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Re-post: Holy Ground

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on December 3, 2012. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

By Esta Jarrett

Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Exodus 2:3-5 (NRSV)

Recently, a stand-up routine by the comedian Tig Notaro made the rounds of “you have to listen to this” lists on the Internet. Last summer, Notaro nearly died from a rare combination of medical problems. About a week later, her mom died in a tragic accident. Not long after that, Notaro went through an awful breakup. Then, right after that, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, in both breasts. At the time of the recording, after time counted in hours, not weeks, she found herself onstage at the Largo Comedy Club, in front of an audience anticipating a stand-up routine.

She couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t pretend that everything was okay. Instead of telling her usual witticisms, in which bees taking the expressway figure prominently, she told the truth. “Hello, good evening,” she said. “I have cancer . . . just found out. Good evening.”

During her set, Notaro led the audience through a masterpiece of comedy and an anthropological study of grief. I’ve never heard anything like it. The audience struggled to know how to react. There were moans of sympathy and distress from some, uncertain laughter from others, and hushing noises from the rest.

By the end of the set, the crowd was eating out of Notaro’s hand. They would have done anything she told them to do. It was as if the audience realized the enormity of the gift they had been given: the fit of Notaro’s own self . . . her refusal to pretend to be something she wasn’t.

Had Notaro just performed her usual set, it would have felt like a crime of inauthenticity, posturing instead of art. Toward the end of the performance, at the urging of the audience, she did tell her standard “bee taking the expressway” joke. Because of everything that was not said, the joke assumed an almost debilitating poignancy. The audience, who had witnessed the depth of her pain and beauty, could no longer be satisfied with pro-forma jokes. As they all confronted the reality of death, and found the grace to laugh, the Largo was transformed; the comedy club became holy ground.

When the church is at its best, it resembles that night at the Largo. People need a place to give voice to truth, before God and everybody, and know that they are held in safety and love. Whether in or out of a church building, we need a community where healing and reconciliation mean more than appearances and convention, even if it goes off script . . . and especially if it challenges our expectations of what we paid to see.

A few years ago, while doing my Clinical Pastoral Education, I visited a certain patient in the hospital. She had breast cancer, and her body was rejecting the cosmetic implants that she wanted to conceal her double mastectomy. She was bald, gaunt, red-eyed, and wild in her grief. She needed to talk to someone about how mad she was . . . at her body, at the cancer, and at God.

In my memory, there was no noise in the hospital except her voice, no light but that illuminating her bed. For forty-five minutes she raged, wept, and confessed everything on her heart to this inexperienced seminary grad.

When her storm had passed, we gripped hands, hard, and prayed together. It was hard to know when we stopped talking and started praying. The feeling of God’s presence throughout our conversation was so strong, you could almost feel its warmth emanating as from fire. As we prayed, we laughed, and cussed, and cried some more. After we said “Amen,” the patient’s face was serene, and I was changed forever. That hospital room became holy ground.

Every church I know has unspoken rules about acceptable behavior, whether in or out of worship. Most of the time, enforcement of these rules is self-policing: if people aren’t feeling presentable, they stay home, rather than burdening others with their troubles. They don’t want to cry, and risk embarrassing themselves. They feel too raw from the sharp edges of their lives to be able to put on a polite face.

But when wounded people feel safe enough to speak their truth, to say when they’re mad or confused or scared, I’ve seen the Holy Spirit work miracles in church. Healing begins when a friend hugs your shoulders as you cry during the hymn. Sympathy and help are found as you discuss problems after worship. Even the simple act of being in a crowd of people who are praying and worshiping God can bring about change when change seems impossible. It is precisely in those moments when our lives are messy and unpresentable need that we need church the most.

We talk a lot about our brokenness when we confess our sins on Sunday. But theologically abstract brokenness looks very different from everyday brokenness, the kind of brokenness that makes you feel that you’re not good enough. In the church I want us to be, everyday brokenness becomes a blessing. When we bring our cracked and chipped lives to the font, to the table, to the people, to the Lord, we find ourselves on holy ground.

My prayer is that our awareness of God’s presence will grow and sharpen, becoming as keen as any other sense, so that we might walk barefoot everywhere we go. In comedy clubs, in hospital rooms, and yes, in church, may we say what needs to be said, in the deep and challenging love of God. May the church be a place that people seek out for such healing and transformation, instead of feeling they must stay away until they are presentable. May we all find ourselves on holy ground.


esta jarrettEsta Jarrett is the Pastor at Canton Presbyterian Church in Canton NC, through the “For Such a Time as This” small church residency program. She is a graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary (although she still calls it Union PSCE in her head).

