Faithful Mission: The Confession of Belhar
A bimonthly online column by Linda Valentine
Last summer, millions of people across the United States celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspiring “I Have a Dream” speech. Yet even as we reflected on the progress in civil rights since 1963, we painfully acknowledged the persistence of racism and its destructive consequences in our church and culture.
Last year, our nation watched and then debated the outcome of George Zimmerman’s trial for the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Soon thereafter, in a frank conversation on race attended by well over a hundred people at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Big Tent event, people of color spoke compellingly of the racism they still experience in the church. These are voices that need to be heard and perceptions that need to be heeded.
Rev. Kerri Allen, a corresponding member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency board and a PhD student in theology and ethics at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, is one prophetic voice in the conversation. Kerri recently said: “I feel that since [President Barack] Obama was elected, the country is much more expressive in its racism. This is demonstrated in an increase in the number of racially motivated hate crimes in the United States and doesn’t begin to deal with the more covert ways that racism operates.”
Kerri shared her perceptions following a presentation by Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick to the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board last month. Cliff, a former General Assembly stated clerk and renowned global ecumenical leader, spoke to us in his role as cochair of the Special Committee on the Confession of Belhar appointed by the 2012 General Assembly.
Because the committee just released its unanimous recommendation that the 221st General Assembly in Detroit this June approve the Confession of Belhar for inclusion in the PC(U.S.A.)’s Book of Confessions, Cliff invited board members and staff to learn about the confession’s history, message, and contemporary relevance for the PC(USA). He also asked us to advise the committee as it prepares its recommendation for the assembly.
Professed by faithful South Africans during the apartheid era, the Belhar Confession centers on the themes of unity, reconciliation, and justice. In much the same way, the PC(USA) struggles with broken relationships within the church, the enduring legacy of racism that continues to shape us as a community, and weakness of resolve in working for justice for all.
“Belhar’s message addresses issues we’re dealing with right now as a church,” says Rev. Charles Wiley, coordinator for the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s office of Theology and Worship, who, with Rev. Robina Winbush of the Office of the General Assembly, serves as staff to the Belhar committee. “Our reflection on the authors’ work will help us to see our own situation more clearly.”
Because the committee was charged with educating the whole church about the confession, a variety of study and liturgical resources has been developed, several in conjunction with Congregational Ministries Publishing, including Being Reformed: The Confession of Belhar, also available for iPad and Kindle, and The Bible and Belhar, a free resource produced by the committee. Translations of the confession are available in English, Spanish, and Korean, enabling all congregations to study together.
Last month, about 80 graduate and continuing-education students, faculty, and staff attended “Addressing Racism within the Church: Considering the Belhar Confession,” a forum at Columbia Theological Seminary led by committee members Mark Lomax, Rodger Nishioka, and Kevin Park.
After providing a short introduction to Belhar, Kevin led the group in a responsive reading of the confession. “Many people commented that they felt the power of the confession through the corporate reading,” says Kevin. “One student said that before the reading she didn’t see the point of considering adopting a confession ‘all the way from South Africa’ but ‘got it’ after the reading.”
“Anyone who studies Belhar will profit from the engagement,” Charles Wiley says. “It’s an extraordinary document written by an extraordinary people in an extraordinary time. You can’t study it and not be awed by what they did.”