Monday, June 23, 2014

The Aftermath of General Assembly

Naturally after all of the controversial decisions, all of us have heard opinions related to said decisions made by General Assembly.

My mom read to me an article claiming that these decisions will shut down the Presbyterian Church (USA) for good. The article said, "It represents the faded vestige of a once distinguished religious body that indelibly shaped America. Rest in peace, PCUSA, and thanks for the memories." Honestly, I cannot see that. If anything, we're still shaping America.

While the decisions to divest from companies in the Middle East and to change the definition of marriage were both huge and controversial decisions, the PC(USA) is far from losing its vitality. Shortly after both of these decisions, Moderator Heath Rada lead us in prayer to ask God that folks will not feel abandoned. 

Following the decisions on same-sex marriage, we passed an overture for the Presbyterian Mission Agency to "engage in the process of working together with churches in the task of reconciliation, starting with visiting each presbytery and serving as a resource for each presbytery’s discussion of these actions in congregations and the presbytery at-large and present voices of reconciliation for the unity of the church" (see 10-NB).

Moreover, the closeness of the decision to divest from the Middle East companies (a seven vote difference!) shows how divided the church feels on that decision. Moreover, Heath Rada said immediately after the vote, "In no way is this a reflection of our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers” (See this NY Times article for a great interpretation of the proceedings).

After seeing all the various organizations at General Assembly, the energy of all the commissioners, advisory delegates, and observers, and the diversity, I have nothing but hope for the future of the PC(USA). The church has come up with new and creative ways to reach people, such as the 1001 worshipping communities and the Next Church movement. The Presbyterian Mission Agency has never been more active. 

Most of all, instead of young people leaving the church in droves, young people are becoming more and more involved. The number of young commissioners increased since the last General Assembly. The YAADs took an active part in the debates on the plenary floor. The Young Adult Volunteer program celebrated its 20th anniversary. While I believe we can do more to empower young people, we are off to a great start. 

Heralding back to our Scottish roots, we Presbyterians are fighters. Sure, our numbers aren't what they used to be, but we will not go down without a fight. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

My first major plenary frustration

I've stopped posting daily just because I feel like summing up the day is not super interesting for readers. If it is, let me know, and I'll go back to the old model.

Today is Friday and we've been in plenary since Wednesday afternoon voting on overtures and issues. Also today my committee, Environmental and Immigration Issues Committee, presented our overtures on the floor.

The contentious issue from my committee was fossil fuel divestment. Members from my committee submitted a report to commission a task force to work with the church's Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) permanent office. The people that the moderator called on did not call upon any advisory delegates who spoke in favor of the motion and instead called on a lot of people who did not know about the issue and did not serve on the committee.

My frustration was that I had a really well reasoned argument and did not get to speak. I'm going to post it here, because it'll make me feel better.
Thank you Mr. Moderator. My name is Rachel Miles from the Savannah Presbytery and I’d like to speak against the minority.

I do not feel that MRTI’s use has been exhausted. If we take action too quickly, then we lose our bargaining power with the fossil fuel companies. As the Board of Pensions said in their comment on the overture,  “Short-circuiting our well-established deliberative process and jumping ahead to immediate divestment may be seductive, but as a first step it would be an over-simplified solution. Divestment of securities should remain a remedial tool for MRTI as a part of its very responsible and historic processes.”
I would just like to say that I’m not entirely convinced that having a committee of seven would be particularly better than relying solely on MRTI. The representative from the PMA spoke with our committee and said that meeting in person would in fact have an associated cost, contrary to the statement in the minority report as my fellow YAAD mentioned. So why not use that associated cost for MRTI to contract a trained professional to work with the fossil fuel companies?  
I’ve always been passionate about preserving the environment, therefore I want to make sure that the way in which our church goes about doing it has been properly organized. I also believe that action must be taken as soon as possible, so I would urge MRTI to make this a high priority and keep those of us interested informed via e-mail and other such methods. 
To see the overture including the main motion, the minority report, and the referral click here.