Image: jayzee/shutterstock.com

Re-post: What?!? You Don’t Want To Take Responsibility for Centuries of Christian Oppression, Pogroms, and Genocide? I Can’t Imagine Why Not!

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on November 24, 2014. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Jarrett McLaughlin

The church where I serve is currently reading Brian McLaren’s Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross The Road together in small groups. After getting about two weeks in, our Director of Spiritual Growth met with the group facilitators to get some feedback – the leaders reported a discomfort among several participants that echoed what I heard around my table at McLaren’s lecture at George Mason University earlier this month.

Photo Credit: ARISE Campus Ministry

In Chapter 9 – “How a Liberal Arts Education Ruined My Opinion of Christopher Columbus” – McLaren relates the experiences of going to college where his course work invited him to swap out the childhood tale of Columbus sailing the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety two for first-hand accounts of the enslavement, rape, and torture of the local Taino population. The point is that the way we remember and tell and shape young minds in the patterns of our history…all of that matters. If history is truly prologue to the present, then we need to tell the truth about our prologue – and the Christian Church needs this as much as any one else if we are to cultivate a “strong-benevolent” Christian identity.

It seems, however, that more than a few people experience some discomfort with this idea – and perhaps I have a simplistic view of the objections, but I believe it mostly boils down to a sense that “that was then and this is now – why should I take responsibility for the crimes committed by people who lived hundreds of years ago?” Some responses to that question:

  • “Because Jesus Does It All The Time” – A Doctrinal Response From Scripture

In 2 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks about the ministry of reconciliation and penned some incredible words (pardon my selective editing, I have a word limit) – “…in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors of Christ, since God is making his appeal through us…for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

It’s difficult to overstate how tremendously huge this is. God made Jesus to take on sin that was not his own and only by doing so was there ever going to be a chance at reconciliation. Without getting into the mechanics of exactly how this all works, the general sense is that Jesus is sinless and yet Jesus takes on the sins of others in order to create an environment where peace might be possible and where reconciliation becomes a reality. If we are following Jesus to the other side of the road, then surely we must follow in these footsteps as well.

  • “What Does it Hurt?” – A Practical Response From Scripture

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church is filled with many beautiful and memorable passages – about the body and its members, about the greatest of these being love; but the part that gets very little air time is chapter 8 in which Paul addresses the seemingly anachronistic topic of whether Christians can eat meat sacrificed to idols. At the end of the day, Paul says idols are not real gods and so, of course, eating that meat doesn’t hurt you in the least.

If, however, somebody else who is less certain in their faith sees you eating that meat, will it cause that person to stumble and give up the Gospel because of your example? If the answer to that is yes – as it must have been in the Corinthian community – then maybe one small sacrifice you can make for the greater good would be to give up eating meat offered to an idol. It will not hurt YOU, but it might hurt somebody else – and that is reason enough to temper that particular liberty.

In the same way I would ask what it really hurts to acknowledge to somebody of another faith – “You know, the Church has not always been the most faithful in its witness to the Gospel…I wish it had been in that time and place and I hope that it will be different in this time and in this place.” I can’t help but wonder how a confessional posture might open the conversation in a way that a defensive or even a distancing posture might now allow.

  • “Because Christians Do This All The Time” – A Liturgical Response

The posture of confession may be a practical way to engage in more healthy and productive interfaith engagement, and the good news is that it’s not really as difficult as it might seem – Christian worship has given us great practice at assuming the sins of another. Every week, many churches offer a prayer of confession – and the common critique is not so different from the discomfort here – “I don’t do those things, why should I have to read this prayer that indicts me for things I did not do?”

When we confess our sin together in corporate prayer, we’re not necessarily confessing our individual sins but rather the sinfulness that is always a part of us. One way or another, we take responsibility for the actions of others all the time. It’s in our worship; it’s in our theology; and thanks to Jesus Christ, it’s in our genes, too…thanks be to God.


Jarrett McLaughlin Jarrett McLaughlin and wife Meg Peery McLaughlin are co-Pastors at Burke Presbyterian Church in Burke, VA.  

