Susan Orr made a surprising discovery about the congregations of the Presbytery of Genesee Valley.
Citing a recent study by the Mission and Advocacy Committee of the presbytery’s 67 churches in Rochester, N.Y., and the surrounding five-county area, Orr — who serves as presbyter for Mission and Education — said the committee was amazed to learn that of all the mission-related outreach reported by the presbytery’s congregations, 99 percent is in hands-on mission while only 1 percent is in advocacy.
“We’re apparently a little afraid of it,” Orr said.
She attributes that fear to the political nature of advocacy work.
“It’s scary for the same reason we don’t like to have hard conversations in our congregations,” she said. “There’s a wide range of political views in every congregation, and as soon as we start saying where we reside on certain issues there’s tension. And we don’t like tension.”
In addition to the fear factor, the Rev. Amy Williams Fowler, presbytery leader, recognizes that the move from mission to advocacy work will also require a generational shift. “Our older folks who consider themselves to be liberal and progressive have been strong, faithful voices for over 40 years,” said Fowler. “Passing a resolution and saying the right words isn’t as effective as it used to be. Now is the time for the younger folks in our churches to begin to think about, ‘How do I put legs on what I believe and raise my voice?’”
To minimize the anxiety and to convert the next generation of Presbyterians to doing advocacy, the presbytery has recently undertaken some bold new approaches and initiatives, including the Better Together mission network, which focuses on promoting collaboration among congregations involved in local and global mission.
“The basic unit of mission of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is the congregation,” Fowler said. “Rather than congregations existing to serve the presbytery, the presbytery exists to encourage and connect the congregations. What has been really exciting here — even on the hard days when we’re dealing with diminishing this and diminishing that — is an increase in energy among our churches and seeing our congregations joining in partnership to be in mission together.”
The presbytery’s leadership also invited the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson II, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness (OPW) in Washington, D.C., to address a host of groups — including Better Together — during the last weekend in March. On March 28, Nelson will be the featured speaker at a presbytery youth experience.
The Rev. Melissa DeRosia, pastor at the mission-minded Gates Presbyterian Church in suburban Rochester, said that many young people have few Presbyterian experiences beyond their local congregation and don’t often get a feel for the many different ways in which Presbyterians connect. “That’s why our church is requiring the seven 9th graders in our confirmation class to attend the upcoming conversation with J. Herbert in order to get them involved and inspired,” she said. “Because our whole confirmation curriculum is a model in the making focused on the journey of faith, J. Herbert will become a part of their amazing faith journey.”
Nelson is also scheduled to speak at the March 29 presbytery meeting, which is dedicated to training churches how to more effectively do their mission and advocacy work together to achieve a powerful and lasting impact.
“We’re so thrilled that J. Herbert is coming because he makes it all seem attainable,” Orr said. “In the small amount of time that I was at Ecumenical Advocacy Days last year, I saw how he can equip people. He just set people on fire to be a voice — not just hands, but put a voice to it as well.”
Ecumenical Advocacy Days is an annual event co-sponsored by the PC(USA) that mobilizes participants around a central issue through worship, education and lobbying. The theme of the March 21-24 event is Jesus Weeps: Resisting Violence, Building Peace. On March 21, the OPW will offer a training event to address the causes of violence and seek hopeful solutions.
Orr said that even before Nelson’s visit was scheduled, the presbytery’s congregations were already beginning to move “in little steps” toward doing advocacy.
“We as a presbytery are encouraging people to sign on to receive action alerts from the Office of Public Witness,” she said. “We also make it easy for them to do letter campaigns.”
Because the area covered by the presbytery is so heavily dependent upon agriculture, one of Genesee Valley’s key partners in doing mission and advocacy is Rural & Migrant Ministry, which works to nurture leadership, stand with the disenfranchised — especially farmworkers and rural workers — and change unjust systems and structures.
For DeRosia, her commitment to farmworkers’ rights began with a mission trip she took to Immokalee, Fla, as a seminary student. The Gates Church, where she has served since 2010, has been in relationship with three congregations in Jamaica for several years, sends mission teams there every year and counts four Jamaican families among the church’s current membership.
“I kept saying to the members of our church how great it is that we have a relationship with these congregations in Jamaica and that we built a preschool and are doing all of this great work there,” DeRosia said. “But I also asked them, ‘How are we making those connections back home? How do we even begin to build relationships with Jamaican farmworkers here?’”
DeRosia, who also serves as a member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, has begun using resources from the OPW to have theological conversations at the Gates Church about immigration and other national issues.
“We are asking the larger, systemic questions in the context of worship and Bible study,” she said. “And we’re not just asking, ‘How do we advocate?’ but also, ‘How do we take these relationships and make the connection from hands-on mission to advocacy? How do we create communities of hospitality in and among the context of Rochester?’”
Fowler said that she is excited not only by the commitment and the enthusiasm of Genesee Valley’s congregations, but also by the presbytery’s Triple Play grant program, which allows for at least two Presbyterian congregations and one community agency to collaborate on a single issue. She also described a pilot program — now in its initial stages as part of the redesign of the Synod of the Northeast — in which several presbyteries will be able to focus their mission and advocacy efforts collaboratively on a single project.
“On our best days, we are not only bringing our pastors together in partnership and relationship, but members of our churches are also getting the strong sense that we are in this together,” Fowler said.