part of what we offer to the world now, and especially to the country we are all living in together. As we gather in Baltimore, this is the witness we present to the city. Together, supporting one another, we are better than we can ever be divided and alone.
As Shanea said in the welcome to the Convocation for Communities of Color, “My liberation is tied to your liberation. My freedom is tied to your freedom.” If we do not achieve it with and for one another, it is not achieved fully for anyone.
That was our second commitment of the day. Vilmarie was invited to preach at the opening worship service for the third Convocation for Communities of Color, and I tagged along to listen and learn (and support my sister co-moderator). We greeted people from all over the world and the country, seeing old friends and making new ones, and posing for lots of pictures. We swayed to Alonzo’s powerful drumming, sang and clapped along with Warren Cooper & Perpetual Praise, shouted “Amen!” in response to prophetic words, and listened respectfully and prayerfully as people told the stories of how the community and the church have caused their people to bleed, figuratively and literally.
Vilmarie preached on the woman with the issue of blood, the text for the event. She magnified the woman’s thoughts, her desire to reach the unattainable, to grasp at the slimmest glimmer of hope, to touch what had been pulled out of her reach by society and by the laws of the faith. Then she told the story of her island, Puerto Rico, and her people who have also reached out to pull the unattainable towards them in their rising up against decades of corrupt government.
Sometimes we have to break the rules in order to receive healing, salvation, liberation, wholeness. Maybe it’s actually often that we have to break the rules, because the rules are mostly designed to keep things stable and contained, and salvation and liberation are not about stability and safety. Maybe this is something we need to consider more closely in a denomination that is sometimes too serious when we say we do things “decently and in order.”
Because this gathering was specifically designed to give courageous space to communities of color, I felt as if I should leave after worship. I respect the need to have a place to speak openly and honestly without worrying about being judged by the very people you are speaking about. Vilmarie however pressed me to stay so that I could be present for the whole church and hear words that could help me be a better and more conscientious leader. So I stayed, and sought to listen with open ears and an open heart and an open spirit, putting aside defensiveness and a need to justify or explain, and instead receiving what was shared as truth.
Those are not my stories to tell or my experiences to share, so I will just say this to my white siblings and my siblings who have any kind of power or privilege: listening in this way is a holy act and we need to keep our mouths shut more often and our countenances open to what we might hear and understand. It was a gift to me, painful as it was, to be able to sit and listen in that sacred space.
I headed out after the opening plenary to have dinner with a few other graduates from Austin Seminary, making new friends and laughing lots in the process. A full first day, a holy first day, a blessed beginning to our gathering together.
A somewhat leisurely morning on day two allowed me to sleep in just a little bit before meeting a friend for breakfast. The first “official” gathering for me was lunch with mid-council leaders, my group of colleagues. It was great to see friends I’ve been in mid-council ministry with since 2010 and also meet many of the new leaders who have joined this ministry in the last few months.
After lunch, Vilmarie and I met with the Committee on Local Arrangements (COLA) worship team leadership to discuss the plans for worship at the 224th General Assembly in Baltimore. We have the honor of inviting three preachers for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday worship, preaching ourselves during opening worship on the first Saturday, and helping to shape the intention and direction of the services. There is a lot of creativity on the team, but we were asked not to share any of the ideas that were being discussed. You’ll just have to keep an eye out for announcements during the coming year!
The first plenary began with a powerful reflection by the Hands and Feet Fellows, Mel and Liv. They’ve been living and working in Baltimore for a year as part of the Hands and Feet Initiative, helping set up engagement opportunities for visiting groups and intentionally interacting with neighborhoods and communities that are often overlooked. The refrain they used throughout their presentation was a challenge and an invitation: are you paying attention? To the places where joy springs up through the cracks in the sidewalks and to the places where despair grows like a tree through the roofs of abandoned houses. Are you paying attention? To the children who think nothing of seeing needle caps on the playground and create chalk drawings around them and to the adults who live in a rehab facility across from a community garden that they help tend. Are you paying attention?
One story they shared was about that garden and about the fact that, with as much good food as there is springing up from the soil that is carefully and consistently nourished, there are no rats to be seen. A resident of the rehab facility asked our Hands and Feet Fellows if they knew why the rats weren’t eating all of the fresh vegetables. The answer was beautiful and heartbreaking... “You always have people here tending the gardens. It’s never left alone for long. Rats don’t like to be in places that are well-tended.”
Are you paying attention?