Confession through a Queer Lens

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the confessional sequence. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Max Hill

As a queer person, I’ve spent a lot of time struggling with authenticity.
Not all spaces are safe for full honesty about my identity.

Time home with certain family members just causes stress.

As does living in a seminary community among students with a diversity of theological beliefs about my body, my expression, and those I love.

And so does walking into an unfamiliar worshipping community and not knowing if such a space is one that I can relax in or

if my walls of anxiety are a warning that this isn’t a place where I can be all of who God created me to be.

Photo from Maryland Presbyterian Church Facebook page

So I negotiate.

Not always consciously, but it always happens.

I ask questions about what I need to wear and how I need to perform that day.

Should I paint my nails? Put on makeup?

Those little things that help me to feel like myself – or

is it better to do what’s safer

To wear my boy clothes? To keep my nails and face bare?

And if I do that, do I need to hide the rainbow tattoo on my arm?

This negotiation can be exhausting and draw me away from worship.

So maybe a more meaningful worship is happening amongst those where I don’t have to hide –

my queer family.

I’m lucky to have a queer family of faith.
People that I can go to and it doesn’t occur to me to negotiate outward expression or and put up an internal wall of protection.
People with whom I can just put on “Thank U, Next” by Ariana Grande and vogue the night away.

The drag queens, butch queens, femme boys, trans persons, and those of nonbinary identity and expression in our churches all negotiate themselves almost to the point of extinction. Not all of us have the strength or opportunity to live authentically in our places of worship.

But what is worship when we hide?

What is confession when we are not giving all of ourselves – when we are not SO honest and authentic that we can feel it in our bones?

The authenticity of queer identity and expression is not the act of confession – because it’s an authenticity that doesn’t hinge on our imperfections.

Queer identity and expression is not an imperfection.

But it’s something our confession can learn from.

In confession we get honest – or we’re supposed to….

We speak together of our failures and admit our faults.
Those of queer identity and nonnormative gender expression know what it means to not always love ourselves. We know how easy it can be to internalize the isolation of not seeing ourselves in the world (or in the pulpit).

Those lucky enough to have the strength and resilience to thrive know what it means to unpack the shame placed on us, to take the harm we inflict on ourselves and lay it down.

And what more is confession than radical authenticity? To be authentic is to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable is to trust and hope for grace.

Confessional vulnerability is exactly what our worship needs. We need to break our liturgy open and examine ourselves.

Because when we do, we can truly experience the grace that Christ shows us.
The grace to dance.

To laugh.

To live.

To be.

Negotiation forces us to examine ourselves deeply.

Examination allows us to know ourselves intimately.

This way, we can harness the strength to accept Christ’s love and grace.

Our confession can learn more about how to know yourself intimately from queer, trans, and nonbinary persons.

We know how to proclaim as Brooke and Carmen Xtravaganza do in Paris is Burning, singing, “I am what I am, I am my own special creation!”

And we know how to show grace to those that can’t see our authenticity as beautiful.

Thanks be to God.


Max Hill is passionate about relationships, community building, and the intersection of faith and identity. He has recently served as the Student Minister for Contextual Exploration, Community Engagement, and LGBTQ Belonging at Maryland Presbyterian Church outside of Baltimore. He has also served as a Student Pastor for LGBTQ Fellowship at Broad Street Ministry and Brick Presbyterian Church in the City of New York. Before that, Max was a grant writer and New Worshiping Community founder/facilitator with United Campus Ministry at the University of Arkansas. Max is in his senior year at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Our Challenge is Not Decline. It’s Racism.

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Kerri N. Allen

It is often the case that General Assembly resolutions do not feel connected to our local congregations. As much as anything, that is because resolutions are statements about our life as a corporate body. This resolution is about how our larger denomination relates to Black Presbyterian congregational ministry and, as such, I believe that it can only go so far to address the challenge of being Black and Presbyterian. Black congregational instability is only one issue that is facing Black Presbyterians, and in 2018, I dare say that it is not the most significant. The challenge of being Black in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not about decline. It is about racism.

Recently, I heard a preacher say that racism was not a stain on the American flag, it was the thread that sewed the flag together. The challenge of being Black in the PCUSA mirrors the overall challenges of being Black in the United States. That thread of racism that exists from the earliest days of European colonizers is embedded throughout every corner of this nation and, as such, is part of the very ethos of the PCUSA.

