Transforming our Tradition

By Emily Powers

Over the past two months I’ve done a lot of reflecting over my experience at NEXT. I have come to some conclusions.

  • First, there is nothing better than celebrating the church with a bunch of Presbyterians.
  • Second, we all are looking for some kind of change and renewal.
  • Third, setting the scene is just as important as the content at the conference.

As I prepared to leave DC for a week, I found myself getting more excited, it helped that my housemate is the NEXT YAV (Young Adult Volunteer). I was extremely excited to get to hear Brian Ellison, my pastor of 13 years, preach and to get to see friends from all over the Presbyterian world. I also found myself excited to see a conference that was going to focus on not just creative preachers and speakers, but also focus on a creative and artistic approach to liturgy. Worship is always something special when art is valued as an important part of the experience.

Throughout the conference the audience became a part of the artistic experience. It started by taking pieces of Presbyterian works (the hymnal, the confessions) cut into pieces. First, we wrote on these pieces of our tradition what was holding us back. I wrote of my fears at putting my life into the church. Then we turned them in and they were linked into a chain wall that divided Fourth’s sanctuary. In the next service, we got up and wrote what was holding us together, as Joy Douglas Strome preached, our third spaces. I wrote about my YAV community and the amazing women I’ve been sharing this year with. In the next worship, we broke down the wall and everything that was holding us back. It was a moving experience to tear down the physical barrier that we built up around us and between us, and to see our power in community to move beyond those walls.

This was an amazing experience but what was truly remarkable was witnessing what these broken chains became. The next morning, the final day of the conference, we walked into the sanctuary to see a phoenix hanging above us. Its feathers and flames were created from our fears, our safe spaces, and our love for one another. A truly wonderful sight to see. Not only was it beautiful, but it showed the transformation that can come from all the fear and pain in the world. This collaborative art gives us hope–

  • that together we can transform the parts of our tradition that have hurt and excluded beloved children of God
  • that together, we can reconfigure the parts of our tradition that are beautiful and meaningful to fit our evolving context
  • that we can truly rise from the ashes and become something whole, created by us all.




That is what I took away from the National Gathering. That we all have different stories and different opinions, but when we work together to break down those barriers, we can become something new. The church has a long way to go to be the best it can be, but like the phoenix, we have the opportunity to be new again. I learned a lot about starting again and remembering where you came from, but also that we are better together. We learn more when we listen to all the voices, especially the voices who are often ignored. I think if we can learn all of this from something so simple as scraps of paper, then we’re off to a pretty good start.

Editor’s note: For another perspective on liturgical art at the National Gathering, check out “Scraps of Paper” by Christopher Edmonston. 

Emily Powers Emily Powers is a Young Adult Volunteer at the Washington, D.C. site where she serves with Capitol Hill Group Ministries and the Washington Seminar Center by doing street outreach and advocacy with D.C. residents experiencing homelessness. Emily is a connoisseur of hotdogs, macaroni and cheese, and–according to Netflix–‘Emotional Dramas Featuring a Female Lead.’

A “Hardened, Hurting” Homecoming

By Marranda Major

There was a commotion this morning at my bus stop. A man waved his arms furiously and jumped up and down to catch the attention of a young man walking on the opposite side of the street. When the boy crossed to join the crowd at the bus stop, the man embraced him and other elders patted the boy emphatically on the back. The boy smiled in acknowledgement and continued on his way. Another curious bystander asked, “Who was that?”

“A son of our community, come home,” answered the man.

He told us how he had watched the young man grow up in our neighborhood—a good student and star soccer player who had gotten a job at sixteen to support his mother and grandparents. “He disappeared three years ago. We knew he was in jail but were in disbelief—he was such a good kid.”

“He’s changed,” said another woman, “You can see in his face that he’s hardened, hurting.”

I don’t know this young man’s story. I don’t know his name or his charges or the conditions that led to his crime. But I do know his context, and after living in this neighborhood for the past eight months, I recognize that this community is “hardened, hurting” too. And as the tension between police brutality protesters and the militarized law enforcement is exploding in Baltimore, we see the inevitable outcome of our hearts “hardened, hurting” when our grief fails to find reconciling justice. Racially polarized reactions to the events following Freddie Gray’s death reveal that our country is “hardened, hurting” and the enormity of fixing the systemic racism that is so deeply entrenched in our justice system seems insurmountable. However, this year’s Ecumenical Advocacy Days offered our churches and faith communities a place to start.


The theme for the 2015 conference was “Breaking Chains: Mass Incarceration and Systems of Exploitation.” During worship, preachers grounded us in the scriptural basis of our tradition that calls us to see God in the faces of the imprisoned. Keynoters presented the appeals we would make to Congress:

Reform federal criminal justice and immigrant detention policies toward the goal of ending unfair, unnecessary, costly, and racially biased mass incarceration by:

  1. adopting criminal justice and sentencing reform policies that incorporate an end to mandatory minimum sentencing;
  2. and eliminating the detention bed quota for immigrants and implementing alternatives to immigrant family detention.

We would ask for our representatives to support legislation like the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015 (S. 502/H. 920) that would

  • limit the excessive mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses,
  • retroactively apply previous sentencing reforms from the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 for crack cocaine offenses which would result in an immediate reduction of the federal prison population,
  • transfer power back to the judge’s discretion in cases involving the lowest level drug offenses.