If that didn’t shake us up, we weren’t getting off the hook when the plenary speaker, the Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, took the stage. His talk was challenging and convicting, and also heartbreaking, illuminating how the church has become most adept at either running away or hiding from the things of the world that don’t fit into our false ideas of triumphalism and exceptionalism. God laments over the brokenness of God’s people multiple times in the Bible, but we push lament aside and instead pretend that God only shows up when everything is perfect. Even worse, we proclaim that God only wants us to prosper (especially financially), and that proclamation carries the implicit judgement that, if you’re not prospering financially, you are not loved by God. What horrendous theology that is! That’s certainly not the Biblical witness, and it’s not faithful to the call to follow Jesus into the places where hope is hardest to find. It’s time for us to reclaim lament, and reclaim the command to work for the welfare of the city where we find ourselves. It’s time for the church, especially the white, upwardly mobile, privileged church, to stop running and stop hiding. It’s time for us to pay attention, not to what we’re comfortable with, but precisely to the things that we are uncomfortable with. I can guarantee that God is in the discomfort and the Spirit is giving you an opportunity to be shifted to deeper faith. Show me where Jesus took the easy road, where he looked away from pain and injustice. Where do you think this Jesus, who touched the culturally untouchable and continuously challenged the religious authorities, is leading us today?
On the final day of Big Tent 2019, The Presbyterian Foundation breakfast began at 7 am, and since Vilmarie was offering the opening prayer, we had to be there at the very beginning. Robert P. Jones, the author of The End of White Christian America, was the guest speaker. I have not read his book, but it was interesting to hear him discuss the shift in demographics, the shift in viewpoints within the two major political parties in the country, and the projected outcomes.
After breakfast, I returned to my room to catch up on a little work, then spent some time in the exhibit hall and in conversation with people here and there. It was good to talk with the representatives from across the denomination who were sitting at the exhibit tables, catching up on new programs, and sharing in return what we’re seeing as we travel the church.
Vilmarie and I had lunch with three people from Fossil Free PC(USA) to hear about their trip to Puerto Rico and what they are working on now. Part of the conversation centered around the need to find a way to tangibly care for people who’s livelihoods and communities are directly tied to the fossil fuel industry as part of Fossil Free PC(USA)’s mandate.
The second plenary was in the afternoon, featuring the Rev. Amantha Barbee, senior pastor of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia. She focused on transitions and transformations, the very things we say we want to be involved in and yet the very things we sabotage by not beginning with telling the whole truth. She told us that the paramount thing in dealing with reality is dealing with truth: no reality, no truth. One truth is that we do things the way we’ve always done them because it’s easy. Changing any habit, any process, anything takes effort and intention. It doesn’t just happen unless it is forced upon us by forces outside of our control (like a natural disaster or unanticipated illness or death). Just like our bodies where there’s no pill we can take that will help us lose weight without changing anything else in our lives, we have to deal with the fact that there’s no church pill. We have to put the work in to see transformation. And that work has to start with harsh, difficult painful reality.
One way to move towards transformation is to change our reactions and attitudes and language. What if we instead of saying “we can’t do that, we’ve never done it that way,” we changed our language and attitude. “We’ve never done it that way, I wonder what God is up to?!? What could God be doing in this new possibility, this new way, this change?”
Almost immediately after the plenary ended, many of us gathered across the street in a park to participate in a quarterly Baltimore Ceasefire Weekend. Because this is how the Spirit moves, Big Tent exactly coincided with this gathering which began several years ago as a response to the high rate of gun violence and death in Baltimore City. After gathering and beginning in prayer, we walked to the first of three stops. At each stop, we prayed, sang, and heard the names and details of the deaths of people killed by guns near that location.
It was, for me, a deeply emotional action. It was obvious and striking to see the stark line of poverty between the beautiful harbor area and the blocks we walked through, just a few streets away, where buildings were boarded up and everything pointed to systemic neglect. It was clear that the residents in the area recognized the Ceasefire signs we were carrying since many people said thank you when I met their eyes. I wasn’t sure what they were thanking me for. Lending my presence as a witness? Being willing to walk through an area where white people just don’t go, albeit with plenty of protection around me? Seeking to be aware of the reality of how systemic racism has such deep roots and such catastrophic impact?
And now, as I’m writing this on Saturday evening, the news of another horrific mass shooting in this country is all over the news. We don’t need to look any further than Rev. Barbee’s words to know why we are unwilling to tackle the epidemic of gun violence in this country. It is easier to do things the way we’ve always done them. The thousands of people killed by guns is not enough to sway us to do things differently. The children and young adults whose lives have been cut short are not enough to motivate us to do things differently. The way we have interpreted the second amendment of the constitution is a rock that we allow to block any effort to carve a new path for peace. One of the hashtags for the Ceasefire event is #NobodyKillAnybody and the goal is for no one to die by gun related violence on the Ceasefire weekends. I don’t know if Baltimore will reach that goal, but we all know that El Paso did not.