A letter from Bob Rice on home assignment from Congo
“This is a good place to be”
A 12-year-old girl with a ponytail stood in the aisle, donned in a red Cardinals shirt and red-and-black high tops. This wasn’t a sports event, but rather the closing worship service of the Big Tent, a national Presbyterian gathering of worship and experiencing God’s glory here and now. The young girl held a large hand chime, raised high. She and other children were leading us in worship, helping us respond to the Word of God proclaimed. Everything about this closing service at the Kentucky International Convention Center (KICC) in Louisville was dramatic, full of life, and intentional. What stood out to me in particular was the conscious effort made to lift up marginalized persons and peoples, not through pious platitudes or plans, but by allowing these overlooked ones to lead us into God’s throne room of grace and mercy. An older blind man led us in the prayers of the people. A woman pastor from Atlanta preached a powerful message on our need to be vulnerable as we share the good news of Jesus Christ. Children were given a prominent place in the front of the assembly where they could see and participate. In regal procession, children carried forward and upward the elements of communion, the bread and grape juice, humbly presenting them to the pastors. I was baffled and blessed to see an older, blind African-American woman with her walking stick come up, aisle by aisle, collecting the offering baskets. An African-American choir traveled a long distance to lead us in animated “spirituals” during the offering and communion. This worship service was a slice of heaven! Our assembly of 1,000 children, women, and men represented a multiplicity of colors and tongues, all drawn together to give God glory. I thought to myself during the closing worship, “This is a good place to be.”
There was nothing stationary or ordinary about this extraordinary worship opportunity. After the final worship song and blessing and benediction, all 1,000 of us filed out of the KICC together. A bagpiper played "Amazing Grace" as he led us a few blocks to a street party on the waterfront. It was an exodus of unpretentious proportions and significant symbolism. We were going down to the river to celebrate 30 years of the reunification of the southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS) with her mostly northern sister, the UPCUSA. While the issue of slavery had divided the church in 1861, in 1983 the two bodies became one again, forming the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the largest and most significant body of Presbyterian Christians in America.
On the day of reunification 30 years ago, thousands upon thousands joyfully marched through the streets of Atlanta. Thousands more watched via satellite link. All told, hundreds of thousands worshipped together and took communion together, marking this epic coming together of God’s people. It was the fulfilled dream of many, including our Christian sisters and brothers across the ocean. In the late 1940s silver Celtic crosses from Scotland were presented to the moderators of the three large Presbyterian bodies: the PCUSA (northern church), the PCUS (southern church), and the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPCNA). A cross was given to the moderator of each body with the hope that the three groups would unite. In 1958 the PCUSA and the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPCNA) would merge to become the UPCUSA. In 1983 the southern PCUS body would join, fulfilling the dream of the reunification of these three groups. The former moderators of the separate and divided groups gave up their crosses as all three moderatorial crosses were welded as one cross, presented to the new moderator at the 195th General Assembly of the newly formed PC(USA). Praise God, hallelujah—a united church!
Today, despite our riveting recollection of the past on the shores of the Ohio River on a mild and pleasant day in August, our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) finds itself fractured. We struggle as our church body wrestles with issues surrounding ordination standards. We also struggle along with our wider culture, trying to understand the meaning of marriage. As a result, some of our PC(USA) churches are leaving our denominational family and will continue to do so. As one of my history professors in seminary once said, “One of the enduring legacies of the Protestant Reformation is schism.” This reality is so tragic yet true. Jesus Christ, the founder and leader of the Church, prayed for the unity of God’s people (John 17), but oh, how we struggle to declare with one heart and one voice that we are indeed one. Lord, have mercy on us.
As I consider the legacy of the PC(USA), I say with my voice, “This is a good place to be.” God has done so much for us in the past. I believe He will do more in the days ahead. Kristi and I have enjoyed travelling throughout the country and seeing many of you. Our travels will continue this fall, leading us across the Midwest, into the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, down South and out to the Southwest. Hopefully we will see you if we haven’t already. Please know that your prayers and financial gifts enable us to serve in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Thank you! :-)
May our Lord fill you with peace—
as you focus upon the glory of God!
Bob and Kristi
Bob, it was wonderful to meet you and Kristi at the Oikocredit Awards Conference in DC. I so enjoyed hearing about your work in the DRC and thoroughly enjoyed the conversation we shared about Nelson Mandela. Blessings on your work, I look forward to following you on your journey. Mary Pat