God’s Creative Spirit


A Letter from Doug Tilton, serving as regional liaison in Southern Africa

Fall 2023

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Dear friends,

Have you ever seen a billboard extolling the need to “Turn back to God”? There’s a sign to this effect along a road I sometimes drive in South Africa’s Western Cape. Whenever I see it, I chuckle because I feel like it should rather invite us to “Catch up with God!” God is always doing a new thing, and the Holy Spirit encourages us to keep up!

I was privileged to experience just such a sign of God’s creative spirit a few weeks ago when I attended the 15th General Assembly of the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa (UPCSA) in Harare, Zimbabwe. Not only was this the first Assembly to sit in Zimbabwe (one of four nations in which the UPCSA has congregations), but it was also the first to be moderated by a Black female pastor—the Rev. Lydia Neshangwe, a member of the Presbytery of Zimbabwe who had been elected UPCSA Moderator Designate in 2021.

To the jubilant strains of “Hoyo mushandiri waShe” (“Behold the servant of the Lord”), Rev. Neshangwe processed into the packed sanctuary of City Church in central Harare, escorted by two former Moderators. She affirmed each of the Moderator’s vows – to trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to maintain the doctrine and good order of the church, to rule the Assembly’s deliberations with justice and charity, and to perform with love the duties required of her—with an emphatic “I do,” setting off waves of ululation in the church.

The following day, Rev. Neshangwe preached on the theme that she had chosen for her term of office: “Stronger Together.” Recalling the quilts that her grandmother pieced together from fabric remnants, she pointed out that individual scraps of fabric could not provide much comfort. “But because she stitched them together,” Rev. Neshangwe observed, “it made you nice and warm.” Applying the metaphor to the church, she exclaimed: “If you want to hang out by yourself, the church will not be warm. The church will not progress. We need to be stitched together by the Holy Spirit!”

“We women have no choice but to collaborate,” she continued. “If you need to go somewhere, you’ve got to collaborate with someone to leave your babies. If you need some food in the house, you’ve got to befriend someone that can share some food. … We need to say ‘no’ now to the spirit of competition and take on the spirit of collaboration.”

The General Assembly took the Moderator’s message to heart as it wrestled with a range of challenging questions over the next five days. To facilitate collective discernment, the Assembly convened in three different types of sessions. Listening sessions heard reports from denominational officers and committees, along with recommendations for actions. Then commissioners came together in a number of small “Insaka” groups to discuss recommendations flagged in listening sessions as needing further deliberation. Decision sessions allowed the entire Assembly to hear the results of the Insaka sessions—compiled overnight by a hard-working drafting team—and to take final action. The UPCSA’s discernment process allows commissioners to indicate if they feel “cool” toward a proposal and to make adjustments until everyone eventually feels “warm” about an action.

Some of the most protracted discussions took place around matters in the report of the Church in Society Committee. The committee had solicited input from the denomination on the question of same sex unions but found the responses to their survey so divergent that they were unable to make recommendations. The debate was further complicated by the concern that in some countries under the UPCSA’s jurisdiction, the mere discussion of the topic could expose individuals to legal penalties. In the end, the Assembly noted the ethical issues raised by the debate and opted to make the Ethics and Discipline committee primarily responsible for future consideration of the question. An equally passionate discussion occurred around the committee’s gender justice recommendations, particularly the Gender Desk’s proposed theme for 2023–24 — “They do not care about us” — proposals to require presbyteries to adhere to gender equity guidelines when selecting representatives to the courts of the church.

In the end, thanks to the commissioners’ collaborative spirit and the wise counsel of the Moderator and other officers, the Assembly was able to complete its business in a timely manner. We give thanks for the Assembly’s success and for the inspiring ministry and witness of the UPCSA. The voice of the church is especially vital as Zimbabwe goes to the polls for national elections later this month.

God is also doing new things through the Harare Synod of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), another PC(USA) partner in Zimbabwe. I was pleased to have an opportunity to meet with the Synod Executive and to visit the Synod’s recently established seminary at Rock Haven, on the outskirts of Harare. The seminary’s first class of five students graduated in 2022, and three more students will finish this year, allowing the Synod to fill pastoral vacancies in all but one of its congregations. Given the CCAP’s limited means, this is an incredible achievement that demonstrates the Synod’s faith and resourcefulness.

God’s spirit of creativity and innovation has been at work in the PC(USA), too! In late June, Rev. Cheryl Barnes became Presbyterian World Mission’s Africa area coordinator, enabling Jeff Boyd and me to return full-time to our roles as regional liaisons for Central and Southern Africa, respectively. I was constantly grateful for Jeff’s experience, wisdom and collaborative approach as we sought to share these additional responsibilities on an interim basis for nearly three years. And I am incredibly thankful for Rev. Cheryl’s willingness to answer God’s call to this position and for the enormous gifts that she brings to the role.

Since 2019, she has served as a PC(USA) mission co-worker in Malawi, accompanying the General Assembly of the CCAP as it strengthens educational ministries across the denomination’s five synods in three countries, including implementing a sexual abuse prevention program called “Valuable to Jesus” in CCAP primary schools. She has also helped the denomination to improve infrastructure and implement income-generating activities. Her prior experiences in education, business and as Minister of the Word and Sacrament have helped to prepare her for this new path that God has called her to take.

And, as ever, I am grateful to you for your participation in God’s mission through your engagement with World Mission and our global partners and your support of the ministries of PC(USA) mission co-workers like me!

Grace and peace,


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