Rather than hearing from the advisory delegates and committee members, the General Assembly heard from long-winded members on the Board of Pensions and MRTI who had already presented the same information to the committee. So instead of trusting the committee members to speak, the plenary heard from biased folks in those offices. I personally think that those who served on whichever committee has an overture on the floor should be given priority to speak, since they know the most about it.

The advisory delegates are only allotted two microphones on the floor from which we can speak. I feel that it decreases the chance that we will be able to voice our advice and opinions to the assembly, which we hear so often that they are valued and valid. Today, I did not feel that way.

A theological student advisory delegate (TSADs), following the vote on the overture from my committee, asked that the moderator attempt to recognize TSADs just as often as young adult advisory delegates (YAADs) because they have fewer people to represent their category. Maybe to ramify this, everyone can speak at any microphone that they choose rather than put advisory delegates in the back of the room.

Honestly, I was extremely surprised by how upset I got that I wasn't able to speak. For a while, I had no strong preference on the issue either way. Then, I articulated the way I felt and found that I was indeed passionate that my voice be heard. I apologize if I come off strong, but I truly feel that my colleagues and I lost our voice today.

The advisory delegates and committee members were not united in our beliefs, but we did not hear from the varying opinions today because we were in a hurry to finish business.

Sorry that this post is overwhelmingly negative. I love the PC(USA), but you can love something/someone and be irritated by them sometimes. Therefore, as I grow in faith and in this church, I will strive to make the voices of young people heard.

Thank you for bearing with me.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

On Marriage

If you had asked me four or five years ago, I would have been extremely uncomfortable with the idea of same-sex marriage or even against it. Many people still feel that way and I understand that because I was there once. Let me discuss how my opinions on this topic evolved over time.

Growing up in rural Georgia, I had basically no exposure to openly gay people, so as I graduated high school and attended Presbyterian College, multiple discussions gradually changed the way I began to think.

I think what truly changed my perspective was me writing a paper about homosexuality in the bible as extra credit for my freshman New Testament class. I thoroughly researched homosexuality in the Bible and read the opinions of scholars addressing the issue. I won't go into all of the details, but I'd like to bring up a few points.

Many people oppose same-sex marriage on the ground that it is a sin, or an abomination, as Leviticus would call it. What I've never understood is how we choose to ignore that eating pork, wearing clothing of multiple fabrics, or incorrectly using incense are also abominations. These sins do not disqualify heterosexuals to be members of a church, ordained as ministers and elders, or getting married. 

My grandfather is an ordained Presbyterian minister with a doctorate in divinity and historian. He has extensively studied this issue. He told me that when Paul argued against gay sex, it was very common in Rome for older men to take boys to their chambers and do what they wanted with them. 

Paul was very revolutionary for his time, but he also believed that Jesus was returning in his lifetime. Not to discount Paul, but I think we need to bear in mind a lot of what he wrote about was to instruct the early church to prepare for the second coming. 

Jesus never clearly states anything against homosexuality. What he does say again and again is to love one another, which is something we need to do as a church and denomination. So, most of all, I believe in love for all of our fellow human beings. The greatest commandment to us, found in both the Old and New Testament, is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself” found in Deuteronomy 6:5, Luke 10:27, Matthew 22:37, and Mark 12:30. 

Based off of this commandment, the authoritative guide to scripture in the PC(USA) is the rule of love, which says "any interpretation of Scripture is wrong that separates or sets in opposition love for God and love for fellow human being, including both love expressed in individual relations and in human community." (Presbyterian Use and Understanding of Holy Scripture and Biblical Authority and Interpretation, p. 10)

If I'm not clear by now, I support same-sex marriage. I have too many dear friends that would be devastated if this motion did not come to pass before the General Assembly. However, if you disagree, I also can see where you come from.

My hope is that, either way, that marriage will not divide our church even farther. It may be overly optimistic, but I think that we have more that unites us than divides us. Everyone has a place at God's table and I hope that everyone remembers that. 

