Archive for July 2012

Seeing Things (for the First Time) – GA220 Part 3

July 23, 2012

So here we go with my third (and hopefully final) blog post on my experience at GA220. This is going to attempt to cover the plenary sessions from Thursday and Friday. There’s a lot to cover, so we’ll see how far I get before I hit a huge word count. Also, I’m skipping the “little” stuff again, which includes the actions of my committee on the floor (I mean, c’mon, most of it was debating on how long we’re going to debate anyway. Or whether or not we should set up a task force to tackle something ::eyeroll::). I’m going to hop right on into the divestment talks and all that good, emotional, potentially divisive stuff.

When we broke for dinner, we were all on the edge our seats for committee 15: Middle East and Peacemaking Issues. The idea going around was that this committee had Order of the Day and would start at 3, no matter what. However, many of us realized in the middle of the previous conversations, that no one had actually moved that this committee take Order of the Day, so it got pushed back to after dinner. When they took the floor, we jumped right into it. First thing brought to the floor from this committee was overture 15-11, which was the Mission Responsibility Through Investment’s (MRTI) recommendation to divest from Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar, and Motorola due to their continued knowledge of how their products are being used in Occupied Palestinian territories and their continued willingness to sell their products to Israel despite this internationally-illegal occupation. So as soon as that was brought forward, a substitute motion was made to adopt the Minority Report’s statement as the main motion. This substitute motion was trying to make overture 15-10, which encouraged positive investment and conversation between all parties in the region the main priority. What I mean by the idea that they were trying to make 15-10 the main motion is that the people that wrote the motion used almost the exact same language as 15-10 without telling anyone on the floor that they were doing so. Their strategy was this: act like you didn’t know 15-10 was there, use language of 15-10 before we talk about 15-10, sidetrack conversation away from 15-10, and make people think that positive investment in Palestinian territories (while keeping investment in aforementioned companies and Israel) will do more good than divestment (Here you go, Palestinian kids! A new school! Sure, it’ll be an Israeli mall in two months, but today it’s your school!). – Sorry if this description seemed a bit rough or even unfair, but that’s sure how I interpreted it going down.

So as we got into debate about making the substitute motion the main motion, it started getting heated at points. We had people speaking against making this the substitute motion (myself included) and people speaking for making it the substitute motion (think people that are in the median age-range of the PC (USA)). Surprisingly, we didn’t debate for that long. And, it was unfortunate, that not everyone got to speak their piece on this issue. People, at the end of the night, stood up and called out Neal Presa for not calling on certain microphones (someone should have called those people Out of Order, because they were, but I can see why they were frustrated). So when the question was called (that was a close vote) and we decided to vote on whether to adopt the substitute motion as the main motion or not, the vote was painfully close. We adopted it with a margin of 311 against adopting the motion and 319 in favor of adopting with 9 people abstaining (I believe that’s a pretty accurate number, but my memory is a tangled web, so forgive me if I’m not 100% spot on with the numbers). For the record, the TSADs and YAADs voted  heavily against making the substitute motion the main motion (think numbers in the upper 80’s, lower 90’s). This vote was very, very telling of the generational gap in our church. After the substitute motion became the main motion, conversation was again held to a shorter amount of time than I thought would be the case. When the question was called, we had (surprisingly) another generationally-split vote. Unfortunately, for my generation and others who voted with us, what was the substitute motion, now the main motion, was adopted by the 220th General Assembly of the PC (USA) and we decided that we would keep our investments in the companies as well as trying to invest in Occupied Palestinian Territories as well (or, as I said earlier, building Palestinian schools that will become Israeli malls).

The good news coming out of cmte. 15 was that we did agree to boycott Israeli products that are manufactured and/or sold from the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We also decided that apartheid was too strong of a word to use in this situation (I have mixed feelings here) and we more or less got through the rest of the committees business without a hitch. There was talk of bringing divestment back up through some parliamentary procedure in the morning, but it failed to happen. Which is a good thing, because cmte. 13: Civil Union and Marriage Issues was made Order of the Day and we had to start that at 1:50 PM. Woot!

When cmte. 13 took the floor, which was shortly after 1:50 PM on Friday (of course it was late. We’re Presbyterians in a meeting. We’re never on schedule), we started immediately with overture 13-06 which was an attempt to change section W 4.9000 regarding the definition of marriage. The language that was substituted defined marriage as a covenant between two people instead of between a man and a woman. As you can imagine, this was (and still is) a big issue for us. We debated this for about 3 and a half hours – almost all the way up to dinner. It got really intense.

I should note that earlier in the day someone requested of our esteemed moderator that debate be allowed to go on longer this time, since this is a more sensitive issue to a lot of people than divestment was. We also voted to limit time at a microphone to one minute. In regards to these rules, Neal did a pretty darn good job limiting and moving debate along. Most people got to speak and despite some people standing with the call to question paddle for quite a while, the debate lasted the whole afternoon.

