The fall travel schedule looks packed for Heath Rada, moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 221st General Assembly. His itinerary includes visits to Denver, Reno, Zephyr Point Conference Center on Lake Tahoe, the Texas/Mexico border, South America, and other places.
Rada’s wife, Peggy, a ruling elder and retired middle-school teacher, looks forward to accompanying him on all of these trips. But she won’t just be along for the ride.
While Moderator Heath is speaking or attending meetings, Peggy will be talking with homeless people at a church-run shelter, packing lunches for a church feeding program, or engaging in some other mission activity. She is carving out a unique role for herself that will enable her, as she puts it, to “see the church in action.”
Peggy Rada says her vision for the role of moderator spouse began to take shape last year when she and Heath were praying about whether he should stand for the office. With people they trusted encouraging Heath to do so, “we felt that we should take it seriously,” Peggy says. “But he did not want to enter this process unless we were both one hundred percent behind it.”
One day the Radas were hiking near their home in Montreat, NC. “I’d had a sleepless night,” Peggy recalls. “I said, ‘Heath, I have a bee in my bonnet.’”
This got her husband’s attention. “When I say that,” Peggy explains, “he knows it’s probably going to end up with us painting a room or moving furniture.”
Instead, she told Heath that if he were elected moderator, she would like to travel with him — but with a planned and mission-focused itinerary that would allow her to “see an entirely different face of the church.” Peggy’s enthusiasm for this possible role gave Heath the green light he needed to enter the moderatorial race.
Now in their early 70s, the Radas have nearly half a century of history together. They met when they were both serving as counselors at their presbytery’s Camp New Hope, just outside Chapel Hill, N.C., and married three years later. Rada’s term as moderator will end on the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary — June 12, 2016.
Both husband and wife are graduates of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (PSCE, now part of Union Presbyterian Seminary) in Richmond, Va. Peggy enrolled first, graduating just before their wedding, in 1966. Heath received his degree in 1970, then returned a decade later to serve for 12 years as president of the school.
Peggy says she knew in college that she wanted to teach. She spent most of her career teaching at Richmond’s Collegiate School, an independent preparatory school with Presbyterian roots.
She enrolled in PSCE, she says, because she had always been active in the church and wanted to do graduate work in Bible and theology. “I wanted to be an educated layperson, so I could teach Sunday school and lead Bible studies — not as a professional but as a volunteer.”
What she learned at PSCE has strengthened her involvement in congregations and presbyteries over the years. The Radas currently are members of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, NC.
One of Peggy’s professors at PSCE, Sara Little, encouraged her to go on to Yale and get a doctorate in Christian education. “But I chose Heath,” Peggy says. Though she sometimes wishes she had pursued that doctorate, she has no regrets.
Life with Heath has brought opportunities to travel and learn in other ways. It has also brought two daughters, Margaret and Mary Talmage, and two grandchildren, Blake and Anna Grace, who are both 7 years old.
And the next two years will open many new doors. Interviewed while at home for a day between trips, just before hosting her monthly book club meeting, Peggy exclaims, “We’re so humbled by the privilege of meeting Presbyterians and Christians from all over the world.”
The Radas’ moderatorial travels this summer took them first to Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, where Peggy spent a day learning about the congregation’s outreach to homeless men. She and Heath spent the night with a dozen men in a shelter on a lower level of the church building, where each of the men has a place to sleep and store his belongings. The church also provides support services aimed at helping the men find employment and housing within two years.
“We had good conversations with some of the men,” Peggy says, adding that they even managed to get some sleep.
In August, while Heath attended a PC(USA) Evangelism and Church Growth Conference in St. Pete Beach, Fla., Peggy helped with mission projects at nearby Beth-El Mission and at First Presbyterian Church in Winter Haven.
At Beth-El, an outreach ministry to farmworkers, she particularly enjoyed talking with the children who came with their families to receive food, medical checkups, and other assistance. At First Presbyterian, she helped the pastor and another volunteer pack 288 lunches. The bagged meals, she explains, can be picked up from a basket in the church office by anyone in need, no questions asked.
Peggy hopes to have many more mission experiences to share by the end of Heath’s term as moderator. Asked about her dreams for the outcome of their two years on the road, she says that she and Heath share a similar vision:
“That people in the church would feel they have been heard. That they would see some of the outreach their church or presbytery is doing. That there would be more of a sense of unity in our church family, of people realizing the wonderful things we share in common.”
These commonalities include, first of all, “that Jesus is our Lord and Savior,” Peggy says. “Also that we are a denomination of justice, fairness, and equality — all growing out of our faith — and we’re working to bring that to all people.”
Eva Stimson is a free-lance writer and editor in Louisville and is a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service.