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Collaboration stokes fire for faith-based advocacy

PC(USA) and Columbia Theological Seminary join to educate students

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Students from Columbia Theological Seminary visited Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries in New York to learn about their Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project, an urban rooftop garden. (Courtesy of Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries and PMUN)

LOUISVILLE — After a two-year hiatus, a collaboration between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Columbia Theological Seminary recently resumed with students traveling to the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations (PMUN) and the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness (OPW) to learn about effective environmental advocacy.

A half-dozen students, studying to obtain their Doctor of Ministry (DMin) or Master of Divinity (MDiv) degrees, spent one week with PMUN and an additional week with OPW in July, doing activities related to the theme “Faith in the Time of Climate Action.”

The collaboration, which takes place roughly every other year, has existed in various formats since around 2003 but had to be put on hold in recent years due to issues related to the pandemic, said Dr. Mark Douglas, a Columbia Seminary professor of Christian Ethics who led the students.

Sue Rheem, the PC(USA) representative to the United Nations, said, “This was the first time we’ve had (the) in-person seminar since Covid and it was really wonderful to engage with the students in person. We didn’t realize how much we had missed the exchange that can happen when you are gathered physically in one space.”


Columbia Seminary students led chapel at an ecumenical service. They are pictured with employees of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations (PMUN) and others. (Photo courtesy of PMUN)

The time with PMUN included visiting with ecumenical partners and different non-governmental organization personnel in the New York area and stopping by places such as the Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project of Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries, which operates a rooftop garden to feed the community. The students also toured the headquarters of the United Nations.

The following week, the students visited OPW in Washington, D.C., to learn about PC(USA)’s national work and to meet with congressional representatives.

“There was outstanding engagement in the form of questions, sharing background and visions for ministry,” said the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, director of OPW and PMUN. “Partners from the Disciples of Christ and others had conversations to share the strategies for advocacy as done in their world. It’s one of the best moments in the year, especially with the limited opportunities to engage face-to-face over the past two years.”

Douglas said the learning opportunity is important because “effective advocacy takes some training and grows in meaning — at least for the church — to the degree that there are some theological bases for it. Too often, I think students are told they should be advocates without that training and without much clarity on why doing it coheres within their various theological traditions.”

The format helps the students flow from discovery (coming to understand an issue at deeper levels) to advocacy (thinking about what the church can do about that issue) to practicality (thinking about what the students might do in their own ministry settings), Douglas said.

Students from Columbia Theological Seminary spent alternating weeks with the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations and the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness to learn about effective environmental advocacy. (Photo courtesy of PMUN)

During their visit with the PMUN, the students interacted with representatives from the World Council of Churches and other partners, such as GreenFaith and the Bahá’i international community. “They learned what the faith communities are doing to tackle climate change in the UN and global context and learned from the speakers … the theological basis for their work and what gave them hope as they continue to care for Creation,” Rheem said.

As part of the program, the Rev. Barrett Abernethy, a DMin student who’s head of staff at the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church in Sandy Springs, Georgia, met with an aide to U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Georgia) to champion the Environmental Justice for All Act.

“I just felt more at ease,” Abernethy said. “I felt like they had given us the tools that we could go in there with and also allowed us the elasticity to frame it so that we could have a productive conversation. I was the first one in the class who was able to connect with a congressional office and meet with them.”

Abernethy also enjoyed getting the opportunity to meet with PC(USA) ecumenical partners, such as members of the Bahá’i and Quaker communities.

“That gets to the largesse of this issue,” he said. “If we’re not all in this together, despite our differences, I do think, unfortunately, the world will fall woefully short in confronting this paramount issue of our time.”

The Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations and the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness are among the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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