Outdoor celebration highlights advocacy work in the church
by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Nearly 5,000 students, volunteers and staff gathered under the lights of the Slayter Center outdoor amphitheater on the Purdue University campus Friday evening for worship as one of the final events of the 2016 Presbyterian Youth Triennium.
With high temperatures and sweltering humidity, evening worship was delayed to allow the sun to go down and heat to dissipate. A slower and less active set of worship songs and energizers prepared the crowd for the service even as the heat index remained in the 90s.
Tony De La Rosa, interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, introduced the PMA to attendees as the primary organizing group of the Triennium —along with Cumberland Presbyterian Church representatives—and listed the many areas in which the agency works.
De La Rosa went on to describe the church as an “imperfect institution,” one that sometimes makes mistakes and needs to change. Noting his personal journey within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), he said that as an openly gay half-Mexican half-Puerto Rican man he was turned away from ordained ministry as a teaching elder many years ago.
Playing on the week’s theme of “Go!” De La Rosa urged students to “stay” in the church and provide the change they want to see in the church; the type of change that allowed him—after years as a lawyer and non-profit executive—to return to work in the church as an interim presbytery executive, commissioned ruling elder and now as the top executive of a PC(USA) agency.
“In my time as a Presbyterian, there were many times the church disappointed me,” he said. “Don’t ever leave. Don’t ever leave the church. Don’t ever give up when it disappoints you. Don’t ever leave the people who were sworn—when you were baptized—to help you, to nurture you, to support you. Call them to account… Tell them that you will never leave the institution that welcomes, embraces, baptizes and feeds you.”
Steve Wilde, senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Livermore, California, delivered the sermon addressing the biblical story of Hebrew captivity and freedom from the book of Exodus. Like Moses, he suggested, people of faith need to look to God to signal they are willing to go.
“When God saw Moses turn to look, he called him,” said Wilde. “The call begins when Moses is willing to look. And I invite you tonight to be someone who is willing to look. God needs us to look at the reality of what’s going on in our world and in our lives. When we look and acknowledge that reality, what we find is that there is a list that’s too long and it’s too easy to come up with all that is not right.”
Speaking to the day’s theme, “Let my people Go!”, and the emphasis on advocating for justice issues within the context of faith, he listed social issues in which the church has played an advocacy role, while naming white privilege as an issue the church needs to confront.
“The irony of me being the one who speaks tonight is not lost on me,” said Wilde who is a white male. “I represent a demographic whose voice is never silenced. My experience, while valid and mine, does not reflect the silencing that so many of you have dealt with or are dealing with.”
Urging attendees to be “honest with one another,” Wilde said Presbyterian churches need to recognize their members are mainly white and have the privilege to speak whenever and wherever they want.
“As progressive as we are and as open and inclusive as we want, and claim, to be; the leadership that has been on this stage, quite frankly, the gathering that is the Presbyterian Youth Triennium for 2016, the diversity that is here, is not a reflection of what the church actually looks like,” he said.
“I love what we’re doing here,” Wilde said. “But at its best we represent our hope of what we might become. And at its worst it is a superficial and patronizing practice that allows us to appear to be diverse and to falsely conclude that we are fine. And to falsely conclude that we have made progress that we perhaps haven’t made.”
“Because too many people of color, too many people of different sexual identities, too many people with different theological positions than ours—[differences] of gender, of culture, of age, of varying physical abilities—too many might be present on the grass, might be present in the church, but are not given a voice,” he said.
“We advocate for justice, we persevere on God’s behalf, because it’s right and because it’s faithful,” Wilde said. “We have the audacity to work for God’s justice because, for better or for worse, we are the plan. You and I are the plan that God has come up with.”
“God has always chosen to work and act through unimpressive and inadequate people—normal, insecure and slightly freaked out people like you and like me,” he said. “People whose acute inadequacies are dwarfed by the deep necessity for things to be different. For the kingdom of God to be a reality not just for some people, but the experience of all people.”
Following the sermon, a Communion service was led by the Rev. Dr. Jan Edmiston, Co-Moderator of the PC(USA) 222nd General Assembly (2016), and the Rev. Dr. Perryn Rice, senior pastor of Lake Highlands Presbyterian Church—a joint congregational witness of the PC(USA) and Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas, who will preach at Saturday’s closing worship service.
Presbyterian Youth Triennium concludes with worship Saturday, July 23. Presbyterian News Service will continue to post stories from the event and live event information can be found on Twitter via this link: https://twitter.com/search?q=%23pyt2016
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Ministries: Youth Ministry, Theology, Formation & Evangelism