Panel discussions and powerful sermons kick off the morning session
by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service
WASHINGTON, D.C. – An estimated crowd of more than 260 Presbyterians have gathered today at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., for CPJ Training Day, the annual kickoff to Ecumenical Advocacy Weekend. Planners say the record turnout, a 38 percent increase over last year, can be attributed to this year’s topic, “Confronting Chaos, Forging Community — and Battling Racism, Materialism and Militarism.”
The planning committee for today’s conference says the issues of racism, xenophobia and religious bigotry, coupled with a divisive election, made the topic an easy decision and one that many Presbyterians were eager to take part in. A number of attendees are participating in this year’s conference for the first time.
The day began with a showing of the new Presbyterian Disaster Assistance documentary “Facing the Human Tragedy in Syria.” It was followed by a panel discussion on the conference topic featuring Amal Nassar, whose family owns and operates the West Bank farm Tent of Nations; Elona Street-Stewart, synod executive with Synod Lakes and Prairies and the first Native American to be installed as a synod executive with PC(USA); and Stephanie Quintana-Martinez, a ruling elder who is currently studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
During the discussion, Nassar described the challenges of running a farm in Palestine while the government continues to battle the family in court. Last year, Tent of Nations commemorated its 100th birthday, but just as they did in the beginning, the family grows olive trees and other crops without the convenience of running water or electricity.
“As a Palestinian, if you don’t use your land for three years, the state of Israel takes the land,” Nassar said. “We worked peacefully on the farm until 1991 when the government declared this as state land. We are still in court over this, more than 25 years later. Every time we face a new demand from the courts, we have to be ready or face losing this case.”
Stewart, who has served the PC(USA) for many years on racial justice matters, said it is time for truth, even if we don’t like what we hear.
“We must unpack or discard the convenient myths about racism and the conclusions what my ancestors and your ancestors did to survive,” she said. “We are still living in this ideology of domination over native people. We put a lot of value in material goods, trade and land — it’s always about the land. We still see and experience a traveling show of horrors of exploitation and conflict. In this ideology of racism, materialism, militarism, we must repent, repair and remember.”
Quintana-Martinez was raised in Anasco, Puerto Rico, and spent years working on issues of immigration justice on the U.S.-Mexico border as a community organizer and coal/legal services provider.
“People are being detained without legal counsel, pregnant women are going through deportation proceedings without medical care, and I’ve seen people who are hungry, thirsty and experiencing institutional violence,” she said. “Working at detention centers has helped to shape me. I understand ministry and resistance and how daily experiences can tell us so much about where we can find God.”
The Rev. Kevin Johnson, pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Detroit and the Rev. Floretta Watkins, the first African-American female chaplain with the United States Air Force National Guard and pastor of Seigle Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, followed the panel discussion with additional thoughts.
Describing the U.S. as being in the midst of winter, Johnson said that if the church does not “capture the sacrificial spirit,” it will lose its opportunity to make a difference.
“This long and callous sojourn has brought a moral and spiritual famine to this nation. The institutional church and far too many Americans have been sipping from a dangerous cup and have become drunk from the wine of the world,” he said. “A call to conversion is the only thing that will save the soul of the church in America, and is the only thing that will save Americans.”
Nearly 20 workshops are scheduled throughout the day at New York Avenue. The group will continue the theme by joining other denominations for Ecumenical Advocacy Days. The weekend gathering will conclude on Monday with participants heading to Capitol Hill to meet with their members of Congress.
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