GA Reflection from Intern Emma Warman
I sit on the Max for the last time, zipping past lush green pines painted on a canvas of distant mountain ridges. Quaint homes nestle in the hills while taller buildings kiss the sky between them, some shimmery pink, and others blue glass like the twin towers of the Oregon Convention Center. Thanks to the fantastic folks of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF), who I interned with at the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA, this June in Portland, an entirely new perspective on living is shooting up like a baby seedling in my soul. Following is a list of pieces of advice I learned.
- Seek justice: not to be mistaken for fairness. Justice is sought in nonviolent strategies that hold our partners accountable in both the fossil fuel industry and in Israeli-occuped Palestine. The church’s adoption of the Belhar Confession into the constitution, as well as its approval of PPF's overture ‘Remaining a church committed to the gospel of Matthew 25,’ remind us of our calling to peacemaking, which is by no means an easy committal. It requires action on our part, which proves that we can no longer settle for what we perceive as fair when speaking out against injustice.
- Activism is not a dirty word, and can be as simple as speaker Reverend Sekou’s advice to allow compassionate action to come before comprehension. A huge piece of this is recognizing my own privileges in income, race, and sexuality, and acting on them. As activism often requires some degree of political knowledge, a personal goal is to gain a better understanding of issues I care about. As long-time PPFer Aric Clark states, “Let the least and last be our first priority."
- Accept failure with grace, and embrace progress. Years of preparation and advocacy at the 222nd GA were for divestment from fossil fuels, an overture that was eventually defeated in plenary. Despite the loss, huge waves were made by Fossil Free PC(USA) in raising awareness of environmental justice during the past two years. Similarly, Presbyterians are beginning to realize that oppression of Palestinian people can no longer be ignored, and since the 221st GA’s call for divestment from companies connected with the Israeli military, several overtures passed to strategize further action in the protection of Palestinians, including a resolution committed to prayerful study of boycotting, divestment and sanctions.
- Focus on solidarity now. These issues are urgent, and justice for God's earth and its people cannot wait. The church is easily snarled in tangles regarding details, debate and division, as seen in the proposed 12 amendments to an overture lifting up Palestinian children. In all issues, solidarity with people on the ground should be our goal. Former PPF Director Rick Ufford Chase proposes an unapologetically progressive vision for the church in his book “Faithful Resistance,” where he calls out the church on its worries of taking sides over advocating for basic human rights. Rev. Sekou called for an entirely new system of activism, saying, “It’s not about getting a seat at the table, but burning the damn table down." There is much work to be done.
- Be bold. It’s time to talk about events like Orlando and movements like Sanctuary and Black Lives Matter, instead of talking around them in fear of conflict. Co-moderator of the 222nd GA Jan Edmiston urged commissioners to make decisions out of faith, and not fear. This is highly applicable to my own life: What am I wiling to give up? Am I willing to live like Jesus, the peasant son of an unwed mother, to put my body on the line for people with lives disregarded?
If I could describe my GA experience in one word, it would be empowering. We spent the last night in our little yellow house on Hawthorne telling stories over craft beer, crackers and cheese and laughing until our eyes were teary. I did my best to soak up all the goodness from these people as I watched Rick, who wrote a book advocating for radical change in the church and probably slept a total of twelve hours during GA, standing by the sink. I sat next to Abbi, who performed and choreographed a remarkably hilarious YouTube rap on youth in the church, now eating hummus and wheat thins beside me. Emily, who I witnessed humbly putting forth her courageous soul and prophetic mind into all things PPF each day leading up to and during GA, leaned back against the stove across the table. The guidance I received from mentors David and Colleen was just enough to encourage me to follow my passions at GA while grounding me in roots that were strong and supportive. At the annual breakfast earlier in the week, waves of goosebumps swept across my arms as I realized the diverse and deep amount of justice work that PPF has accomplished. What impresses me most is the intergenerational dependency and graciousness in change as younger voices come to take leadership within the organization.
My personal call to action is this: Remain involved with PPF (and our made-up grassroots group from this GA, “Presbyterian Peace Feminists”) by attending the activist council meeting in the spring. Pick two to three issues that I am passionate about, and learn all that I can about them-- including divestment from fossil fuels, and the Israeli-Palestinian Mission Network, as I plan to pursue a trip to Palestine with the church and attend their fall retreat. And lastly, vow to live as an activist. Leaving Portland, I told the intern team Colleen, Annica, and Elizabeth (David was there in spirit) that I feel like I’m teetering on the edge of a massive cliff. Visible behind me are my past ways of living, of reading the news and thinking passively, oh, that’s too bad. Of advocating for peace while being reluctant and fearful and to take a risk. Of sitting and waiting for God to show me a way to make progress in my surroundings. It’s time for me to take the leap and act for lives and voices without my privilege.
What lies ahead is uncertain, but what I can sense that it’s time to take a breath and jump.