I know this from my own painful personal story on the “challenge of being Black in the PCUSA” that I shared publicly a few years ago. This experience resonated with many and I heard from close to 40 other ministers of color (including many Black Presbyterians) who thanked me for sharing a narrative that is all too familiar. Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, Dr. Camille Dungy wrote about the challenge of being Black in the PCUSA from her view from the pew.

As Christians, we should understand that racism is a sin. Sin demands a theological response of confession and repentance. While a generalized, sanitized lip service of “racism is bad” is commonplace in the PCUSA, explicit naming of the structural sin that permeates the life and history of the denomination has failed to occur.

When we are able to be honest about the Southern Presbyterian slaveholder money that built institutions, congregations, and denominational relics – many which are used for good – we will begin some real work of confession. When Northern Presbyterians recognize that many of their good intentions in “reunification” that led to the creation of the PCUSA also decimated the infrastructure of Black Presbyterian institutions, we can claim that we have made some honest progress toward confession.

From confession, the real work of repentance can take place. Real, biblical repentance is the only faithful path. Genuine biblical repentance is what Jesus shows us in his encounter with Zacchaeus. It goes beyond apology and requires actively turning away from previous actions, acknowledging the good pain and even anger that exists by those who have been wronged, and actively committing to do better. Biblical repentance is costly and uncomfortable, and it is the only path to reconciliation.

When those of us who claim to follow Jesus begin to take seriously theological imperatives that bring about justice and reconciliation, the frustrations that are expressed by Black Presbyterians will be addressed because there will no longer be excuses in addressing them. It is from that place that we can see real progress and wholeness in our relationships with one another.


Kerri N. Allen is a Reformed and womanist theologian, PhD student, and hospital chaplain. Originally from St. Paul, MN, when Kerri is not buried in a book or writing a paper, she enjoys hiking, travel, watching sports, cooking or spending time with one of her many nieces or nephews.

Small and Imperfect

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used. How have you used the Sarasota Statement? What is your reaction to these phrases? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Andrew Kukla

“We, a small and imperfect reflection of the church…”
– Sarasota Statement, Preamble

A friend and I have a little saying we use with each other: “Pulling out the splinter.”

Let me back up. A couple of years ago I posted on FB about one of my children having multiple splinters in their hand and how painful it must be and that I was amazed how long they had gone without asking for help. I was making a statement of part amazement and part empathy. That is all. A statement.

And then 25 people chirped in to tell me how to get splinters out of a child’s hand.

I didn’t ask for help. Frankly, I didn’t need help. I have 4 very active children; I’ve figured out my methods of pulling out splinters. But people just cannot help themselves when it comes to helping others. They must tell you what you are doing wrong and how to fix it.

Back it up some more. I sat in the room we used in my residency for Clinical Pastoral Education with tears streaming down my face. My colleagues had filed out of the room, and my supervisor and I sat there in silence. I was wrung out. I was in a place of despair. I had shared that, and my colleagues did everything they could to fix me. I told my supervisor, “I don’t want to learn from this… but all I’m thinking right now is about how much training we went through not to fix people and yet still we don’t get it. And I’m learning to be a better chaplain as they try to fix my grief, but I don’t want to learn from this.”

We cannot help ourselves when it comes to helping people.

We yearn to be helpful and end pain around us, but also… we crave being the authority. We crave it everywhere for everything — our own myth of omni-competency. Polity, parenting, theology, cultural decay and generational theory, chapter and verse of our canon within the canon of the Bible, politics, purity, and yes, even the best way to remove a splinter. We cannot pass up an opportunity to tell someone how to do things better if they just listen to us. It has me weary of many of the ways I used to enjoy being a part of the Church, and I will admit I have removed myself from most clergy groups I used to belong to because they began to feel like know-it-all groups and I wasn’t interested in what they were selling.

And so… I have grown jaded when I see a statement that starts out saying, “a small and imperfect reflection of the church.” Do we mean it? Will our life-our statements AND practices-bear it out? Do we see ourselves as small? Do we think, from beginning to end, that we are primarily… imperfect? Are we willing to abdicate the authority of perfection? Will we set aside authority at all? Or do we, while giving a tip of the hat to buzzy words and phrases, also imagine that we are right about most things, most of the time?

As I sit here at the beginning of the Sarasota Statement and read “a small and imperfect reflection of the church,” my hope and challenge to myself, and to you, is that we hold that thought close from beginning to end. We are naming big challenges here. Moral arc of the universe kind of challenges. And if we think we know the answers before we start — while we are walking and, frankly, any time before the work is done — we are wrong. Let’s take this journey to justice freed from our preconceived answers, our mantles of authority, and chains of righteousness.