Why should Christians care about reforming sentencing procedures? And more importantly, how is drug policy related to police brutality and racism today? For me, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness made the connections between race and how people interact with the criminal justice system obvious. Alexander traces how the War on Drugs led to policies like the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act that inadvertently target poor black communities by imposing long mandatory minimum sentences for low level dealing and possession of crack cocaine, and led in part to the 750% increase in the federal prison population in the past 35 years. (Yes–you read that number correctly, a 750% increase.) For more information about drug policy and about how its implementation unfairly disadvantages the poor and people of color, I highly recommend reading The New Jim Crow.


On the final day of the gathering, nearly one thousand participants descended upon Capitol Hill to meet with their representatives. We shared stories from home to connect our elected officials with a vision of how mass incarceration is ripping apart the fabric of our communities. I joined with four other DC residents in briefing a staffer for Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton and expressing our concern that in Washington, D.C., three out of four young black men will serve time. Staffer Gamble held our concerns in consideration and shared letters with us that Representative Norton had signed onto to show her support for this legislation.

While having a positive reception to our smoothly rehearsed presentations felt like a triumph, our lobby visits did not end the conversation about mass incarceration. We did not convince all of our elected officials to vote in favor of the proposed legislation. Rather, these conversations opened up a relationship between constituents and their representatives for people of faith continue to continue advocating for just policies.


The learning from Ecumenical Advocacy Days has prepared us to engage in conversations at home with our friends and families about mass incarceration and our flawed justice system. The hard work ahead of us is in changing the collective consciousness of our communities to address systemic racism. For now, we have the tools to acknowledge our privilege; lift up the voices of returning citizens and stories of our incarcerated brothers and sisters; reframe the conversation about drug offenses from criminality to one about public health and addiction; and name the injustices we witness in our daily lives—from the death of Freddie Gray to the War on Drugs that has become a system of mass racial control—so that we can begin the change our “hardened, hurting” communities so desperately need. Lamentations asks,

“When all the prisoners of the land are crushed under foot, when human rights are perverted in the presence of the Most High, when one’s case is subverted–does the Lord see it?” (3:34-36)

By continuing the conversation, we affirm that we see it. We see the injustices our incarcerated brothers and sisters are facing. We see the need for liberation and reconciliation in our “hardened, hurting” communities. We see the opportunity before us to walk alongside “the least of these” as Christ has called us to do so.


Marranda MajorMarranda Major is a Young Adult Volunteer serving at the Washington, D.C. site where she works with NEXT Church. 



What Impact Will Young Adults Have on #nextchurch2015?

By Rocky Supinger

Thanks to Rocky Supinger for allowing us to cross-post his thoughts on the upcoming National Gathering. You can view the original post at his blog YoRocko!

NEXT Church is next week!

I’ve enjoyed blogging about past NEXT Church gatherings, for examplehere,here, and here.

This week I’m sharing four questions I’m bringing with me to my favorite annual gathering of Presbyterians [full disclosure: I helped plan this one].

Here’s my first question:

Here’s my second question:

Now my third question: what will be the impact of young adults?

The Mainline Protestant landscape is largely absent people in their 20’s, a fact that has been analyzed by multiple studies. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is not exempt from this reality, but it boasts a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program that each year commissions young adults to a year of service in a couple dozen sites in the U.S. and across the world. The PC(USA) is crawling with recent college graduates eager to impact the world, then. They’re just not in congregations.

NEXT Church national gatherings have featured young voices from the beginning, and I wonder if this one won’t do that to a greater extent than before. A Young Adult Volunteer is on the planning team and has already shaped much of what will happen. McCormick Theological Seminary’s innovative Center for Faith And Service will be on hand in the person of the incomparable Wayne Miesel, who has done more than anyone to shape the church’s thinking about ministry with young adults. One of the seven Ignite presentations will feature a trio of YAVs (see their pitch below).

Young adults–including those in seminary–will have lots of opportunity next week to connect, share, and even organize around their vision for the next embodiment of the Presbyterian Church.

There’s a YAV from my congregation coming next week at my insistence, so I’ve obviously got high hopes that NEXT Church 2015 will provide her and her peers with both an imaginative environment for discerning their place in the PC(USA) and a platform to constructively shape its future.

Rocky Srocky supinger (472x640)upinger is associate pastor of Claremont Presbyterian Church in Claremont, CA and co-director of this year’s NEXT Church National Gathering. Connect with him at his website, YoRocko!.

PCUSA Young Adult Volunteer Joins NEXT Staff

Marranda Major

YAV Marranda Major


The brand new Washington, D.C. Young Adult Volunteer site is up and running, and YAV Marranda Major has officially begun work with NEXT! Marranda grew up in Charleston, West Virginia as a part of the Kanawha United Presbyterian congregation. She graduated from Wellesley College in May 2013 with degrees in Music and Peace Studies that allowed her to focus on the role of the arts in social movements. Marranda spent last year serving as a YAV in Belfast, Northern Ireland where she split her time as a program coordinator at a community trauma center and as a youth worker at a local church. Marranda found her time in Belfast both challenging and rewarding and is very excited to be diving into YAV life again in D.C.!

Marranda is one of five YAVs beginning this week in Washington, D.C. In addition to NEXT Church, volunteers will also be working with Miriam’s Kitchen and Western Presbyterian Church; the Capitol Hill Group Ministry and Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church; and the PCUSA Office of Public Witness. The YAV program connects young adults aged 19–30 with service placements in communities of need in the United States and abroad. During their service, volunteers live in intentional community where they focus on living simply and work with mentors towards vocational discernment. Click here to learn more about the Young Adult Volunteer, or here to connect with the Washington, D.C. site on Facebook!

Want to welcome Marranda to NEXT Church? Email her at While her blog isn’t live yet, she welcomes you to bookmark it for future updates!