Saturday, July 7, 2012

Gears, Forks, and Grease: Conspiring in the Spirit with Church Polity.


           Never did I think I would be learning “Roberts Rules” on Presbyterian Church polity and process, and on top of that, actually engage in it with enthusiasm. I took up the opportunity to be an intern at this years PC(USA) General Assembly with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. Though I’m in my last year of a three year term as a “Ruling Elder” on my church Council, a union church of Presbyterians and Methodist, I’ve never considered myself much of a “Presbyterian”, but the chance to engage the church in questioning the status quo and advocating for a more equal, just, and peaceable church, denominational or not, has been heavy on my heart for a few years now.

Reconciling and Reluctant
            After a falling out with "organized" religion when I was a teen, due to some heavy scandals in my home church, I swore that church politics were the tool of everything that was wrong with the church. I had seen it condemn instead of welcome, push away instead of invite, manipulate instead of be transparent, continually spend money on buildings rather than share with those in need, and I was convinced anywhere church people got together in their cathedrals and conventions, something more of that nature was guaranteed to be the order of business.  My reconciliation began to take hold the first day I walked into the Church I now serve, Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community located in Pittsburgh, about 7 years ago. It was a brand new church at that time, about 30 members, and without hesitation, they welcomed me along with some ragtag friends with open arms. they didn't interrogate us on whether we were truly saved or not; the opposite reaction happened often due to our appearance bearing many piercings, tattoos, and tattered clothing. In fact, without having to “prove” ourselves, we were encouraged to participate to whatever capacity we desired and they had need. Before we knew it, we were helping with music, drama, sharing our story, and serving in anything we could get our hands on. As our church grew in people and experience, I saw something so different in that place than I had seen anywhere else in the arenas of church: trusting, transparent, invitational participation and leadership.  When I was asked 3 years ago to join the “Elders” on council, I was still dealing with the bitterness I held towards church politics and leadership. I wrestled with what I had previously thought and what I was currently apart of, and was faced with a decision. I had told my pastors I needed a solid month to discern how I felt, because of my wrestling heart. They came a week later and told me jokingly that I didn’t have a choice other than yes, so I took them seriously and reluctantly gave it a shot. It has been one of the greatest decisions I have made, for I have found myself on the most beautiful journey of reconciliation of Christ’s body. With all it’s diversity of members I have been learning so much of what it means to be a servant leader in the way of Christ, through the example set by our humble pastors and the open dialog and consensus of our council.

Conspiring with “Robert”
            So, this week, with this new opportunity with the Peace Fellowship at the GA here in Pittsburgh, I found myself working in another kind of church political sphere. I was working as a "committee liaison" on the committee for Social Justice Issues. In the Presbyterian political process, though I don’t have a vote at GA, I can participate as an observer and organizer. We had a full docket of proposals and overtures with statements, recommendations, and actions to be taken on a slew of topics that I, and my co-conspirators, found very valuable and important. Several items such as statements in support of the Occupy movement, the housing crisis, economic injustice, racial ethnic concerns on incarceration, EPA, workers rights, with actions and educational materials to follow. We saw some small but loud oppositional arguments with tactics of misdirection and confusion. With few amendments in the spirit of consensus, the docket was passed by a large majority with overwhelming support. the only exception was an Overture in the committee on the non-investment of for-profit prisons. It was not “approved”, not “referred” for more study, and then just barely “disapproved” by a 25 to 23 vote. After the confusion and eventual dissaproval ended our meeting for the evening it was time to work overtime. we conspired In a discussion with supportive commissioners, the rotational, elected Presbyterians with a vote at GA, on how to overturn this disapproval; we had to act to overturn the motion towards reconciling justice. Through the “Roberts Rules” we had two options, either submit a “minority report” to be discussed on the floor of the whole GA during "plenary", or to find another commissioner who had spoken in favor of disapproval to “reconsider” the disapproval motion in committee. Due to the notes taken by us observers during the committee session, we were able to locate a commissioner who might be our ally. The following morning right before the start of the last day of committee sessions, we were quick to have a commissioner supportive to our cause. After some quick discussion to the commissioner on the information we felt was lacking, he started the new motion first thing. The committee needed a 2/3 vote in support of reconsideration, and their was an overwhelming consensus that it was desired. After the new motion to again try and approve the overture, and without much discussion, there was a TSAD (theological student advisory delegate) who motioned to delay the new approval motion till after lunch so that supportive persons could spend time over lunch to compile their thoughts and make a better presentation; the motion was passed, and that’s exactly what happened. With a couple commissioners, a group of about 6 TSAD's, YAAD’s (young adult advisory delegate), the "Overture Advocate", and a few of us co-conspirators we sat through the hour and a half lunch break to do some serious overturning, as if justice in our denomination depended on it! With lots of prayer, a food run, laughing, and seriousness we all collaborated in such a beautiful way the newly revised overture. After lunch it was time to make the move; a young man of color who hadn’t spoke on the committee floor yet, rose to speak, and eloquently articulated the new motion, and with the explanation spoken well, it was then time to see if there was any opposition. The room fell silent as no word rose against it; it was time to vote. After tallying up the hands in support and opposition, the count came to 40 in favor, 9 against. The new motion passes! One of the commissioners who helped spearhead the reconsideration rose to speak after the motion passed. He started to address the committee and observers, and choked through overwhelming emotion and tears. He made note that this couldn’t have passed without the amazing teamwork and enthusiasm especially emulating from the passionate TSAD's and YAAD’s. “This is the future of our church, and it gives me so much hope” spoke the commissioner, as a loud applause resounded in the room. Sitting next to a fellow Peace Fellowship worker and the Overture Advocate, we all couldn’t fight the tears of joy as we saw the beauty of the young people who will lead our churches in years to come, full of passion for justice and equality in our church and the world in which we must interact. Praise be to the homeless, criminal, suffering servant, in which we follow, Jesus Christ!

The Progress of Hope
            It doesn’t always turn out with tears of joy, for it was the following day that I cried tears of sorrow as our church failed to make the strong stand against the apartheid occupation of Palestinian land by the State of Israel, by choosing not to divest from American companies, in which PC(USA) has invested stock in pensions/ 401k’s, which profit from the occupation. Despite the lack and delay of progress and action on some of the issues I care about, I still have hope. I got to see for the first time the gears of one of the expressions of the modern church in action. There was a time when I never thought I would engage in the inter-workings of the institutional church, but I’ve seen beauty despite its failures. There are forks and grease in these gears, and I no longer believe the systems we use are inherently wrong, but, to echo one of my favorite theologians, the late Walter Wink; these systems are fallen, just as we are, and they need healed, as do we. We need to engage the “Powers that be” in order to reconcile them. The church can be a “Power that be” if it aligns itself with empire and privilege. I can no longer watch as the church, the body of Christ on earth, falls short of it’s call to be the prophetic witness of the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven; where the lame walk, the blind see, and the captives are set free. We are making progress. We are awakening from the long sleep that emperor Constantine seduced us into. So it is with this hope and enduring love for the church that we must slowly, painfully remove the forks which hinder, and add the grease of the Spirit to these gears, but that means first stepping into the machine, and then inviting it into resurrection.