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‘Be the change the world is missing’

San Francisco pastor Theresa Cho closes APCE conference with a challenging charge to attendees

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The University of the Ozarks Chamber Singers offered special music Saturday during closing worship at the national gathering of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Those attending closing worship Saturday at the national gathering of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators shared communion around round tables, rocked along with musicians David LaMotte and Zach Light-Wells, enjoyed music provided by the University of the Ozarks Chamber Singers and heard one last time from the Rev. Dr. Theresa Cho, pastor of St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco.

Before her homily during closing worship, Cho delivered a talk and answered questions from among the 650 or so people in attendance.

Like many Americans, the minds of church educators and pastors “are like (an internet) browser, and we have 50 tabs open” at once, she said. “We are so concerned about everything that we care about nothing,” which she defined as compassion fatigue. One survey among first responders, helping professionals including nurses and chaplains, showed the favorite part of their day was lunch, “a time they can gather with friends and be nourished with food and stories,” Cho said. “They can rest, retreat and share in each other’s burdens.”

Cho invited those in attendance to close a couple of their open browsers “so we can focus on what God calls us to do.” One she’s closed recently is her weekly habit of cuddling babies in the intensive care unit of a San Francisco hospital, which she’s been doing the past six years. “I felt called to let that go, so I turned in my hospital badge at the beginning of the year,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t ache for it, but something else is drawing my attention” — the chance to work with others pursuing more affordable housing options in one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets.

“When you do let go, it doesn’t mean (the work) won’t be picked up by others,” Cho said, offering her audience this caveat: “We are called to focus and double down on what we are called to do.”

Around the tables, attendees shared with one another which tabs they too planned to soon close.

In her ministry, Cho said she’s heard this warning from a number of parishioners: “I don’t want to hear about politics in the church.” As attendees’ heads nodded, Cho said, “I can sense you’ve heard that too.”

“I’m not going to judge you on how you vote,” she assures parishioners. Nor will she divide Democrats and Republicans the same way as Jesus divides goats and sheep in Matthew 25.

“But nothing is more political than the church, and we all know it,” she said. “Who is invited to the table where decisions are made? … At baptism, we tell people you are loved and accepted, and we tell them to leave politics at the door. We deserve the reputation of being outdated and obsolete.” Even though our services might feature great worship with excellent music, “we have people with real issues who have come seeking a safe place where they can be heard and seen.”

“If their stories don’t transform us to go outside the box and change the world, (the theme of the annual gathering) we are not being the church.”

Closing worship included communion served around round tables. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

Cho gave those in attendance three charges, each with two parts.

  • Get over yourself, but at the same time bring all of yourself. “Do whatever you need to do” — therapy, support group or more education, and “get out there” to see and hear people’s stories. At the same time, be “all God created you to be,” including one’s sexual orientation, immigration status, class and educational attainment. “Bring all of who you are to the table because we need all of it.”
  • Be better — kinder, more generous, more compassionate, “loving in a way that’s abundant and not scarce.” At the same time, “know you are good enough just as you are. Don’t wait until you have read enough books or talked to enough people.”
  • Do what needs to be done with a sense of urgency. “There’s no time to wait. We have to go now.” Having said that, “we are in it for the long game.” We do well to emulate Jesus, whose ministry included retreat, prayer, eating and feeding one another, “and then going back out into the world.”

After showing a brief film of how St. John’s Presbyterian Church has partnered with other San Francisco churches to help bring about the change it’s called to, Cho said this to the APCE gathering: “This is what the kingdom of heaven is like: being the change that the world is missing. I’m grateful for the hope we have that the kingdom of heaven is near, and grateful you are near to be the change the world is missing.”

During a question and answer session following her talk, Cho said it’s taken years for St. John’s, which has 70 members, to take on some of the ministries it has.

“We became a sanctuary congregation a few years ago, and not everyone was on board,” she said. “We didn’t all agree about immigration policies. The question was, can we make room to those who feel called on behalf of the church to serve in this way?” Churches, she said, can be laboratories “that contain and hold all the different ways people are called.”

Presbyterian News Service will have more reports next week on APCE’s national gathering.

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