The Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis and the Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace discuss what they’ve seen and what they hope to see
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Calling herself a sometimes “reluctant pursuer of hearing God’s voice,” the Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace nonetheless picked up the phone one day early in 2022 and “made a blind call to this dear sister and now friend,” the Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, to discuss standing for the office of Co-Moderators. The rest is history, of course: in June 2022, commissioners to the 225th General Assembly elected the two as Co-Moderators, offices they hold right up until the 226th General Assembly, set to be held online and in-person in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2024.
The Co-Moderators joined the Rev. DeEtte Decker, communications director for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, on Thursday for the monthly airing of Being Matthew 25. Watch their 45-minute conversation here or here.
“We are called to stand, not to win,” Santana-Grace recalls thinking at the time. “We were good with that. What we brought could be a gift to the church … We connected in a way that was unexpected by both of us.”
“The Holy Spirit has a way of breaking things,” Starling-Louis said. Standing for Co-Moderator after only a few conversations between them “didn’t make any sense, but it made holy sense.” Having recently begun serving a new congregation, Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, “I said to God, ‘If you want this to happen, you have to make it happen,” Starling-Louis said. “If this is supposed to be, clearly it will be.”
When she first talked to Santana-Grace over the phone, Starling-Louis sat on her bed “with this incomprehensible sense that God was in the room and something holy was happening.” Still shaking a bit, Starling-Louis called her husband and said, “You won’t believe the conversation I just had.”
“In a faithful way, Ruth was discerning finding a partner. It was a beautiful, holy experience,” Starling-Louis said. “I got a sense of her personhood that was very affirming.” The session at Memorial Presbyterian Church gave its unanimous endorsement for the two to stand, as did the Presbytery of Philadelphia, which Santana-Grace serves as executive presbyter.
“My people were real protective of me,” Santana-Grace said. “We brought Shavon in and met with her. I know my people, and they fell in love with her, too.”
The two met in person for the first time at the home of Santana-Grace’s son the day after Easter, in April 2022. Two months later, they’d win election on the first ballot during the most recent General Assembly, held in Louisville, Kentucky.
“It reminds me,” Decker told the Co-Moderators, “that our timing isn’t always God’s timing.”
Asked if they see signs of the church dying as they travel and speak to mid councils and churches via online platforms, Starling-Louis said that “as a follower of Christ, the church is not dying. But I do recognize things are changing, and change is grief, if we are perfectly honest. Some things have served their time.”
“The church cannot die, but practices that no longer serve their purpose are going into a season of pruning,” Starling-Louis said. “If you prune, it will grow more faithfully in the way it should grow. It doesn’t look nice, but it gives the plant space to grow and flourish in the way it needs to.” The former practices being cut back since the pandemics of Covid and racial injustice “were once comforting, but what new thing will love people and God and enable us to love our neighbor as ourselves?”
“The message of the gospel is as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago,” Santana-Grace said. “Saying it’s not is almost a heresy. The core values of Jesus’ teachings are powerful for a culture that’s hurting.”
After talking to Starling-Louis last week, Santana-Grace said that as the church enters a post-pandemic stage, “we have to claim the grief [we’re holding] so we can allow for something new to be born … We don’t know what it’s going to be. Can we allow this new thing to happen? More and more I see it as one of our biggest challenges — to honestly say, ‘This is not what I was hoping, but I have to believe God will take us somewhere if we allow ourselves to go.’”
“The Holy Spirit is breath and wind, and we leave it on the cutting room floor,” Starling-Louis said. “Can we breathe together and figure out what it is we are doing in community to allow the truth to be said?”
Turning to the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 invitation, Santana-Grace said a deep value the Co-Moderators share is “that nothing replaces incarnation.” Jesus may have preached to large crowds, but he discipled a small group of people.
“Matthew 25 is pivotal. It’s essential. It’s who we are called to be,” Santana-Grace said.
Starling-Louis said she’s inspired by the stories of congregations, groups and mid councils found on the Matthew 25 website. “It helps to have multiple stories so we can have more meaning-making,” she said. “We are the siblings God has sent to each other to do the work we are called to do now.”
Decker asked the Co-Moderators about the early work of the commission they appointed late last year to unify the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency. To date the commission has held two meetings. Watch the commission’s Jan. 21 meeting here. “They are doing faithful work and are just at the beginning of their journey,” Santana-Grace said. “Everyone knows it’s a daunting task, a task decades in the making.”
The Unification Commission plans a three-day in-person meeting in Louisville in March.
“Keep praying for them. They are building relationships of trust,” Santana-Grace said. “We think [the March meeting] will be pivotal for them … We have to let God’s Spirit work through these people.”
The next edition of Being Matthew 25 is scheduled for 1 p.m. Eastern Time on Feb. 16. You’ll be able to watch it here.
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Categories: Matthew 25
Tags: being matthew 25, building congregational vitality, co-moderators of the 225th general assembly (2022), dismantling structural racism, eradicating systemic poverty, matthew 25 invitation, rev. deette decker, rev. ruth faith santana-grace, rev. shavon starling-louis, unification commission
Tags: being matthew 25, deette decker, faith santana-grace, general assembly, holy spirit, june 2022, matthew 25, memorial presbyterian, memorial presbyterian church, mission agency, presbyterian church, presbyterian mission, presbyterian mission agency, ruth faith, ruth faith santana-grace, santana-grace, shavon starling-louis, starling-louis, th general, th general assembly