UPDATE: The overtures on authoritative interpretation have all been passed, meaning that the paster can use her or his discretion on whether to perform same-sex marriage. Furthermore, the overtures on changing the definition of marriage in the Book of Order from marriage between "a man and a woman" to between "two people." This change, however, must be ratified by 2/3 vote of all the presbyteries. Needless to say, I'm so excited that I have been here for this decision and I am so pleased with the General Assembly's decision! 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Consent Agenda Pulled YACs

Several YAADs were excited about the overture to change Young Adult Advisory Delegates to Young Adult Commissioners. However, the overture was part of the consent agenda meaning that the overture was voted down with no discussion on the floor of plenary. After a discussion on twitter, I'd like to write a quick blog post about it and the rest of this post will be my opinion on all of this.

With the age discrepancy found among the YAADs, I think that it makes sense to have both YAADs and younger commissioners. Since young adults and youth also have ownership in the church, I think that there should definitely be more voting eligible representation of our generation in General Assembly. I met one person my age in my committee who is a Ruling Elder Commissioner, meaning that he is 21 and can vote in plenary proceedings.

We are all very passionate about our church and I personally would like the opportunity to vote at the next General Assembly or assemblies to come.

I don't think that the overture was written particularly well. It only allotted a small amount of young adults to become commissioners and it also sets a separate label on said commissioners. Furthermore, YAADs like remaining advisory delegates because they like that their opinion influences commissioners. Therefore, my conclusion after all of this is for the church to make an intentional effort to encourage young people to become ordained as elders and then serve as commissioners to future general assemblies.

If we truly believe that young people are the church and not the future of the church, I think we need to have more intentional dialogue about how we can make young adults a more integral part of the voting procedures. That's just me.

For those interested in viewing the overture, click here.

I welcome anyone's thoughts on this in the comment section. I am encouraged by the conversations on twitter about this matter and I think it's a great segway into more dialogue within the church.

Decently and in order...Maybe too much order.

Yesterday (Tuesday, June 17th) we wrapped up our committee business. We spent all day going over and over information, but didn't really get anywhere so it was extremely frustrating.

During the morning session, we heard presentations about the overture on divesting from fossil fuel companies. As the presentations progressed, I got increasingly more and more frustrated with the lack of relevant information to the overture. The presenters brought in pictures of their children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren and talked about how they wanted to save the Earth for them. Don't get me wrong, I want to save the environment for myself and my future family, but I knew all of that already. As a committee member, I wanted information about the ramifications or the benefits of divesting from the fossil fuel companies.

I've never been much of a detail oriented person, so spending all of this time going through procedure to amend these teensy details really frustrated me. Ultimately, we voted to refer the overture to the office of Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) whose job it is to work on issues of investment. However, many of the committee members wanted to add a comment saying how concerned we are with this issue and how we really want progress to be made as soon as possible.

A couple people suggested that the comment be taken from references in the overture. What they didn't realize is that the comment was EXACTLY the same as the main paragraph of the overture. The comment was a group's edit of the original overture. That probably didn't make sense, so let me explain what it would have looked like if this motion had been passed. You have an appeal, but then attached to the bottom of the appeal is a comment to clarify the appeal. Instead of the comment clarifying anything, the comment is the first paragraph of the main appeal. That makes no sense. So, after spending a lot of time discussing that comment, we used one that a committee member wrote.

I really enjoy editing and writing, but I don't like going around in circles to do it. I'd like to be quick and efficient about it. I think that's what frustrated me. We spent 45 minutes or so just arguing over one motion, just to vote it down. This happens in all committees. I suppose I'll have to get used to it though. I've got several more days of this in plenary.

Speaking of editing and writing, this morning I attended a breakfast sponsored by the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Staff members presented about the new Presbyterian hymnal and informed us about the various offices within the corporation. I enjoyed the presentation, but I enjoyed even more meeting the staff members after the formal presentation and finding out how they joined staff. Each person has a different story and skill set, which gives me hope for potentially applying for a job there in the future.

I'll post a separate blog post either later tonight or tomorrow about recovening for plenary.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Robert's Rules

All in all, this has been one of the less exciting days. The entire agenda for the day consisted of committee meetings.

