On Monday, at our denominational General Assembly, the various committees had the opportunity to hear testimony from individuals about the decisions they faced. Because of my location and the concerns in my local congregation, I stood before the Social Justice Committee (#9) to speak about an overture which would move our denomination into active engagement in seeking legislation and providing pastoral care on behalf of victims of gun violence. The Presbyterian News Service reported that among other things, the Assembly’s action calls for:

  • formation of support, healing and advocacy groups for those who have experienced gun violence in their families;
  • opposition to legislation that exempts gun manufacturers and marketers from legal liability and/or financial accountability for the medical and security costs of predictable gun misuse and availability to criminals, the unstable, and the self-destructive;
  • opposition to “stand your ground” and other legislation that may entitle gun owners to shoot before taking alternative measures (such as relying on law enforcement and/or other de-escalation techniques) in perceived defense of persons or property;
  • encouraging church sessions and PC(USA) entities that own property to declare their particular premises and gatherings to be gun-free zones;
  • raising the age for handgun ownership to 21;
  • supporting legislation to ban semiautomatic assault weapons, armor-piercing handgun ammunition and .50-caliber rifles; and
  • advocacy in support of state and federal legislation to regulate ammunition.

Here is my testimony:

My name is Debra Avery. I’m the pastor of one of many First churches – mine is a smallish congregation in Oakland, CA.

I’m here because on too many Sundays somebody will share a prayer in worship for a neighbor who has been a victim of a shooting. I’m here because one of my necessary daily routines is to google Oakland shootings.

I’m here because Since I arrived on Friday, five people under the age of 35 have been shot in my city. One of the shootings about 12 blocks from my church.

I’m here because these children have been shot and killed:
A 15 year old high school girl,
an 8 year old girl playing in her front yard,
a 3-year-old boy AND his mother waiting for a bus,
a 2-year-old boy just watching TV with his mother.
All killed with semiautomatic handguns.

In May alone, in East Oakland, there were 151 shooting incidents. And though many of those incidents were victimless, the community itself is the victim of traumatic stress as parents and grandparents wonder if their child will be next. Our young people are dying. And I want my church to speak powerfully into that pain.

So many here can cite these kinds of statistics. And that might make you feel so overwhelmed that whatever the PCUSA might do is pointless…that our voice is too small…or that it’s too political…too isolated to a few urban centers…or that as a gun owner you just can’t support this work.

But for the people who worship at my church and who live in my city, what we say as a denomination matters. When my folks stand to talk about yet another shooting it will matter to them what you’ve done here this week. When they can’t sleep well because they hear gunshots in rapid succession, it will matter. I urge you to approve 9-01.

Yesterday, my friend Rev. Jim Moss wrote a Facebook post which indicated he believed our denomination (PCUSA) is in its death throes. He shared his hope that at our most recent General Assembly, we would have spent time acknowledging that inevitable reality of oncoming death so that we could then “shift our focus to how to be witnesses to something new and very different God will do”. His call for us to think about death and resurrection was clear.

He made me wonder…

From my perspective, the rumors of our denominational death are not only exaggerated, but they are just wrong.  What is happening across this denomination is quite simple.  Change.  While change is certainly not new (clearly we are not stuck in 16th c. Reformation mode), what is new is that the church is paying attention to and connecting the Good News with the world around it in more immediate and increasingly more relevant ways. We are changing at the micro and macro levels.  And we are changing so fast it makes us dizzy.

And THAT is what makes it feel like we are dying. We even sing of this feeling… “time like an ever-flowing stream soon bears us all away…”  Our worry is that as these relentless changes flow over us, we, like Isaac Watts’ lyrical dream, will be forgotten, too.  I know it’s a tricky metaphor, but I like thinking about change as a flowing river. Rivers ebb and flow. Their currents swirl and bring life.  But sometimes overflowing waters wipe out homes and livelihoods. Sometimes, in seasons of drought the water dries up to almost nothing. Sometimes water goes underground for a few miles and then emerges again outside city limits.  Sometimes a fallen tree, a landslide, some excited beavers or some silly humans change the course of the stream. But river water always finds its way.

That’s what I think the Spirit does in the church – what I think the Spirit is doing in the PCUSA. We’ve seen the ebb and flow of energy; the emergence of what look like new streams of vitality; the swirling floodwaters of economic and demographic changes which threaten and frequently wipe out congregations; and too many of us are in situations where time, talents and treasure have virtually dried up.  Some of us, like busy beavers, have tried to change the course of the church, too.  And the water of the Spirit still manages to find a way – a way through schisms major and minor, a way through struggles theological and strategic.  I believe the blessed, cleansing, healing water will always find its way.

And isn’t that what baptism is all about anyway?

In three short days that have flown by since my return from the General Assembly in Detroit (PCUSA), I have heard too many painful stories from friends on all sides of every one of the issues our denomination addressed, that I feel I need to write a little open letter.

Dear Presbyterian Brothers and Sisters (and others interested in the work we’re doing):

I want to offer words of hope and encouragement and to challenge us all to seek ways to share the hope we have in Christ so that we can figure out how to live into Paul’s challenge to “glorify God with one voice.”  I know my words may seem suspect, especially since they come from someone who will be perceived to be on “the winning side” of many of the controversial issues that faced GA221.  But for me, discerning God’s call is more about the journey than the finish line and it’s in that journey that I have found the most hope.

To many the decisions to divest from three corporations, to study fossil fuel divestment, and to allow clergy to perform same gender marriages seem extreme and narrow in scope. But as someone who has attended many assemblies and who has served congregations which have supported the bringing of a variety of other kinds of overtures to General Assembly (many of which did NOT pass on the first, second or seventh time), It’s been important for me to remember that no one is intentionally left out of our legislative processes.  Any Presbyterian has the ability to move an overture forward through their Session, their Presbytery and finally to General Assembly. If people are passionate about divesting from corporations doing business in Syria or Sudan or any of the other nation-states I’ve heard mentioned, it is entirely possible to initiate that process and make it happen. If congregations want to make a statement about their understanding of human sexuality or marriage, that, too is possible.  If a church wants to make a difference, the Session can nominate elders to serve on General Assembly and Presbytery committees, including as commissioners to General Assembly.

Withdrawing support and/or departing in place will never help like-minded brothers and sisters achieve their goals. In fact, I believe it does the opposite and has the compounding effect of hurting individuals throughout the church whose livelihood is dependent on our support.  Throughout history, we have seen that the Church moves when there is passion and interest emerging in God’s people.  Likewise, our denomination changes when our joint discernment tells us that Spirit seems to be moving in and through God’s people, calling us toward particular work. Sometimes this feels like a precipitous move, but more often big changes are the result of laboring year after year in what often feels like a time of exile.  Rather than complaining and grieving, I want to encourage people who have deeply held convictions and passionate concerns to begin work now so your interests can be represented at the next assembly.  And the next.  And the next.

I know the counter argument will be something like: “my needs can’t be met now” or “there is no room for the conservative voice in the church.” But as part of a group whose needs were pushed down for a long, long time, I can testify to the reality that staying committed to the cause we cared about and continuing to speak in spite of year after year of resounding defeats has made a difference.  But more importantly, my compassion has deepened as my awareness of the needs of others has come into sharper focus through relationships with colleagues and friends with whom I disagree.  For me, our fundamental starting point is God’s sacrificial and unconditional love for us.  It is my hope that we can keep that at the heart of our work together.

Grace and Peace, Debra