“Holy One, we give you thanks for the gift of our feet! They have taken us to many places–places of celebration, places of sorrow, places of beauty, and places that challenge our understanding. Give us rest, we pray, that we may recuperate and arise refreshed and ready to walk in solidarity with your people again tomorrow.
These were the words that the walkers prayed each night of the PCUSA Walk for a Fossil Free World from June 1-15, and words that I have continued to pray almost daily since. Over the last few months, our metaphorical and literal feet have taken us to places of joy and sorrow, beauty and challenge. The General Assembly’s vote not to divest from fossil fuels but to continue engaging with fossil fuel companies for another two years was profoundly disappointing (more on that later). However, we also had so many reasons to celebrate at this 223rd General Assembly in St. Louis.
Perhaps the greatest reason for celebration was apart from GA policies passed–it was that on the Tuesday June 19 hundreds of Presbyterians marched in an unpermitted action in the streets of St. Louis to the jail to deliver over $40,000. This money was raised specifically to be used as bail money for people who are sitting in jail even though they have not been convicted; they are imprisoned simply because they are too poor to pay the bail. As we marched in the afternoon heat, we chanted “End cash bail!” The action was led by local Black Lives Matter activists and others and was the first time that a General Assembly has included such a direct action as a body. It was truly a marker of a Matthew 25 Church, the expression of faith approved by the 222nd General Assembly that called upon the PCUSA to “recommit ourselves at the congregational level, the mid council level, and the national levels of our church to locate ourselves with the poor, to advocate with all of our voice for the poor, and to seek opportunities to take risks for and with the poor.” Our work is not done, but this was certainly a step in the process of always becoming a Matthew 25 church.
As always, a large part of the work of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship was to closely track several overtures related to peace and justice, support commissioners’ resolutions, and support the process at GA through talking with and listening to commissioners and giving testimony during open hearings. Overall, the General Assembly voted repeatedly on the side of justice in the ways that PPF had hoped that we outlined in our GA newsletter. We were so encouraged to see how fully the General Assembly embraced opportunities to affirm both the LGBTQIA community and Palestinian rights–both movements that were controversial even 4 years ago, and now it seems like our denomination understands its place and role as one of solidarity with the most marginalized.
On issues that we at PPF were most directly involved with, the General Assembly also took prophetic stances on affirming PCUSA policy on conscientious objection and expanding resources available to young people discerning their views on war, on affirming the PCUSA’s stance in support of nuclear disarmament, on condemning gun violence and encouraging congregations to take action to prevent gun violence, and on condemning the violence in Syria. Once at GA, PPF also supported commissioners’ resolutions condemning the state violence in Nicaragua against protestors as well as the separation of families at the US southern border.
On environmental issues, the General Assembly voted on overtures condemning environmental racism and encouraging Presbyterian individuals and congregations to engage on the issue of climate change. PPF and Fossil Free PCUSA together supported these overtures and we were very happy to see that these were issues that were not controversial for commissioners. Where controversy did arise was over the question of whether our denominational commitments to working for climate justice should include immediate categorical divestment or whether, as MRTI and others were advocating for, we should wait and continue engaging with the fossil fuel companies.
In the environmental issues committee, the commissioners voted 35-20 in favor of immediate categorical divestment. They heard from many of the folks who had walked to the GA in St. Louis from Louisville as part of the PCUSA Walk for a Fossil Free World, they heard from Overture Advocates from several of the 40 presbyteries who concurred with the overture, they heard from people on the front lines of climate change, and they heard from others who know that time is up for us to continue engaging with companies whose business is built on a product that is destroying our world.
The work of the committee was presented strongly to the plenary by the committee leadership. However, after hearing unlimited advocacy on behalf of the minority report (in favor of continued engagement, drafted by MRTI) from one member of the committee as well as a member of MRTI, the plenary voted to make the substitute motion the main motion and then passed that. Despite commissioners’ own moving testimonies and their best efforts to bring in stories from the Overture Advocates and others who had been moving to the committee, the voices of MRTI, the Board of Pensions, and the Foundation carried a lot of weight (and received unlimited time), and the plenary ultimately voted to stay engaged with these companies for another two years.
Once we realized that the assembly was not going to vote to divest, those of us who had been involved in the advocacy for divestment left the plenary to pray together and then stage a die-in outside the plenary doors so that as commissioners came and went on breaks and to dinner they would hopefully see and understand that they had missed an important chance to stand in solidarity with frontline communities who are already experiencing climate change. Between now and the next opportunity for our denomination to divest, 10 million people will die from climate-change-related deaths, while the PCUSA will continue to have a “seat at the table” of the very companies who are most responsible for climate change, who have lied for decades after they knew the effects of fossil fuels on the climate, and whose primary motive is profit, not people.
