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‘We either have fun learning or we give in to despair’


PC(USA) Co-Moderator, UCC Capitol Hill advocate talk formation, faith and the future

December 19, 2022

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins is Associate Director of Advocacy for the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries.

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins and the Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C.  — together with National Capital Presbytery — recently hosted two women of faith who regaled a Zoom audience with stories of the decades they’ve spent advocating for and ministering to God’s people.

One of Hawkins’ guests — Sandy Sorensen, director of the Washington Office for the United Church of Christ — had only to climb a flight of stairs to the PC(USA)’s Washington Office to participate in the hourlong discussion, which also featured the Rev. Ruth Santana-Grace, Co-Moderator of the 225th General Assembly and the executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Philadelphia.

Sorensen grew up in a UCC church in suburban Chicago, where she had an “off and on journey with the church.” During her undergraduate studies at Grinnell College, she served a time during field placement with a Presbyterian church in Newton, Iowa, during the height of the farm crisis in the 1980s. “I had the experience of sitting with families through their loss. It was transformative for me,” Sorensen said. She went on to the Yale Divinity School and arrived at the UCC’s Washington Office in the summer of 1990.

Born in New York City, Santana-Grace is “a descendent of the [Puerto Rico] diaspora,” she said. “I am indeed a cradle Presbyterian, of the Hispanic Presbyterian thread. The church formed me.”

The Rev. Ruth Santana-Grace

In college, “I was an avowed practicing agnostic,” marrying “someone who would become a Presbyterian clergyperson.”

She earned an MDiv at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she recently completed a 12-year stint on the seminary’s board of trustees.

While still in high school, Sorensen’s church had a youth minister “who was very justice-oriented, and that changed my life,” she said. “The idea that justice and church could be together was always with me.”

So were two themes that have served her well throughout her long career: servant leadership, which she learned in part from her mother, a “quiet church leader,” and accompaniment, which she saw during the early 1990s in her then roommate, a student at the Howard University School of Divinity, who was “doing a lot of work with people living with HIV/AIDS. It was amazing to bridge cultural differences and hear their stories,” Sorensen said.

Santana-Grace said family members encouraged her to go to college. “People thought we mattered,” she said.

“It’s so important for young people to have that experience that you matter, that I’m interested in what you have to say,” Sorensen said in reply. “I am so aware of that now — really listening to young people.”

Both leaders spoke fondly of their ecumenical experiences.

Sandy Sorensen is director of the United Church of Christ’s Washington Office.

“Our denominations are not a sign of, ‘Look at us!’” Santana-Grace said. “We are supposed to be people of the gospel, and we let disagreements become our idolatry.”

Sorensen called her denomination’s commitment to ecumenical and interfaith work “part of our DNA as the UCC. We are a merger of four faith traditions. ‘That they may all be one’ has always been part of our vision. My life is so much richer and deeper through hearing other ways of telling the story and experiencing different rituals.”

 How, Hawkins asked the two, can a church that believes in reconciliation play a role today?

“I take people back to Hebrew Scripture,” Sorensen said. Leviticus and Deuteronomy, she said, show us “ways of ordering our common life together. Really, that’s what politics is. I try to help people distinguish between partisanship and the political part, making decisions and sharing resources. With that understanding, we can tackle tough issues.”

Now in her 33rd year serving the UCC’s Washington Office, “I am more certain than ever” about “the merger between the pastoral and the prophetic. The work is about accepting people and being prophetic people, saying, ‘This is not who we are called to be.’”

“I don’t know the future of denominational identities,” Sorensen said. “But at the heart of it is the call to love one another. How we live that out may look different, but that’s at the core.”

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: Formation, faith and the future

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
David Maxwell, VP/Geneva Press & Church Relations, Presbyterian Publishing Corporation
Deidra May, Mission Specialist, Special Offerings, Mission Engagement & Support, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)

Let us pray

Gracious and eternal God, you call us to share with others what we have received from you: physical and financial resources, time, unconditional love and the mercy shown to all in Christ Jesus. Grant us such a generous spirit, we pray, that others may hear and see Christ in the words we speak and the work we do, and may they proclaim with joy, “God is good!” Amen.

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