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Joys of collaboration

Connectional mission reaps benefits all around the table

by Jo Ella Holman | Mission Crossroads

Members of Long Island Presbytery and the Guines congregation of Havana Presbytery give thanks. (Photo by Barbara D’Andrea)

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — One of the marks of Presbyterianism is that we are a “connectional” church — that is, our congregations are connected through presbyteries that are connected to synods and to our General Assembly. In some profound ways, our “being connectional” is a way of practicing “being church” — sharing our gifts, talents and resources as well as our sorrows and pain.

Connectional mission can further our practice of being the church within our own presbyteries, across our denomination and within the broader ecumenical family. But if we focus for a few moments on our congregations, presbyteries, synods and General Assembly, we can see many benefits of doing mission in a connectional way. My own ministry in the Caribbean region, where I serve as a mission co-worker, is built on and seeks to strengthen PC(USA) connectionalism. Let me give one example from our mission partnership in Cuba.

There are 90-some partnerships between PC(USA) congregations and presbyteries with the Presbyterian Reformed Church in Cuba. Some are presbytery-to-presbytery partnerships and some are congregational. Several of these are more than 25 years old. There is a depth to the relationships that is hard to find in many places. Just imagine: Two or three generations of American and Cuban Presbyterians have worshipped together, served together and become friends. They know each other’s children and grandchildren, their communities, their congregations. There is a joy in the encounter, whether in Cuba or the U.S. This is no small thing, friends: to develop and nurture Christian ties that bind us together over time and across cultural and language barriers, across walls of hostility between our two governments.

On the PC(USA) side, presbytery partnerships offer unique opportunities for working together within our own presbyteries, for building relationships as we learn and work together toward common goals and commitments. We can make space for members of smaller churches to participate in a larger mission engagement. We can do presbytery-wide youth activities, cultural events, Bible studies and many other activities that are related to the partnership. Such common mission focus can build unity and friendships within our own church and, in these fractured days in which we live, that is a worthy goal in itself.

Bryan Beck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, related how a partnership with the Cuban synod has “connected us with folks in the Santa Fe Presbytery who otherwise we would not have known. We coordinate visits of Cubanos here, we plan times that reflect the hospitality the Cubans have shown us, we coordinate presbytery visits to Cuba.” He added, “We have even made some new personal friends within the presbytery, folks we met on one of those presbytery trips to Cuba.”

Sorrel Ann Alburger, who is active in First Presbyterian Church of New York City’s Cuba partnership, said their partnership in Cuba has spurred a new connection with the Latino Presbyterian congregations in their presbytery, as well as new bilingual worship services and a weekly Spanish language class that has become popular. There is greater interest in presbytery programs, especially those involving Latino congregations.

Jo Ella Holman. (Photo by Jesús Fernando Martínez León)

An additional benefit of presbytery partnerships for the U.S. church is that they enable us to experience a broader context in Cuba — the breadth of an entire Cuban presbytery — and thereby deepen our understanding of the joys and challenges of the Cuban church and people. The covenants used to guide the presbytery partnerships provide continuity that can survive changes in presbytery or pastoral leadership in either church.

Several presbytery partnerships have developed congregation-to-congregation partnerships. This has enabled participating congregations to “go deep” in one community, while retaining a helpful framework for communication, activities, and sharing of ideas for prayer and worship in our home congregations.

In Long Island Presbytery, the Cuba Work Group is an official part of the presbytery. It “serves as an umbrella for the individual congregation-to-congregation partnerships within our partnership with Havana Presbytery,” said Barbara D’Andrea, chairperson. The Cuba Work Group provides a space for sharing about the activities, challenges and joys of the congregational partnerships and updated information about what is happening in Cuba and in the Cuban church.

There are also many congregational partnerships unrelated to a specific PC(USA) presbytery. Even here, our Presbyterian DNA for connectionalism shows itself! First Presbyterian Church of New York City, Highland Presbyterian Church of Maryville, Tennessee, and First & Franklin Presbyterian Church of Baltimore, Maryland, share a common partner in the Presbyterian-Reformed congregation of Taguasco, Cuba. At FPC/NYC, Sorrel Ann said, “by sharing logistics and costs, we are able to increase participation and bring more than just one member of our sister congregation to the U.S. We are also sharing ideas, activity plans and future projects.”

At another level of connectionalism, the Cuba Partners Network (CPN) connects all PC(USA) congregations, presbyteries and synods with each other, with our denominational World Mission experience, programs and resources, and with the national Synod of the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba. Begun in 2001, CPN is one of the oldest of the PC(USA)’s mission networks. For Presbyterians across the denomination, the annual meeting provides face-to-face encounters with each other and with Cuban church leaders. CPN members work together to avoid duplication of efforts; to facilitate communication with the Cuban church, with World Mission and each other; to provide a central source of resources related to Cuba and the partnerships; to call attention to the joys and concerns of partners for prayers; and to work in advocacy on behalf of the Cuban church and people. They also have helped to fund mission co-workers to serve in Cuba. These collaborative efforts enable us to go further and do more than is possible for any one partnership in mission to accomplish.

“The network is a vehicle for executing dreams,” Bryan said. “Imagine! Cuba gets hit with a hurricane and sustains huge damage. Folks together raise $52,000 to support the Cuban church’s repair and reconstruction effort. I’d call that more than a random act of kindness. It’s a manifestation of Presbyterian connectionalism at its best.”

Barbara added, “Our feeling on Long Island is: There is always room for another at the family table. Our partnerships should be with not only the Cuban churches but also with one another. There is certainly enough love to circle everyone.”

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The Rev. Dr. Jo Ella Holman has served as World Mission’s regional liaison for the Caribbean since 2010.

This article is from the Fall 2018 issue of Mission Crossroads magazine, which is printed and mailed free to subscribers’ homes three times a year by Presbyterian World Mission.


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