Compassion, Peace & Justice adapted to 2020 through collaboration and community

Ministries of presence pivoted to online connection, poised for the future, director says

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

Participants in the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program’s Southern Border Travel-Study Seminar prayed and sang outside the Los Angeles Federal Building on March 2, 2020. It was one of the last events before the PC(USA) instituted a travel and in-person meeting ban due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Rich Copley)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — As the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for work and life became clear, it was obvious they would fundamentally change the way the Compassion, Peace & Justice (CPJ) ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency operated.

Participants in the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program’s Southern Border Travel-Study Seminar helped volunteers with Unified U.S. Deported Veterans prepare food for Border Church on the Tijuana side of the southern border wall between the United States and Mexico on March 1, 2020. (Photo by Rich Copley)

From responding to disasters, to advocacy, to engaging new communities, preaching, teaching and studying, CPJ has been a ministry of presence. And in March, actual physical presence became verboten to avoid the spread of the virus. Gatherings such as CPJ Training Days in Washington, D.C., and the Mosaic of Peace journey to Israel and Palestine were canceled as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) instituted a travel ban for all national staff. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance National Response Team members could no longer travel to help after disasters and visits to mission partners across the country and around the world were canceled.

Staff couldn’t even gather at the church’s national headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky as they were all sent home to work remotely.

The CPJ ministries could have easily frozen, Compassion, Peace & Justice Director Sara Lisherness says. But they didn’t.

“CPJ said, ‘OK, we’re in a crisis. We need to do this, we need to do that,’” Lisherness says. “The hardest thing was the staff was grieving that they couldn’t do more. But they really stepped up and stepped out.”

There are nine Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries covering a broad range of endeavors from disaster response to poverty to several levels of advocacy and church policy to education and more. They are:

In addition, CPJ includes the Presbyterian Mental Health Ministry, which is facilitating the launch of the Presbyterian Mental Health Network. It is one of the many areas Lisherness highlights reflecting on CPJ’s response to the pandemic, noting resources and web programs produced by the ministry and the network as the pandemic unfolded.

“Staff has adapted,” Lisherness says. “All areas and ministries of CPJ have been providing webinars, drawing people in, and in some cases drawing new people in who might not travel or otherwise be able to connect. We’ve had to learn new ways of being present, of teaching, of preaching, and in many situations, folks are busier than they were before, and there is no downtime.”

The Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, executive director and president of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and Sara Lisherness, director of Compassion, Peace & Justice, opened Compassion, Peace & Justice Training Day 2019 at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. The 2020 gathering was canceled and went online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Rich Copley)

One of the early responses to the pandemic were grants offered by PDA, PHP and SDOP — the latter diverting funds that were intended for its 50th anniversary celebration in September to COVID relief grants. All three ministries receive funding from One Great Hour of Sharing. In addition to its own grants, PDA worked with the office of Presbyterian Mission Agency President and Executive Director the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett to offer Matthew 25 grants to vulnerable congregations during the pandemic.

Since the introduction of the Matthew 25 invitation, CPJ ministries have seen themselves as integral to the call to dismantle systemic poverty and structural racism, and the COVID-19 pandemic and uprising against systemic racism and police violence have only exemplified that role.

“The Compassion, Peace & Justice tagline is ‘Making God’s community livable for all,’” Lisherness says. “It seems like a really unlivable time, even for those of us who are most privileged, have a job, have shelter, have access to healthcare, it sometimes does feel untenable. But I really do feel like CPJ has worked really hard to keep that idea that this is God’s community, and all should have access equitably and fairly, even though that’s not the reality right now.”

Lisherness says looking back on Compassion, Peace & Justice in 2020, the two words that leap to mind are community and collaboration.

“There’s an African saying that if you want to walk fast, you walk alone, and if you want to walk far, you walk together,” Lisherness says.

“COVID at the Margins,” a webinar series produced by Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries and other PC(USA) offices, explored topics such as Anti-Asian racism and the coronavirus. (Screen shot)

Collaboration has come in a variety of ways, including the Matthew 25 grants with the director’s office. Several CPJ ministry area coordinators are working with the Office of Vital Congregations in Theology, Formation & Evangelism. Several CPJ ministries working with the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) and Racial Equity and Women’s Intercultural Ministries produced a  webinar series, “COVID at the Margins,” highlighting the impact of the pandemic on communities at the margins. Lisherness is also interim director of Presbyterian World Mission and sees collaboration with CPJ in areas such as disaster response as mission co-workers in regions including Central America have collaborated with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

One of the biggest interagency collaborations came as Lisherness convened a meeting between ministries and offices to address the issues illuminated in this summer’s uprising against systemic racism and police violence.

Compassion, Peace & Justice staff participated in the PC(USA) Bearing Witness Committee, which engaged in the fight for racial justice in the church’s home-base of Louisville, Kentucky, and across the country. One of its actions was placing signs that read “Presbyterians Affirm Black Lives Matter” on the Presbyterian Center. (Photo by Rich Copley)

Lisherness recalls the initial meeting of the Bearing Witness Committee was at 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, and it resulted in a number of activities such as late August’s Presbyterian Week of Action, including virtual and live events, and the monthlong Presbyterian Voting Campaign in October.

Part of the impetus for the concern was the fight for justice for Breonna Taylor, a Louisville woman who was killed in her apartment in March by police. Bearing Witness activities included “Black Lives Matter” banners on the Presbyterian Center and a march and vigil for Taylor.

The Rev. Denise Anderson, director of CPJ’s Office of Racial & Intercultural Justice, joined a march initiated by the Bearing Witness Committee in Louisville, Kentucky on Aug. 29, 2020. (Photo by Rich Copley)

This volunteer group has shifted priorities and leadership since it started. It includes staff from several offices who meet together regularly to plan what might come next.  “That’s what movements do,” Lisherness says. They wanted to show up, be present in the face ongoing systemic injustice in our own community and did so, she said, taking cues from local leaders of Black Lives Matter and other social justice organizations.

“I have also been amazed by the  inventiveness on the part of staff,” says Lisherness,  “such as the transformation of Peacemaking’s annual visit by international peacemakers to the United States into a virtual symposium catching up with many recent Peacemakers.”

As 2020 closes, a new year comes with more uncertainty, but the assurance that ministry will probably remain in a largely virtual space for at least a while, and probably never return to what it was before.

Participants in the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program’s Southern Border Travel-Study Seminar prayed over the head of a refugee shelter in Tijuana on Feb. 29, 2020. The event was one of the last gatherings of its kind before the PC(USA) instituted a travel and in-person meeting ban due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Rich Copley)

Lisherness quotes the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, Stated Clerk of the PC(USA)’s General Assembly saying, “The church is not dying, it’s being reformed.”

“I do think that we are in a reformation time,” she says. “It’s chaotic, but that’s one of the places where I hang my hope, that if you look throughout the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, all significant changes happen in chaos.

“So I’m going to hang my hat on something new is happening, and we may not be 100 percent clear what it is, but it is unfolding, and our task right now is to listen, and that’s why being in community is so important. We only listen part way. Our shared listening is a greater listening.”

After this year and watching how the CPJ ministries have adapted to the current situation, Lisherness says, “I also think that Compassion, Peace & Justice is well positioned to pivot to the challenges that are in front of us.”


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