Let’s admit, truly, that we are small (but of divinely ordained significance) and imperfect (beloved of God) and that is exactly why we have to sit in the room with the excluded, the disinherited, and the oppressed and let them speak for a while… a good long while. Before we ever — if we ever — speak. Because our job is not to fix it, but to bear witness.

I see you, I hear you, I value you, I love you. And that is all I know.

“We, a small and imperfect reflection of the church…”


Andrew Kukla is a pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho.

Road Signs and Tough Topics

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Last fall, after much cajoling from my children, we spent an afternoon at Cox Farms for their fall festival, a beloved institution here in Northern Virginia. I say “cajole,” because after many annual pilgrimages when my children were younger, I was ready for some new autumn traditions for our teen and tweens. But they are adamant about going. For them, it’s a connection to childhood and a pleasant place to be together as a family. (I suspect the giant cylindrical bags of fresh crisp kettle corn can’t hurt.)

Thanks in part to my connection with NEXT Church and our emphasis on inclusion and diversity, I like to look around the places I go to see how racially and culturally diverse they are. Who is here? Who is conspicuously not here, and why might that be? That day last October, I noticed way more people of color at Cox Farms than I ever had before. I couldn’t be sure whether the demographics of the clientele had actually changed, or whether I was seeing with new eyes groups of people who were always there… but the difference was striking.

It was only later that I found out about Cox Farms’s tradition of feisty signage. It began many years ago with two rainbow flags flying over the hay-bale tunnel. Then, a Black Lives Matter sign in the window of the family home, followed some time later with a message on their marquee expressing love for their immigrant neighbors. Again, I’m not privy to Cox Farms’s statistics on clientele. But it stands to reason that in a culture in which whiteness is considered the default, historically marginalized populations won’t simply assume they are welcome somewhere unless they are explicitly welcomed. I couldn’t help but think of the church: what topics we take up together, what remains unspoken, and how we express our welcome. If we’re not specific and heartfelt in our language, if we rely on generic words like “all” and “everyone,” our message will not get through. It’s too easy for “everyone” to be followed by an implicit “…who looks like me,” especially when the community and its leadership are homogenous already.

This month’s focus for the NEXT Church blog will be on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used.

There are many themes woven into the statement — the nature of Christ’s kindom; the need for the church to be a vehicle of change — but a major theme is our call to dismantle forces of oppression, notably systemic racism. And guess what? Cox Farms took on that one too, with a sign a couple of months ago that said “Resist White Supremacy.” It didn’t take long for some folks to respond with angry letters and calls for a boycott. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of comments and messages on the business’s Facebook page were positive (and I vowed never again to push back on my kids’ nostalgic desire for hayrides and fresh-pressed apple cider).

The Cox family was baffled by the negative response. As an article in the Washington Post put it, “Who, other than a white supremacist, would be offended by a message condemning white supremacy? [The family] also understood, though, that this is America in 2018, a time of such fierce division that even voicing opposition to the ugliest beliefs could be twisted or taken out of context.”

I am not so coy as to pretend there isn’t political resonance in words like “Black Lives Matter,” “resist,” and “white supremacy.” That doesn’t mean that the church should avoid them, but should lean into them even more. The church is a unique institution, ideally suited to talk about these matters in a deeper way, in communities that pledge to be with and for another not because we agree, but because we are united in Jesus Christ. If tough topics make us recoil, it’s probably because we’re feeling implicated, and that’s never a comfortable feeling. But our bristling may also be a sign that we haven’t talked about them enough. We need to push into that discomfort; otherwise we will never change and grow. The Sarasota Statement provides language — and the study guide, a framework — that allows for such faithful proclamation and exploration. Onward.


MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a writer, free-range pastor, speaker, and leadership coach living in Virginia. She is author of the forthcoming God, Improv, and the Art of Living, and 2012’s Sabbath in the Suburbs. She is a former chair of NEXT Church’s strategy team, and was recognized by the Presbyterian Writers Guild with the 2015-2016 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award.

Diversity, Hospitality, and the Face of Poverty

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by John Wilkinson

The Reverend William Briggs died this July at the age of 86. Bill Briggs was a Presbyterian minister born in Pennsylvania, whose distinguished ministry was lived out in Ohio. Among other things, Bill served with my dad as the minister for community outreach at Central Presbyterian Church in Zanesville, Ohio, a medium-sized, county seat congregation.