My committee is Immigration and Environmental Concerns. I thought we would take less time than other committees because we only have four overtures. Nope. I think because we have less to work on, we have more to be picky about. So what went from being a short approval of an overture turned into a three hour long discussion that had to continue after lunch.

We follow Robert's Rules of Order in both plenary and the committee meetings. It gets real complicated really fast. I won't bore you with the details, but if you're interested in how it works follow this link.

Our first item of business was about "recognizing the Presbyterian Immigrant Defense Initiative to affirm and promote the civil and human rights of immigrants in our countries." Essentially, the Presbyterian Church would support trying to change immigration policies and procedures that infringe on basic rights of immigrants by hiring a person to coordinate that initiative. As controversial as that counts, the ensuing debate consisted mostly of people arguing over semantics.

Much of the rest of the day followed the same way. The other two issues we discussed had to do with sustainability statements. Tomorrow we will discuss divesting from fossil fuel companies.

We had open hearings for each overture where people could come in and talk to us about why they are for or against the overtures. One opposer to an overture tried to tell us that "sustainable development" is another way of saying abortion. So I didn't really understand that one. Most people had either well-researched arguments or personal stories to go along with their overtures, so I appreciated that.

I think divestment is a difficult issue. I'm not sure where I stand. I definitely agree that fossil fuel companies as a whole damage our environment and block companies that produce clean fuel. On the other hand, the Presbyterian Church pulling its funds from these companies would only serve as a political statement. It would not sway these companies. We don't have enough money invested for these companies to care one way or another. One advocate spoke about how she organized an activist group that ultimately got Harvard to threaten to divest from a company so that company made according changes. Well, Harvard has a huge endowment and is a larger stakeholder in said company than we are in these fossil fuel companies. That's my impression anyway.

Also, if these companies suffer, many people will lose jobs. Some would say, what's a few jobs in return for millions of human lives? Well, tell that to the people who are losing their jobs, who have to go home to their families and say that they have no way to feed them this year. It's difficult. This is not a clear cut issue for me.

Honestly, the highlights of my day were spending time with other people. I went to lunch and dinner with friends from PC in a part of Detroit called Greektown. For lunch, my roommate Molly and I ate at a delicious Greek restaurant with Brooklynn Smith, a PC alum who kind of adopted me while we were both at PC. I had some vegetarian moussaka and it was marvelous. For dinner, Molly and I ate with our friend Olivia at a Mexican restaurant. We had a lot of fun just blowing off steam from our stressful committee meetings.

After my committee meeting was over, I went to the bar in the hotel with a couple people from my committee meeting and we had a great time just chatting. I've loved all the people that I've met at General Assembly. That's something I love so much about the Presbyterian denomination, the sense of family and connectedness across the denomination. I'll always see someone I know from another Presbyterian event at some other Presbyterian event. We go our separate ways most of the time, but we always come back together at some point.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

"God loves you, and there's nothing you can do about it"--GA Day 2

Today, I celebrated worship at Fort Street Presbyterian Church in Detroit. The church was a few blocks away from our convention center, so many of us met at the center and walked over to the church. I tagged along with my roommate, Molly Smathers, and her presbytery who went together to that service since my presbytery kind of did their own thing for worship. Molly is from Jacksonville, so her presbytery neighbors mine and so it was almost like being with mine. But I digress.

Reflecting back on the service, I can honestly say that it was one of the best church services I have ever been to (not counting worship services at conferences). There were just so many things right going on in that service. Even though the service ran at almost two hours, I did not once wish I was somewhere else. I loved the liturgy.

The minister brought in a rabbi and a Muslim imam to speak, making the service interfaith. Coming from a very Southern, rural area, I haven't had a lot of experience with interfaith and I definitely want to experience it more. I want to be friends with the rabbi, her name is Rabbi Alissa Wise and she is really awesome. She works for peace and dialogue between faith traditions. She told us that in her faith tradition, each generation writes their own Torah. She hopes that this generation will write an "interfaith Torah where the rhetoric of inclusivity be the only words." How beautiful is that?

