Danced into the room by a mariachi band, more than 250 Presbyterians gathered in the historic Fort Worth Hilton – where John F. Kennedy spent the last night of his life on Nov. 21, 1963 – for the 15th annual National Multicultural Church Conference of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Under the theme “Journeying and Awakening into God’s Diverse World,” participants will spend three full days sharing stories, resources and strategies designed to make more PC(USA) congregations as diverse as the communities in which they minister.
There are signs that the PC(USA)’s long-sought goal – first established by the 1996 General Assembly – to increase the percentage of racial ethnic members to 20 percent by the year 2020 “is gaining traction,” said the Rev. Roger Dermody, deputy executive director for mission for the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA).
“Of the 255 new worshiping communities established since this [1001 New Worshiping Communities] movement was launched just two years ago, more than half are racial ethnic,” he said, to loud applause.
“You are the ones who are carrying this vision,” the Rev. Raafat Girgis, PMA’sassociate for multicultural congregational support in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, told the crowd. “We are just servants of the grass-roots.”
“The more we go in the journey, the more we follow Jesus until we are awakened to his call, the more progress we make in making the world more like God’s plan,” Girgis said, explaining the theme. Quoting JFK, Girgis said, “This country cannot continue to be materially rich and spiritually poor.”
Rep. Stacey Abrams, House Minority Leader for the State of Georgia General Assembly and the first woman to lead either party in the Georgia legislature, roused the group with a three-fold call to collaboration, competition and accountability – lessons she said she learned from her parents, a shipbuilder and librarian who later become Methodist ministers.
“My parents had a sense of perseverance and grace that I’ve tried to emulate,” she said. “They believe that meddling is God’s work and I believe there’s not enough of it going on in the Georgia legislature.
Abrams’ mother was the first woman minister in the Methodist Church in Mississippi at age 40, “and was tired of hearing people say there was nothing they could do about the poverty,” she said, so she persuaded all of her three-point parishes to merge and use their buildings for social services.
The local high school’s prom was segregated so Abrams’ mother used her church to host an integrated pre-prom party and brought ministers together to support it, arguing that their children were about to face a multicultural world and better start preparing for it.
Journeying and awakening means being convinced of justice and venturing into unknown territory that many think we shouldn’t journey into, Abrams said. “We complain so much about how we don’t have enough and others are taking it away from us that we forget there are many who have less,” she said. “Our call is to help all remember and respond.”
Abrams said her particular ministry is government. – to journey and awaken. “Like David, Solomon, Deborah, government is nothing more than people coming together to do for others and if we do it well we change God’s world,’ she said. “If you want to see better you have to do better. “I’ve told colleagues: ‘I’ve been a minority for a very long time – it’s best to have leaders who have been at it and are pretty good at it.’”
God’s journey “is not a journey any more if you stop moving, no matter how hard it is,” Abrams said. “Our job as a minority is to lose well – not defeatist – but three things make politics your tools to move forward”:
- Collaboration wherever we can – “God didn’t pick just you, God picked others, too, and the expectations are clear … the Tea Party got it right: a small group of people with really loud voices can make things happen. We have to look beyond the superficial to the real. We must build a community beyond people’s expectations – multiculturalism is so much broader and deeper than we usually think – reaching out to communities who don’t think you want to talk to them.
- Competition – “Politics is not the goal, it’s the means to the goal. We have to lift up our solutions as loudly as our opponents. We have to tell the truth louder and more often than our opponents tell the lie. These issues – such as health care, income inequality and voter suppression -- are moral, not political … If we don’t compete, we lose.”
- Accountability – “We must constantly examine our motives and outcomes. When we refuse to hold our politicians to account, we get the government we deserve.We can’t do better if the people we elect do worse.”
In his opening sermon, the Rev. Joe Clifford, pastor First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, said we “can’t have resurrection without the cross.” There is a part of the church that is not dying, Clifford said, noting that “a majority of new Christians in our country are young racial ethnics.”
The future, Clifford said, “belongs to churches that are multicultural – that’s what God wants and God gets what God wants.”