Bill Briggs was the first exposure I really had as a kid to a vision of the church’s mission beyond its walls. In this case, his ministry was extensively with the Appalachian poor who dwelled throughout southeastern Ohio. Bill Briggs worked hard at an important task, dismantling the boundaries and blurring the lines between those with means and those without in that very economically diverse community. He remains a kind of iconic role model for me.

Our Confession of 1967 states that: “The reconciliation of humankind through Jesus Christ makes it plain that enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation. Because Jesus identified himself with the needy and exploited, the cause of the world’s poor is the cause of his disciples. The church cannot condone poverty, whether it is the product of unjust social structures, exploitation of the defenseless, lack of national resources, absence of technological understanding, or rapid expansion of populations. The church calls all people to use their abilities, their possessions, and the fruits of technology as gifts entrusted to them by God for the maintenance of their families and the advancement of the common welfare. It encourages those forces in human society that raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living. A church that is in different to poverty, or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God.” (9.46 c., Inclusive Language Version)

Read that paragraph over several times. Though 50 years old, it could have been written this very day, with its political and cultural analysis and its theological clarity. That phrase in particular, “enslaving poverty in a world of abundance,” convicts us, does it not?

There is no doubt in my mind that among the important discussions about equity and justice, the church is called to have a sustained conversation and hatch a rigorous action plan to combat “enslaving poverty.” Our political and economic worlds ignore it. The church is not sure where to begin, let alone what to do. This is a confession – it is not as if I have a clear plan as well. I simply know the gospel mandate and the demands of our confession and ordination vows.

In Rochester, New York, we discuss the “crushing concentration of poverty” that has educational implications and racist underpinnings. Black and Hispanic people in our community, and particularly children, fare worse than white people in nearly every measure of quality of life. Even with blue ribbon panels and significant public money going to the effort, the needle moves barely, if at all. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said. Do we believe that? And if so, what are we doing about it?

But in a blog series about diversity, the question takes on even deeper meaning. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour in this nation.” That was true racially. It certainly remains true economically, and perhaps even more so.

Along with every other form of diversity, what would it look like for the church to pursue economic diversity? What would it look like for rich and poor to co-exist in the life of a congregation, so that those surface differences would remain just that?

It’s a difficult challenge. Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, where I am privileged to serve, seeks to address the despairing impact of poverty through housing and hunger ministry, through educational ministry in public schools, through direct service and efforts to change the economic status quo. Yet as important as those programs and efforts are, they rarely take the next step of engaging the poor in the journey itself.

Our presbytery recently closed a congregation called Calvary-St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. We are attempting to resurrect mission and ministry in its former building. What I loved about Calvary-St. Andrew’s was that it was one of the few congregations I’ve ever experienced where there was no distinction in participation and membership between those with financial means and those without. No distinction. That caused people to recalibrate expectations all over the place. And such recalibration was very good.

What would it look like for more of us – congregations in rural settings, in suburban and urban ones as well – to embrace the vision of seeking true economic diversity? Can we imagine and envision it? Can we move beyond whatever barriers that we’ve constructed within our own spirits and within our own congregations?

Paul wrote in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

What if we simply extended that metaphor to say “there is no longer rich or poor…”

Bill Briggs modelled that vision for me long ago, and then lived that vision in his ministry. I am grateful for that witness. May we “raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living.” And having done that, may our congregations and communities reflect the true diversity and full hospitality that God dreams for us all.


John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY. He has been active on the presbytery and national levels, including on the Strategy Team for NEXT Church, and loves our connectional culture and confessional legacy.

A Place of Response and Action

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Frances Rosenau

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

Paulo Freire

The NEXT Church National Gathering really stuck with me this year. I’ve been to a previous National Gathering and came home inspired and renewed. The same thing happened in 2017 as well.

What was different this year was the sense of urgency and action. Gone is the “woe is me” trope that the denomination of our past is shrinking. Instead of reacting to the situation in the church at large, the National Gathering is now a grassroots gathering for something: for including all voices at the table, for amplifying the contributions of young leaders, and for standing up against injustice.

The Sarasota Statement has had a lot of buzz since it debuted at the National Gathering. I particularly appreciate how the statement directly addresses groups of people and actions that will be taken to bring reconciliation. Not simply a statement of faith, this statement addresses its intended audience and brings the conversation to a place of response and action.