Imam Abdullah El-Amin spoke of how God has many names to different faith traditions, but all have the same creator. He pointed out that God created us differently to know one another and grow. He said, "life would be very boring if we were all the same." Both Imam Abdullah and Rabbi Alissa spoke to us in their religion's language--Arabic and Hebrew respectively. I thought it was beautiful to hear. I kind of wish our pastors would speak in Greek or Hebrew in services, they learn it in seminary after all.

The Reverend Sharon L. Mook thinks that Pentecost should be thought of as more of a season than just a one Sunday observance. She raised the question: "Was Pentecost a miracle of the ear or of the tongue?" That is, could everyone hear what the others were saying in their own language or did everyone speak other languages? Essentially, she said that listening to each other is the message of Pentecost.

The special music during the offertory consisted of children performing from the Open Door ministries, a program that provides enrichment to the lives of underprivileged children. The kids used hand motions and lip synced along to a recording. It sounds super cheesy, but the joy and earnestness on the kids' faces made it a beautiful performance.

Also, I really loved the doxology that Rev. Mook used and how she introduced the Lord's Prayer. The doxology was to the tune of "All Creatures of Our God and King," with lyrics similar to the traditional one, but consisting of inclusive language. She introduced the Lord's Prayer by encouraging folks to say the prayer in whichever language is most comfortable and by saying that forgives us our "debts," "trespasses," and "sins" are all fine and left it up to the individual person. She then starting the prayer saying either "Lord God" or "Holy God" and then stepping back from the mic which allowed for people to say the Lord's Prayer however they chose.

As you can tell, I loved this service.

Once the service ended, I went with Molly and her presbytery to lunch. I really enjoyed meeting them (they're a fun group) and actually learned a lot about our denomination from them. I guess that's what happens when you get Presbyterians together--you talk church history. One man from Puerto Rico used to be in charge of all the Latin American missions and coordinated the churches. I'd like to research Presbyterianism in Latin America more.

After church and lunch, we convened back at the convention center for plenary. In plenary, we discussed modern day discrimination, installed Larissa Kwong Abazia as the vice moderator, recognized missionaries, learned more about the Belhar confession, considered synod reconfiguration, reflected on immigration policies, and discussed changing ordination standards. Once we finished that, we had dinner and then went to our committee meetings for the first time.

My committee is Environmental and Immigration Issues. Tonight we just introduced ourselves and approved the agenda. We began to become acquainted with parliamentary procedure (which I already know from YAAD orientation and being in a sorority for three years). I'm hoping that the future committee meetings won't take as long as tonight, but that hope will probably be for naught. It's crazy how many different opinions people can have about issues. We didn't even talk about any of the overtures and already people were bringing up a lot of varying concerns.

Tomorrow and Tuesday will be full of committee meetings. Wednesday is when we'll reconvene for plenary to vote on the big stuff. Wish all of us luck!

Hope Abounding: GA Day 1

Before I get too far behind, I'd like to go ahead and post what I meant to post yesterday.

Yesterday (June 14th), was the official start to General Assembly. We began with a wonderful worship service which consisted of beautiful music and an excellent sermon by the moderator of the 220th General Assembly, Neal Presa. When I say beautiful music, I mean varied and diverse music with a choir, an orchestra, bagpipes, and worship leaders. Neal Presa spoke about unity within our denomination by bringing the focus back on Jesus. He reminded us that we all share the love of Christ because, as hard as we try, "only God can make things right."

At the beginning of the day, I received a rainbow scarf from a group called More Light Presbyterians, who represent the interests of the LGBTQ community. At first, I was nervous to wear it because I thought it would make me be seen as unapproachable. However, so many people have been wearing them that they represent more of a recognition of love for all people, rather than a political movement.

After lunch, the exhibit hall absolutely drained my introvert batteries. I'll have to be more careful about that in the future. The room just had so many people that it wore me out real fast. With a schedule so packed, it becomes really easy to forget to take care of one's basic needs. I'm learning that I'll just need to excuse myself sometimes and go off on my own.

