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Presbyterian group finds a casual place online for serious conversations

Gatherings from online journal Unbound and Young Adult Volunteers tackle issues highlighted by COVID-19

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

The Young Adults Gathering takes place at 6 p.m. each Tuesday on the Facebook page of Unbound.

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Just after New Year’s Day, before COVID-19 turned life in the United States and around the world upside down, Destini Hodges and Lee Catoe of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) national office went to the annual college conference in North Carolina.

“We had a listening session for young adults around justice things that they want to see grow out of the church and move in different directions,” says Hodges, Associate for Recruitment and Relationships for Young Adult Volunteers (YAV). “After that initial workshop that we did together at Montreat, there was a lot of energy around it. The young people, young adults, were excited that they had two young adults from the national office in Louisville to listen to their concerns and bring it back during a GA (General Assembly) year.”

Hodges and Catoe, associate for Young Adult Social Witness for the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) and managing editor of the online journal Unbound, were wondering how to continue harnessing the energy they found at Montreat. Then, as the spread of the coronavirus made physical distancing necessary, they noticed friends having online hangouts and meet-ups to keep some semblance of connection and social life going.

At the same time, they were noticing how the COVID-19 pandemic was highlighting issues they were discussing at Montreat, including economic and racial disparities as well as other issues.

The duo decided to create a space where experts in these areas came to discuss these important issues in a casual setting, and the YAV-Unbound Young Adult Gatherings were born. The past four Tuesday nights, the conversations have featured PC(USA) leaders and associates discussing subjects such topics as Race and COVID-19, Religious Freedom, and Mental Health. Upcoming episodes, at 6 p.m. Eastern Time Tuesdays, will include young adults and the church and voting rights and COVID-19.

Hear an interview with Hodges and Catoe here.

With these presentations, Catoe and Hodges sought to create a distinct space in what has become a crowded field of online presentations during the pandemic.

“These are very serious conversations with serious implications for our lives,” Catoe says. “But we also wanted to form a space that was comfortable, that was something that wasn’t so formulized, so these videos are more of conversations that are meant to be laid back. They’re meant to be a little imperfect.”

If you want evidence of that imperfection, all you have to do is go back to the beginning of the first episode, April 7, as Catoe and Hodges muse for about 40 seconds as to whether they are already live online before realizing they are.

“We’re just going to see how this works — this is our test run,” Catoe says at about 44 seconds into the inaugural episode with Simon Doong the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program’s gun violence webinar series “Standing Our Holy Ground.”

Many TV and online producers would have been tempted to edit out the clumsy first few minutes for the permanent record. But to Catoe and Hodges, the imperfection is part of the point of the series.

“It’s not so scripted, so that way the Spirit can move and it can lead and can just come in and be invited, and our participants feel the same way as well,” Hodges says. “Some of them never went live on Facebook, and just the openness and the flowing of the Spirit moving within the session puts them at ease, and it feels like they can be more open and less scripted than what they would usually be if they were in front of a panel of their peers or in a church service.”

The April 28 edition with Donna Miller, coordinator of the Presbyterian Mental Health Ministry, and Jinah Yoon of the Presbyterian Mental Health Network, was a prime example as the conversation quickly evolved from deferential pauses into a free-flowing discussion of grief and empathy that Catoe and Hodges largely observed.

As of this writing, that conversation has had more than 800 views, and the episode on religious freedom with writer and activist Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons has had more than 1,200 views. To the hosts, it speaks to an interest in hearing from a diversity of voices in the church, including Doong  and the Rev. Denise Anderson of the Office of Racial & Intercultural Justice.

“We’re trying to be very cognizant of the voices that we have on, because we all know a lot of people who can speak to the context of this work,” Hodges says. “But we want to make sure that we have voices of people who aren’t usually represented.”

And just as much as these conversations started before COVID-19, the hosts want them to continue after the pandemic has abated.

“I think technology has the power to create community,” Catoe says. “I would hope that action is spurred from watching these videos and thinking about the issues that we’re facing right now. So that’s another thing that I hope that we can do in the future … and to continue to provide a space for younger voices.”

Young Adult Gatherings take place at 6 p.m. Eastern Time Tuesdays on the Facebook page of Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice.


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