Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Reflections on Day 5 - Part 1: History and Tears

As I was stepping off the light rail from the Convention Center where the General Assembly is being held to the Doubletree Hotel where I am staying, I heard someone humming "We Shall Overcome." As I looked around, I noticed the song was coming from a white, female YAAD (Young Adult Advisory Delegate) of about 19 or 20.

It was the perfect summary of this day in the Presbyterian Church.

It is hard to overstate either the significance or the emotional impact of today's Assembly actions. Tonight at about 8:45 p.m. Portland time - 5:45 a.m. tomorrow morning in Cape Town - the General Assembly ratified the Confession of Belhar as the 12th confessional document of the church, by a vote of 540-33. The Confession of Belhar, which emerged from the experience of South African apartheid, is a powerful statement of unity, reconciliation, and justice.

The culmination of a ten year review and ratification process in the PCUSA, the formal adoption of the confession was a foregone conclusion after its ratification by the presbyteries last year, but the action still carried the significance of a "kairos moment" - a spiritual watershed in the life of the church - that left many in tears of celebration, myself included. People sang and danced to the South African liberation anthem "Freedom Is Coming"; Godfrey Betha, the clerk ("Assessor") of the Uniting Reformed Church of South Africa, addressed the Assembly: "I bow in humility before God

and thankfulness to you.... You have made history today.... It is a defining moment for the PCUSA - A historic moment of truth. You have allowed Belhar to enter the DNA of your denomination."

Later, Allan Boesak, a leading Reformed theologian, one of the authors of Belhar in the early 1980's, and a leader of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa in that day, described the moment when the Confession was adopted in South Africa in 1986, At that time, Vernon Broyles, a leader of the Civil Rights movement in the former Southern church represented the PCUSA, and promised Boesak, who moderated the convention, "We shall overcome." Boesak continued tonight, "We may not know what tomorrow may bring, but I know this - tonight, we have overcome; I know this - because of Jesus, we shall overcome; I know this - whatever may come in our world... we shall overcome." And a spontaneous song of "We Shall Overcome" swept over the Assembly.

And now, 30 years later, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has acknowledged that the Confession proclaims a standard of belief and behavior by which we choose to define ourselves.

The YAAD humming "We Shall Overcome" on the light rail platform is the perfect symbol of the church's action today. Today, the PCUSA moved into the 21st century. It defined itself as a global church in solidarity with the poor, marginalized, and oppressed of the world, not as benefactor or colonist, but as a partner and learner. The YAAD was born more than 30 years after the Freedom Riders, the March on Washington, and the violence of Selma. She was born 20 years after Soweto. At her birth, Nelson Mandela was five years out of prison and the sitting President of South Africa. But she has a different set of experiences: Ferguson, Charleston, and Orlando among them. And she can tell others who ask what her church has to say about racism, violence, and discrimination that her church believes
that the church must ... stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream; that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.
And, God willing, she will see that church grow into the faith it confesses.

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