Our first plenary session was not very exciting--it was a lot of going over procedure which the YAADs had done already. I think because I am an older YAAD (the age range is from 17-23, which is quite an age gap), I feel a little frustrated that we had an entire day booked from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. with essentially no breaks to cover information that we would learn the next day in plenary. Perhaps the concern is that YAADs will be under more of a spotlight than than the commissioners. I guess I just wish that we had gone on a tour of Detroit rather than having so many group sessions. That could have been our home group activity instead!

The second plenary session, on the other hand, where we voted on the moderator for the assembly was extremely exciting. We had a lot of technical difficulties; the most aggravating of which was when the advisory delegates were forced to raise hands to advise the commissioners on their choice for moderator. I really did not like being forced to show my choice for candidate--I much prefer remaining anonymous.

Honestly, all of the moderator candidates were impressive, but Heath Rada, the one who was ultimately elected, impressed me the most. He seems like just what the church needs--someone openminded, yet whose goal is to keep the church as whole as possible. He's also very well qualified and equipped for the job and his vice moderator brings to the table whatever Heath lacks. They make a very complementary team.

For more constant updates on the goings on at General Assembly, look me up on Twitter @RachelMiles6. Also, sorry this is so poorly written, I'm too exhausted to edit very well and I'm trying to keep y'all updated.

Friday, June 13, 2014

#GA221 and YAAD Orientation

Hello readers!

It has been quite a while, as you can see, since my last blog post. I'm afraid that during the school year, I really lose track of time and struggle to find time for my hobbies. I usually have to pick one and abandon the others until the summer, if I have time then.

Currently, I am sitting in my hotel room at in Detroit, Michigan for the 221st gathering of the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s General Assembly. For you non-Presbyterians, it is basically our church's government system and we meet every two years to decide important issues that impact our denomination as a whole (fun fact: the U.S. government's democratic model is based off of ours, so there's that).

My capacity at this General Assembly is a Young Adult Advisory Delegate, or YAAD. After applying for this position two other times, let's just say that I am thrilled to finally be selected to represent my presbytery and be part of all the action.

So I arrived in Detroit yesterday and today has been an action packed orientation for YAADs. Already, I can tell that this will be a crazy, wonderful, chaotic, and, most importantly, Christ-filled experience. I believe that I will grow both as a person and in my faith through this experience.

During orientation, we learned about parliamentary procedure, appropriate behavior, other people, and just how to be YAADs. Part of the day, we split into four smaller groups, called home groups, based on the committees to which we are assigned. I enjoyed the home groups because it provided the opportunity to interact more closely with other YAADs and provided us a home base, so to speak.

Also, multiple different organizations within the PC(USA) came to talk to us, such as seminaries, service groups, and non-profits. As a rising senior looking for options after graduation, I was thrilled to find out about other opportunities in the church. However, it did make me think more about we define the role of people my age in the church.

I've always cared to an extent about my generation having a voice, but I never realized it so acutely as I did today. As a student at Presbyterian College and an active Montreat attendee, I have often heard that young people are the present of the church and thus have an active role in shaping the church. So I consider myself fortunate in that. However, I have also heard the concern be raised that young people are losing interest in the church and that something must be done to reach them. Perhaps that is true, but I don't have the data to know one way or another.

In my opinion the goal of the church should not be talking about bringing in young people or talking to young people about their importance, but rather talking with us, the young people, about the church--about what's next and what's now.

I think sometimes young people receive too much of a distinction when really we just want to be included. Rather than putting us into a different category, I believe young people just want to be an integrated part of the church body.

I remember the first time that I truly felt like my voice was heard by other church leaders. I was one of the youngest youth members to be selected for the 2010 Design Team for the Presbyterian Youth Triennium, a nationwide youth conference that happens every three years. At our first meeting, we all discussed at length ideas for the theme. When I contributed my ideas and opinions, I truly felt that everyone in the room (from the "grown ups" to the other youth) took what I, a fifteen year old sophomore in high school, had to say.

My point? We of all ages can work together to shape our church today. The YAAD orientation today really reminded me how passionate I am about letting all voices be heard and that I have great hope for our denomination in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.

I'll try to keep this updated as the week progresses with a little summary of the proceedings along with a personal reflection.