Calling the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s presence in St. Louis next summer “an opportunity to engage in service and witness to justice,” the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) affirmed unanimously today (September 21) that the 223rd General Assembly (2018) of the denomination will meet in that city June 16–23, 2018.
COGA also “encouraged all Presbyterians to be present in service and justice opportunities before, during, and after the General Assembly.”
The Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy issued a separate statement of support later in the day.
The affirmative decision on St. Louis as the assembly site—originally approved by the 220th General Assembly (2012)—came as some Presbyterians expressed concern for the safety of participants (particularly African Americans) who will be attending the assembly as St. Louis faces unrest in the wake of troubling violence and resulting protest demonstrations about that violence.
In August, the NAACP issued a “travelers advisory” for the entire state of Missouri, citing police and other related violence primarily directed at African American males. The travel advisory was recently lifted, despite ongoing unrest in and around St. Louis.
OGA’s Director of Assembly Operations Tom Hay led COGA’s conversation about the assembly meeting in St. Louis by raising four questions that he said he hopes all Presbyterians will ponder:
- How do we engage local community interests in St. Louis in this conversation?
- How do we ensure that African Americans and other marginalized people and all people of color are safe?
- How do we most strategically leverage our voice for justice?
- How do we best stand in solidarity with those in St. Louis who are engaged in this struggle?
“We must remain determined to make a significant impact on the city of St. Louis. Local leaders have pleaded with us to stay,” said General Assembly Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson, II. “We will make a great statement by going and by engaging there in ways that will have an impact and make a witness … to help create and shape the change that must come.”
OGA leaders stated that assembly organizers will work with local groups in St. Louis (such as NAACP, Black Lives Matter, Poor People’s Campaign, Habitat for Humanity, General Assembly Committee on Local Arrangements, and the denomination’s Hands & Feet initiative) to ensure that “we are not just putting money into the city by our meeting there, but to make an impact,” Nelson said.
General Assembly Co-Moderator T. Denise Anderson said she appreciated the PC(USA)’s “desire to be leaders who are led by local people. Comments that St. Louis is not safe belie the fact that for many of us no place is safe,” she said. “We have to go to St. Louis.”
COGA member Eliana Maxim agreed. “We want to make sure we are an asset, not an obstacle.”
Wilson Kennedy, COGA vice-moderator, queried “How can we get commissioners out of the convention center? I hope we can find ways to stand with people who are different and to live into the diversity of who we are and should be—to find a new way of what it means to be the church.”
Noting that the PC(USA) is a 91 percent white denomination, Anderson said, “I am almost more concerned about my presence in that convention center [than on St. Louis’ streets] because of the attitudes and comments I might face. We must speak in the assembly about the need to go back to all of our communities and address the safety and vulnerability of marginalized people in all the places we live.”
Nelson said that after 2018, the next two assembly sites are in Baltimore (2020) and Columbus, Ohio (2022), which he described as “centers of the reality of transition and transformation in our country. St. Louis is part of that reality, where we must address the contextual realities of dramatic societal change,” he said.
“We must be determined that the General Assembly lives out our commitment to put some feet on our prayers so we have an impact on the ground.”