A few hundred of Heath Rada’s newest friends and fans waited in a long line Sunday to shake his hand, perhaps snap a photograph and offer the moderator of the 221st General Assembly (2014) their best wishes for the coming two years.
The moderator’s reception, a General Assembly mainstay, featured stout coffee, delectable desserts and that go-to Presbyterian staple, mini pigs-in-a-blanket. The smooth sounds of a four-piece Detroit band called the Marion Hayden Jazz Groove invited the large crowd to relax and gaze out a large window at Windsor, Ontario, the city across the Detroit River.
Rada will serve the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for the next two years "as an ambassador of the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace, telling the story of the church’s life and upholding the people of God through prayer."
He was elected Saturday evening on the first ballot, the first time since 1997 that multiple votes were not required.
Those in line Sunday had nothing but kind words for the new moderator, a ruling elder and former American Red Cross executive who retired to Montreat, North Carolina. He also served as president of the President School of Christian Education prior to retirement.
“Talking to people this morning, it’s clear that he communicated and resonated with people of all ages,” said Phil Newton, a ruling elder commissioner from Presbytery of Ohio Valley. “I felt that any of the three (candidates) would have been fine.”
John Wilkinson from Presbytery of Genesee Valley and Kelly Allen from Presbytery of San Antonio, both teaching elder commissioners, were the other candidates.
“He was my choice, and it was confirmed by the enthusiasm of the Young Adult Volunteers,” said Yvonne Williams, a ruling elder commissioner from Presbytery of Muskingum Valley. “I haven’t met him yet, but I’m very impressed by his credentials.”
Jane Busey, an observer from the Presbytery of Donegal, said that as the moderatorial candidates made their cases before commissioners Saturday night, she observed two qualities in Rada that she liked: “He was in control, and he was humble about his gifts.”
“He was elected on the first ballot,” she noted. “It was a sign that the Spirit was in this place.”
Because Rada is a ruling elder, “he’ll have a little different look on the affairs of the denomination and how we fit into the world,” said Amelie Welman, a ruling elder commissioner from Presbytery of South Louisiana. “I love his Red Cross background. He seems like a man of compassion who wants to help hurting and broken people.”
Bobbie White, executive presbyter of Rada's home Presbytery of Western North Carolina, said, “We think he will be an outstanding moderator. He and (Vice Moderator) Larissa (Kwong Abazia) will have an amazing partnership. Heath brings a unique faith in Jesus Christ. He brings a listening ear to people with diverse opinions. We are thrilled to have a ruling elder this time, who brings such a deep understanding of the church.”
Fred Terry, a ruling elder commissioner from Presbytery of Salem, thinks Rada said the right things. “He is really recognizing the world we live in is changing and has changed, and the church needs to reflect a positive response to change.”
Becky Lindsay, an observer from Crestview Hills, New York, said any of the three candidates “would have been just great. They all seemed to me to be moderate. There wasn’t the dichotomy on the far ends of the spectrum.”
“I hope this signals a shift away from the controversies we’ve been entangled in.” Reflecting a common opinion of those attending the reception, she said, “What I will remember most is the paper ballot.” After a series of attempts to use first a new voting system, and then return to a previous technology, the Assembly gave up and turned to paper ballots Saturday night.
Nancy Collins, a Missionary Advisory Delegate from Zambia, had a different perspective. She said, “I felt rather out of sync. I serve in a sub-Saharan region, which is growing rapidly. We are trying to find enough pastors. There is no transportation but their own feet. There is no technology. Alternative lifestyles are not accepted there, so I feel like I am looking through a different lens.” She affirmed, “I was glad to hear partnerships held up and valued.”
Bill Carl, president of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, said he appreciated Rada's gifts as an educator.
“Heath was president of PSCE while I was on the faculty at Union Seminary. I was impressed by his care of students and love of the church. Those same qualities came through in his speech," he said.
Mel Bringle, who served as chair of the hymnal committee, picked up on the educator theme. “Heath will be a moderator like Freda Gardner or Izzy Rogers. He’s a teacher who knows how to speak to people where they are, in their vocabulary, not his. He will build bridges.”
Kay Layman, of Montreat, North Carolina, and chair of Heath’s election committee, summed it up. She said, “He’s going to be a warm leader. It’s the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church.”
Erin Cox-Holmes contributed to this story.