J. Herbert Nelson looks back at six years in the Office of Public Witness

New stated clerk seeks to strengthen church’s role in social justice issues

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service
J. Herbert Nelson

J. Herbert Nelson

LOUISVILLE – For six years, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II was a strong voice in the ecumenical/interfaith community on Capitol Hill. He could often be seen participating in peaceful demonstrations, meeting with government leaders or praying with federal workers seeking better wages.

Nelson recently reflected on his years in D.C. and looked ahead to what the Church’s role should be in years to come.

“When I came to Washington, D.C., the synergy here had been pushed out by the previous administration. Framing and shaping of policy work for the past eight years had been left out of the process,” said Nelson. “With a change in administration, it was a time of rejoicing on one hand, but also a time to figure out the way ahead after being alienated for so long.”

Nelson said the Obama administration opened the doors again for the Washington interfaith community to engage in prophetic ministry and work. Another significant milestone, he says, was the appointment of a task force to study the Office of Public Witness and what needed to be done to ensure its future in the nation’s capital.

“There was a strong sense of commitment to maintain the OPW as a significant part of the denomination,” said Nelson. “The task force report gave us a great deal of guidance regarding some of the things that needed to be done to shape the ministry going forward. We took that very seriously as staff.”

One of the accomplishments that Nelson is most proud of is the revitalization of the church internship program, which gives students an opportunity to come and study the internal workings of both the prophetic and political connections in Washington. Nelson says it gave students an opportunity to see how the Church’s role was shaped as well as the political dynamics at work.

“To hear after this internship a zeal for the gospel, their clarity of what it meant to integrate both prophetic work in church and mainstream society and have some sense of what their role in mission would be going forward was very inspirational,” said Nelson. “Everyone from seminary and college students to individuals doing post graduate work became engaged in the process. This has been an amazing part of the shaping of the new dynamic of ministry.”

Nelson says he’s also been inspired by watching congregations become engaged in political issues and the prophetic role of ministry. “One of the most rewarding aspects of this work has been congregations shaping some sense of what it means to be both prophetic and be evangelists for the gospel, developing what it means to connect with groups,” he said.

Along with the rewards, there have been frustrations and one of the biggest, says Nelson, has been the political environment in Washington.

“The divisiveness of Washington, D.C. around party affiliations, the deep infusion of money from corporate structures, to witness the way by which political rhetoric has been diminished with personal attacks, some of which are just lude and crude,” said Nelson. “The climate has not gotten better; in fact, it has gotten worse.”

Looking ahead to the challenges as stated clerk, Nelson says he hopes to see a strengthening in the relationship between the stated clerk’s office and OPW, adding he had a great working relationship with Gradye Parsons and hopes to build on that. “We are on the same policy pages and we are advocating our different spheres from the PC(USA) and the arena by which the political and diplomatic dynamics are taking place.”

“The second challenge is going to be rising above the political rhetoric that takes place, speaking with integrity for the church and be a witness for Jesus Christ,” he said. “If by public statement, speaking before congressional leaders or speaking truth to power, we have to continue to witness with a level of integrity and not become deterred or trapped by the kind of rhetoric that is taking place in D.C. which has no place whatsoever in society.”

Nelson said it will be important for congressional leadership to embrace ministries that meet the contextual realities of the communities in which they exist.

“This will require being open to the Spirit through prayer and submission,” he said. “Presbyterians must come to grips with the fact that the Church does not belong to us, it belongs to God. Our desires must address God’s will.”

Nelson said it has been an honor and pleasure to serve with OPW and the denomination in Washington. He hopes the church can continue to move forward in its ministry while interacting with the political community.

“The gospel speaks clearly, we are to go into all nations to make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” said Nelson. “Scripture directs us that we are baptized to be disciples, to do something for the Lord. It is not for us to just be sitting in our sanctuary singing praises to the Lord.”

While speaking at General Assembly, Nelson said we must take our minds off of the church as an institution and begin putting our minds on the Kingdom of God.

“I believe as a denomination, we have to raise our sites because our aim is too low,” he said. “We have to have discussions about the Kingdom of God and its righteousness and how we relate to what it means to have a vision far beyond ourselves.”

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