Why I joined PPF... and the PC(USA): A Presbyterian Conversion Story

This past June, I had the opportunity of a Presbyterian lifetime to attend General Assembly in Portland, Oregon as an intern with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. As interns, PPF welcomed us into the fold of the multi-generational, often rambunctious crew that became like family. The old-timers showed us the ropes of advocacy and the tedious details of commissioners’ resolutions. The young adults taught us to stake a claim in the conversations on the church’s identity, racial injustice, and divestment. The week of testimony was as close to seeing the church being re-formed as I could imagine.

As a new kid on the PPF scene, the prophetic voices of Rick Ufford-Chase (former co-moderator of the General Assembly), Emily Brewer (current PPF co-director), and others taught me what is at stake for our denomination. We are at the nexus of a new identity dilemma. Rick and Emily taught me that a church that is small and fierce is preferable to a church tied to the dominant culture, complicit in the world’s injustices.

Their approach to denominational identity was not about filling the empty pews, but filling empty rites and rituals with the sacred acts of peacemaking.

I joined PPF because, as an organization, it is willing to take risks. It takes positions that are unpopular for the sake of obedience to the gospel. For the sake of solidarity with the marginalized. For the re-forming of our own conscience and privilege. In light of a challenging sermon by Rev. Sekou, PPFers taught me to ask the question: What are we willing to give up? Are we willing to give up the power and status born of white supremacy in a racist society? Are we willing to risk our 501(c)(3) status to give sanctuary to undocumented immigrants? Are we willing to give up sitting in our air-conditioned buildings to house worship in the streets of Black Lives Matter protests? Are we willing to meet Jesus where he would have us meet him - in relationships with LGBT homeless youth and Syrian refugees? As a church, are we willing to give up our silk-stocking ties to the Empire and welcome Jesus as our prophet and King?

When I came to Davidson College, I knew as much about the Reformed Tradition as I knew about astrophysics - next to nothing, apart from what can be guessed by the name. As I developed relationships with my professors and chaplain, however, I was introduced to the church through the lens of solidarity. Attending a Presbyterian Church-related college led me to seek out organizations like PPF, who I view as carrying out the gospel’s call on the ground. It also led me, two months before General Assembly, to join the church.

It is worth noting that I was Quaker before becoming Presbyterian - which often elicits the question, why? Why, of all denominations, would you become affiliated with the “dying” Presbyterian Church (USA)? Thanks to my experience at General Assembly, I learned why I am committed to this family: 

  • Presbyterian Borderlinks Delegation to U.S. Mexico BorderWe are a church committed to solidarity. The PPF-sponsored overture “On Choosing to be a Church Committed to the Gospel of Matthew 25” reminded me that the PC(USA) has historically chosen the path of non-violent resistance in order to stand with the poor and marginalized. I take courage from the witness of mission co-workers in regions of conflict who do the work of accompaniment on a daily basis.
  • We are a church of repentance. Taking heed from Calvin that we live in total depravity, we confess our sin and keeps us from living as God would have us live. In the words of Aric Clark, “We are the ones who should not be surprised to learn that we got it wrong,” that we need to be reformed in order to live up to our calling. If there is any group that should be turned around, it is us. It gives me hope that we have a built-in language of repentance. We have the gift of being converted again and again toward God’s act of reconciliation.
  • Micah 6:8We are a church boldly engaging the text and the world. I learned from my Religion and Anthropology professors that God’s Word is to be held in reverent conversation with God’s world. We are to read the text in light of its own context and our own -- so that the world can impact our reading of Jesus and let Jesus inform our reading of the world. It is this dialogic understanding of scripture that allows me to find nourishment, dynamism, and reflective power in God’s living Word.
  • We are a church of confessions. Our re-formation over time has allowed us to include statements of the faithful informed by their particular circumstances from Westminster to Belhar. We believe that God continues to speak to us today, encouraging the re-articulation of our faith as the Spirit emboldens to take a stand. I take heart knowing that our confessions do not agree with one another; rather, they demonstrate the importance of challenging the politics of our era against the litmus test of scripture. Our varied confessions also allow us to approach theological disagreements with greater respect and humility.
  • We are a church with a changing face. We are no longer the whitebread body of Scottish descendents we once were. While at General Assembly, I heard one speaker boldly proclaim: “I take offense with the language that we belong to an Abrahamic heritage. We do not all possess the same lineage here.” The newly elected leadership of the PC(USA) show me that our church is taking a step in the right direction, though representation is not enough to claim we are a diverse church. As Rev. Sekou reminded us, the question is not, “How can we attract more people of color?” but rather, “What blow are we striking against white supremacy?” Our answer to this question will determine the vitality of our church in the future.
  • We are a church committed to interfaith partnership. Some of the friendships I formed at General Assembly were with Palestinian Quakers and Muslims who came to guide our church toward just peace in Israel and Palestine. Ilearned from these relationships that our Reformed tradition asks us to step outside of the PC(USA) bubble in order to learn of God’s Spirit at work in the world. Our Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Jewish, and atheist neighbors have understandings of justice and community that we need in order to pursue the common good. As I begin my job as an interfaith educator at Davidson College, I am encouraged by my Chaplain Rob Spach that we are committed to pluralism not in spite but because of our Presbyterianism. We are the church of Jesus Christ whose Spirit is at work in the world, and we are asked to follow with the guidance of others outside of our faith tradition.

Interfaith Club at Davidson College

From prophetic credal statements to interfaith partnerships for non-violent resistance, I find myself in awe of the capacity of the church to be made new. I am also in awe of God’s Spirit at work in my own story, drawing me into a community of believers that I now call my family. I joined the PC(USA) because I found a home within the movement for non-violence, peace, and justice. The PPF is a movement that the church needs in order to clarify and embolden its witness. Likewise, we need the institutional church to carry the message of Jesus Christ through our traditions of confession, interpretation, and proclamation. In the words of Brian McLaren, "I think institutions are tremendously important. I just think institutions constantly need movements knocking at the door to challenge them to take the next step forward."

This General Assembly was one step in the long journey of my Presbyterian conversion. Following Portland, I am encouraged by the Spirit at work in my own story and the story of our denomination. Should our hope be anything less than the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom, I trust groups like PPF to remind us that we are not walking this journey for ourselves, but for the sake of all God’s children and creation. We are the prophets of a future not our own, in the words of Bishop Ken Untener. And we are walking the long road not just for social justice, but for the greatness of a God who became flesh and walked with us. 

Following General Assembly, I am recommitted to be a Presbyterian living by conversion. This, I believe, is the hope in our calling -- to become more like Christ, in word and deed and flesh, to let the gospel be unleashed in our witness, and to be bound together as one body in the process.

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