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National Black Presbyterian Caucus hosts its first in-person conference since Covid


Caucus president: ‘The power of unity is something exceptional that we can all cherish together’

by Layton Williams Berkes | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Paula Cooper, mission co-worker and regional liaison for East Central Africa, invites Pioneer Luncheon attendees to raise their hands and call upon the Holy Spirit as part of the opening invocation during the biennial meeting of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus (All photos by Layton Williams Berkes)

NORTH CHARLESTON, South Carolina — Enthusiastic energy filled the Compass Ballroom at the Marriott Hotel in North Charleston, South Carolina Thursday morning as the 2023 conference of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus (NBPC) commenced. While the national conference takes place biennially, this year’s event, called “A Gathering of Black Presbyterians,” is the first to be held in person since the pandemic began. A virtual gathering was held in 2021.

The theme for this year’s conference, which will continue through Saturday, is “The Black Family in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): Navigating Identity, Equity, and Economics.” The scriptural focus is Psalm 133:1: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.”

Thursday’s events kicked off with a rousing morning devotion featuring a reflection from the Rev. Lakesha Bradshaw-Easter and music from conference musician, Dr. Tony McNeill. Bradshaw-Easter told conference attendees, “Presbyterianism is good, but it is Christ that connects us.” She encouraged participants to celebrate that they have “come this far by faith,” to remember those elders who taught them their faith, and to think of those to whom they will hand down faith.

Catherine Byrd and Alan Rousseau, bridge stated clerk and moderator, respectively, of Charleston Atlantic Presbytery, offer greetings on behalf of the presbytery to conference attendees.

This time of praise and worship was followed by an opening session of the NBPC to conduct business, including a welcome to Charleston from Elder Mary Porter of St. Paul Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, South Carolina, as well as from Charleston Atlantic Presbytery’s moderator, Alan Rousseau, and bridge stated clerk, Catherine Byrd. Their comments celebrated Charleston’s large number of historic Black congregations, while also acknowledging the region’s troubled history regarding treatment of Black Americans as well as Native Americans.

“We cannot brag about our historic Black churches without acknowledging … the roots of these churches lie with enslaved people from Africa who were allowed to worship only at sufferance — consigned to cramped balconies of the white landowners’ churches or even expected to stand outside and listen at the door and peek in through the windows,” Byrd said. She went on to point out, “Black Presbyterians had to establish their own churches, many of which remain vibrant today.”

National Black Presbyterian Caucus President the Rev. Dr. Charles C. Heyward of Charleston greets attendees of the 2023 NBPC biennial conference.

The opening session also included greetings from NBPC president, Rev. Dr. Charles C. Heyward, who also hails from Charleston Atlantic Presbytery. Heyward emphasized unity among Black Presbyterians and urged attendees to spend their time at the conference fully engaging in the content offered, getting tired, and connecting with new people each day. Other reports were offered from Racial Equity and Women’s Intercultural Ministries, the NBPC Finance Committee, the national membership chair, regional chapter development, Black Presbyterian Women, the nominating committee, and a representative for Young Adult and Youth. Valerie Young, the synod executive and stated clerk of the Synod of South Atlantic, also brought greetings.

The Caucus has declared 2023 “The Year of Reimagining and Church Growth” and the plenary sessions throughout this year’s gathering will resonate with that commitment. Anisha Hackney, the human resources manager for the Administrative Services Group, offered the first plenary session, which focused on “reimagining.”

Anisha Hackney of the Administrative Services Group gives the opening plenary, focused on reimagining the church.

“What got us here, won’t get us there,” Hackney said, urging churches to become more intentionally and fully inclusive of LGBTQ people and others. One participant was met with hearty agreement when he pointed out that those with mental health struggles also need to be better included.

“Effective reimagining must be grounded in intersectionality,” Hackney said. “You can’t reimagine congregational life without having everyone at the table.”

Hackney also emphasized that growth and reimagining require deeper understanding of both others and one’s self.

Thursday’s events also included the Pioneer Luncheon, which featured the Rev. Eustacia Moffett Marshall as speaker. The message of Marshall, the senior pastor at New River Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, explored the need for holy disruption and the way that pioneers of Black Presbyterian faith like Maria Fearing and Lucy Craft Laney were disruptors.

The Rev. Eustacia Moffett Marshall offers a message about divine disruption during the Pioneer Luncheon.

“We despise divine disruption that challenges our status quo even when our status quo is killing us,” Marshall said. She went on to say, “nothing grows without disruption,” and encouraged listeners to participate in God’s holy disruption like those who had come before.

The luncheon also recognized this year’s winners of the Lucy Craft Laney and Maria Fearing awards and honored Black Presbyterian mission co-workers, both past and present. Sheila Louder of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta was previously named as the 2023 winner of the Lucy Craft Laney Award, while Brooke Howard of the Presbytery of New Harmony was named as first-place winner of the Youth Lucy Craft Laney essay contest.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Cheryl Barnes, recently named Africa Area Coordinator for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, was awarded the Maria Fearing Award. Other mission co-workers recognized for their work included the Rev. Paula Cooper, the Revs. Shelvis Smith-Mather and Nancy Smith-Mather, José Lamont Jones, the Rev. Ingrid Reneau Walls, Leisa Wagstaff, and the Rev. Phyllis Byrd.

The afternoon schedule for all three days of the conference was left intentionally open, and Heyward encouraged conference attendees to explore Charleston and the Sea Islands during their free time.

Over the next two days, the conference will also include a devotion from the Rev. Cecelia Armstrong, two plenary sessions from the Rev. Reggie Tuggle on “8 Essentials of Church Growth,” and a presentation from the Rev. Reginald Ragland and the NBPC Western Region Group on “Evaluating Congregational Models.”

On Friday evening, a banquet will be held honoring the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Nelson recently announced that he will be stepping down from office at the end of this month.

At right, the Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, the PMA’s director of advocacy, greet each other during the Pioneer Luncheon.

Closing worship for the gathering will feature preaching from the Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

This year’s gathering also includes a dedicated track for youth and young adults. This program features a presentation from the Rev. Jermaine Ross-Allam, director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s new Center for the Repair of Historic Harms. The youth and young adults track also includes a college and career fair and various social events. In her opening session report, co-chair elder Lynne Foreman reported that this year’s conference has the highest registration of youth and young adults of the past three conferences.

Conference organizers expressed excitement to have everyone physically together again after four years. Between sessions, tables and hallways buzzed with warm greetings and reunions between friends. This warmth, along with the vibrant energy in each plenary and worship session, reflect Heyward’s hopes for the gathering, which he expressed in a welcome letter to participants.

“As the scripture from Psalm 133:1 reminds us, the power of unity is something exceptional that we can all cherish together,” Heyward said. “During this reimagining time, this year’s theme … encourages community cohesion and empowers congregations to reach new heights.”

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