Through the month of May, the congregation I pastor, Culver City Presbyterian Church, is taking four Sundays to walk through the Sarasota Statement in worship. Below are the sermon titles, scripture passages, and themes of each service, each of which corresponds with one part of the Sarasota Statement.

Preamble 

“Kingdom Come” Matthew 6:7-15

The Preamble of the Sarasota Statement is rich with theology and imagery, the most grounding image being that of the coming kingdom. Jesus is Lord over a kingdom that exists already, as the statement reads. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus prays for the kingdom to be present on Earth as it already exists in heaven. That means God’s kingdom is possible; a reign free of violence, starvation, and injustice can be achieved on this earth, not just in heaven. Jesus prayed for it and Jesus calls us to join in that kingdom work here and now.

Part 1 – To the people we ignore, reject, or demonize for living outside the tribes we claim

“Peace in All Its Forms” Luke 8:1-3

We claim so many tribes. Like the star-bellied sneetches in the Dr. Seuss story, we create differences between people even if they don’t already exist. And when they do exist, we oftentimes become so entrenched in our own tribes that we “ignore, reject or demonize” others.

First, we recognize what tribes we claim, whether we have done it intentionally or not. Then we work to build a community across those tribes just as Jesus calls us to. Jesus called women to leadership, even though they were outside of the “tribe” of maleness he was a part of. Systems of power and privilege keep divisions in place, and we commit to intentionally work against them.

Part 2 – To the people we dehumanize and dismiss on the basis of political and ideological differences, and those who suffer at the hands of our idolatry

“Watered Down Idolatry” Jeremiah 29:4-7

The people in exile had lived through so much suffering, they held the Babylonians in contempt. They had been wronged and abused and could not see the humanity in the people keeping them there. And yet God through Jeremiah calls them to build houses and marry into Babylonian families. The people hearing these words likely did not welcome the call. They wanted to protect their identity and not open themselves up to the Babylonians.

Our context is quite different, and yet we often “conflate Jesus’ message with political platforms and look to partisan ideologies to affirm [our] ethics and action.” We commit to prayer for our political system and our leaders as well as speaking on behalf of those silenced or who may differ from us.

Part 3 – To the people for whom we have failed to seek justice, offer hospitality, or fully embrace as part of God’s beloved family

“On the Other Foot”  Leviticus 19:33-34

Whenever I travel in other countries and am confused or lost, I have overwhelming gratitude for locals who come to my aid. As a teenager, the light bulb went off – Oh, this is how all the foreign exchange students in my school must have felt. 

“For you were aliens in the land of Egypt…” is God’s not-so-subtle reminder of when the shoe was on the other foot. Welcoming and protecting immigrants and refugees is as ancient a practice as our faith. God’s people are on the move throughout scripture, often moving either toward conquest or fleeing from it. This is still our story. As people whose story transcends the narrative of any one ethnic group or lineage, we are called to listen to the stories of those who are moving now and stand with them.

The Church is called to live differently than the powers and principalities of this world. We are called to stem the cultural tide of racism and inequality in the way we do church, to intentionally work against our biases and form a community of equality. Since we swim in the waters of injustice from Monday to Saturday, we have to work very hard at doing things differently in the Church.

The NEXT Church National Gathering this year and the Sarasota Statement in particular has given me sustaining water for the long journey, overflowing to my congregation and beyond.


Frances Wattman Rosenau is the Pastor of Culver City Presbyterian Church in the Los Angeles area. Her DMin studies focused on multicultural and multiethnic worship. She has a passion for the global church and has lived in India, Scotland, Arizona, Upstate New York, Paris, Chicago, and Tulsa. When Frances is not at church you will find her training for a race, reading about bulldozers with her boys, or searching for her husband in a used bookstore.

Making Room at the Table

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Brandon Frick is curating a series about the Sarasota Statement, a new confessional statement in response to the current state of the church and world. The series will feature insights from the writers and conveners of the group. What are your thoughts on the Statement? How might you use it in your context? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Katherine Lee Baker

Beloved in Christ Jesus, I feel like an imposter among you! In fact, even as my heart abounds with joy and gratitude for the opportunity and honor it has been to be part of the Sarasota Statement as a NEXT Church initiative, I must admit that I felt quite out of place in participating.