So over the next weeks and months, Fossil Free PCUSA and PPF will be in conversation about where to go from here, how to continue advocating for divestment and working for climate justice in our beloved denomination. Because even though the GA dropped the ball on this one, our calling to repent for our sins against each other and work for the care of and justice for all God’s creation, including people, has not and will never change.
Our prayer is as relevant now as it was each night of the Walk: Holy One, we give you thanks for the gift of our feet! They have taken us to many places–places of celebration, places of sorrow, places of beauty, and places that challenge our understanding. Give us rest, we pray, that we may recuperate and arise refreshed and ready to walk in solidarity with your people again tomorrow.
Below is more detailed information about the handful of overtures that PPF was directly involved in writing and/or advocating for or against, and the accompanying graphic shows how the GA voted on all the overtures that PPF was following.
The efforts to limit the number of Theological Student Advisory Delegates (TSADs) (03-11) and Overture Advocates (OAs) (03-19) were either defeated or amended in ways that maintain the number of these important GA roles. However, the assembly did approve an overture (03-13) that prohibits Overture Advocates from speaking during open hearing, even if they were not able to speak to the overture they were sent to advocate for, thus limiting the voice and participation of OA’s.
PPF was following most closely the overture On Support of Peace Churches in the PC(USA) (09-03), which passed and affirms the Peace Discernment Process and the work that individual congregations have done, as well as the PCUSA stance on conscientious objection. This overture also encourages the Peacemaking Program to create a curriculum that “explores the full spectrum of biblical and Reformed theological thinking concerning war to help young adults discern their position on war and violence before registering with the Selective Service System for possible military conscription as required by federal law.” We also closely followed the overture affirming the PCUSA position supporting nuclear disarmament (09-08), which was approved.
The assembly approved the creation of a mission co-worker position in the whole region of Central America (09-04) but amended the overture so that it does not include a staff position in the US to focus on immigration reform; An overture on a Resolution to Advocate for the Human Rights of All Citizens of Yemen (09-05) was approved and acknowledges the US’s role in the war in Yemen and calls upon the PCUSA to advocate for a political–not military–solution (including an end to military support to Saudi Arabia, who is responsible for much of the bombing). Commissioners’ resolutions were approved denouncing the state violence in Nicaragua and another condemning the separation of families at the US southern border.
PPF celebrated the passage of all the overtures that were approved by the General assembly, with special attention to the overture On Praying for a Movement of the Spirit to Engage Presbyterian Congregations in Nation-Wide Action to Prevent Gun Violence (11-14) that specifically mentions PPF’s work and the report 2010 GA report Gun Violence and Gospel Values; we also celebrate with specialmention to the GA’s overwhelming support for LGBTQIA persons. From our friends at MoreLight Presbyterians: “Overtures 11-12 and 11-13 lamented the mistreatment of LGBTQIA+ persons in both Church and society, celebrated those on whose shoulders we stand, and enabled offices of the PC(USA) to advocate on behalf of the lives of LGBTQIA+ persons in the halls of power. Overtures 11-04 and 11-15 spoke to the growing misuse and abuse of religious liberty claims to justify discrimination against marginalized persons. The PC(USA) has long affirmed religious freedom but will not tolerate religion as a means of restricting freedom. With a unison chorus the PC(USA) is now an affirming church, celebrating LGBTQIA+ persons serving in the life of the church, and the full humanity and dignity of transgender and non-binary persons and those of all gender identities.” You can read more about these new policies from MLP.
In the Middle East Committee, PPF was supportive of the overture on Responding to the Current Syrian Crisis (12-09), which passed with amendments.Additionally, all of the overtures in support of Palestinian rights were approved. We applaud the work of the committee, the assembly, our friends at the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, and other partners who came to advocate. We wholeheartedly celebrate the assembly’s approval of all of these overtures and nuancing of others is and see it as a new chapter in the PC(USA)’s solidarity with and support of all who seek a just resolution to the occupation of Palestine. You can read more about the Palestine-related overtures in the post-GA report from IPMN.
Theological and Church Growth Issues
PPF supported the overture to Adopt the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” written by the Rev. Dr. MLK Jr., as a Contemporary Statement of Faith (14-05) and was pleased that the Assembly voted to take it a step further and begin the process of considering this letter to be included in the Book of Confessions.