I celebrate that I am a relatively young, recently divorced, first-generation pastor and I am a spirited woman of color, but (dare I say it) I am not ordained in the PCUSA. Now, I have served several of your congregations by formula of agreement and I have mooched off your institutions for my theological training, but truthfully I am committed to the Reformed Church in America and I remain largely naïve about the ongoings of your tradition. Heck, I’ve never even been to Montreat!

And so while my ecumenical colleagues were deep in thought (searching for words and wisdom to describe what we believe and how we might respond as people of faith), I was completely panicking – wondering whose seat I had accidentally taken in order to be there.

Who were the people, really, that needed to be present at the table?

Would hearers of the message be critical that an outsider’s voice had been included?

What could I possibly contribute as an individual not entirely familiar with the spiritual mores of the denomination?

All these fears and doubts came with me from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Perhaps they got lost with my luggage because they never made it home.

You made room for me. You welcomed me as one of your own. (And you didn’t even haze me or subject me to a trust fall!) From the first Skype call to the final blog post, I have genuinely felt that I am part of this conversation as a collaborator and peer. I showed up to listen, and you let me speak. I showed up to dialogue, and you let me dream. You gave me a place – especially at a time when I felt out of place.

In a day and age when so many people have chosen to write a “Dear John” letter to the church, the ministry of NEXT Church seized the opportunity to write the Sarasota Statement that actively demonstrated what it means to include one another and to seek out the alien and stranger. I am blessed by your courage to broaden the world’s understanding of God’s kingdom and I have renewed my commitment to do the same.


Katherine Lee Baker has a passion for worship, discipleship, and community engagement for the whole church. Currently serving as a pastor at Central Reformed Church (Grand Rapids, MI), she actively seeks opportunity for ecumenical collaboration, interfaith dialogue, and empowering our next-gen leaders. Follow her on Twitter at @RevKatieBaker.

God’s Beloved Community

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Brandon Frick is curating a series about the Sarasota Statement, a new confessional statement in response to the current state of the church and world. The series will feature insights from the writers and conveners of the group. What are your thoughts on the Statement? How might you use it in your context? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Bertram Johnson

One of the things that I appreciate most about being Presbyterian is the interconnected nature of the denomination. While we express them in a variety of ways, our theology, liturgy, worship, and confessions affirm that our faith in God and Jesus are lived and shared in a diverse community with a common purpose and voice.

Although the previous statement is true, as an African American in this predominantly white denomination I have had many experiences that caused me to question the value of my presence in the PCUSA. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, there was a point after seminary when, due to the church’s polity, I decided to discontinue the pursuit of my call. At that moment, it was more important to feel wholly loved in my relationship with God outside of ordained ministry than to endure a fractured and incomplete life within it. Our theology, confessions, etc. have not always been used to create a place of welcome, grace, or inclusion for people who share my experience. Regardless of the past – or current – challenges I experience within the church, I know without a doubt I am called to serve Christ in this community.

When I was invited to help compose this statement of faith and action, I immediately felt a sense of apprehension. Not only was it a significant undertaking to speak theologically and prophetically to the issues of our day, I wanted to be certain that I could bring my whole self to the occasion. It was also vital that the communities in which I hold membership and those I care for see themselves, their struggles, and passions voiced here.

In writing the Sarasota Statement we sought to be faithful to where we sensed the Spirit leading us. Even so, it is not a perfect document. It does not speak to every person whose life and dignity are threatened by the culture and policies practiced by our nation or our Church. In its brief format, we do not address every sin that wounds our spirits, church, and world. But I hope that what you find here encourages you to discover a deeper faith, grounded in humility and courage. I hope these words inspire you to see and confront how our actions and lack of action prevent many from participating fully in God’s beloved community.

I am grateful to add my name to this offering to the PCUSA and the wider Church. I am proud of the ways our group wrestled with our faith and supported each other to achieve what I believe is a significant call to justice and radical love. I am also grateful to share in a denomination that is continuously being reformed, seeking deeper connections, broadening our reach, and exploring more authentically what it means to live in the unity and body of Christ.


Bertram Johnson is Minister of Advocacy, Justice, and Change at Riverside Church in New York City. He has provided pastoral care and social service leadership in churches, non-profits, and faith-based organizations dedicated to justice and public health. Most recently, Bertram worked nationally to promote awareness and access to prevention and support services among communities most disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS. Bertram holds a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Master of Social Work from Rutgers University.