It was obvious that we are somewhat of a divided church on these big issues (duh). We had a lot of people, mostly the younger folks (which is anything below 45 in the PC (USA)) on the side of re-defining marriage and a lot of people speak out against this redefinition. There were passionate arguments on both sides, with both sides being, for the most part, pretty articulate about what each believes. I was really proud of my fellow TSAD from SFTS, Jeff Ferguson (@sftsconservativ) who stood up and gave an impassioned statement for the redefinition of marriage because he’s an evangelical conservative that believes in equality. I was just as disappointed when a woman (whom I believe was a teaching elder, i.e, pastor) stood up and said that homosexuality is a sin punishable by God. Truthfully, I was more than disappointed. I was heartbroken and outraged. I’d let you know exactly what was going through my mind when she said this, but I’m trying to keep this blog somewhat free of foul language. I understand her point, given Biblical language, but I don’t understand why people get to pick and choose what verses are to be taken literal. Anyway, that’s another blog post for another time.

As the debate went on, emotions rose and fell. Tears were spilt, passions were uncovered for all to see, and we all probably got a little tired of the same points being brought out. So Neal finally recognized someone holding the “call the question” paddle. When this person was recognized, I was hit with a truck of emotion. I’m telling you, I almost lost it. Of course, everyone was ready to place their votes at this time so we called the question with a resounding majority. As the ADs were asked to vote, I hit my number and just put my head on the table. I couldn’t watch. I don’t remember the actual AD numbers, but I know that the TSADs and YAADs said yes with a resounding majority (something like 87% and 91%, respectively). When Neal called for the commissioners’ votes, I just closed my eyes and started praying. I honestly felt like we had it. The debate had gone in a way that I felt a lot of people might have been persuaded to vote in favor of this amendment. When Neal read the results, my heart was broken again. It ended up being 48% in favor of changing the language, 51% against and 0 abstentions. We lost by 30 votes. I know that this is hopeful to a lot of people, because the number was so close, but this was my first GA. It broke my heart all over again. As Neal read those numbers, I just started crying. I couldn’t help it.

Immediately after the vote, we broke for dinner. The TSADs all sat together and discussed the events. A fellow TSAD from Princeton, Jon Reinink, brought up a good point. He said something like this (not an exact quote): “I’m not doing this with the effort that everyone will be comfortable with these new ideas. If people want to leave the church, that’s fine, because they’ll already have a church. I’m doing this for the people that don’t have a church. For the people that have been excluded and outcast from their worshipping communities but still want a place to belong. We need to be there for them. And if people leave because of that, so be it.” I told him I was going to use that idea. He said that was fine.

So when we came back to plenary from dinner, cmte. 13 continued with their agenda. There was a motion to dismiss many of the other overtures by the action taken by the committee when they decided that there needed to be another two year study on what the meaning and definition of marriage would be. Then, someone moved that overture 13-05 be included in this list. This, my friends, is where the parliamentary bullying really started. Every LGBTQ advocacy group at GA wanted 13-05 to be considered on its own and hopefully passed. 13-05 would have allowed something called “Authoritative Initiative” to take place which would have allowed teaching elders to marry same-sex couples in states where it is legal without having fear of being taken before the General Assembly Permanent Judiciary Council (GAPJC). 13-05 was the main thing all the advocacy groups were focused on. We all knew we would lose the redefinition of marriage. We just didn’t know by how much. We wanted 13-05 passed more than anything. This, in our opinion, was the big tamale. Unfortunately, the movement to include 13-05 in the list came so quickly that it seemed a lot of people didn’t know what was happening. I felt like we were blindsided. The conservative side of the church spent 3 and a half hours putting us in the corner, throwing haymakers and we didn’t have our gloves up. Then, we came out of our corner after the next round started and they just kicked us in the groin. We spent 45 minutes, maybe, talking about this overture. 45. That’s all. On the big tamale. We spent less than 1/3 of the time on something we knew we were going to lose.

I got up and spoke against including 13-05 in this list, and I spoke from the heart about it. Unfortunately, again, I felt like my voice was not heard. Before I knew it, it was over. Someone had called the question and once it was called, the votes came out and this substitute motion passed with a larger majority than our previous vote. Talk about having the wind knocked out of you. I felt the room deflate at this time. After cmte. 13 was done, I had to leave the room. I ran into several people in the hallway and just started crying again when I was talking to them. I couldn’t help it. On my way back in, I ran into Tara Spuhler McCabe, and again, just started bawling when I tried to talk to her. This was devastating to me. I mean, c’mon! You want two more years of conversation on this but aren’t willing to talk about it right now? This is just another delaying tactic so you can figure out ways to leave before next GA when you know things are going to change in a way that you don’t like (sorry for that harshness, but I, and many of my friends, really feel this way. For the record, I don’t want anyone to leave our church. I want a wide-range of voices in our congregations to grow together in love and spirit, but these folks that acted this way aren’t willing to do that).

As if this wasn’t enough, when I came back, cmte. 17 – Theological Issues, Institutions, and Christian Education was on the floor. A minority report had taken on the form of a substitute motion that was trying to take our ordination standards back to G.106b! It wasn’t stopping! Thankfully, after everyone started paying attention again, most of us saw what was happening and it was voted down with a 70% majority. That did give me faith in my church again. Thank God that didn’t happen.

Well this is a huge blog post. I’d like to write more, but after all this, I feel like most of my emotions from GA220 are adequately displayed. I do apologize for the length of this one, but I hope you dig it.

Also, the title of this blog series comes from a Black Crowes song, “Seeing Things.” The words “For the First Time” are in the song, but don’t belong in their title. I put those up there because I thought they were adequate for my posts. Thank you for reading and may God bless you all!

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Seeing Things (for the First Time) – GA220 Part 2

July 13, 2012

So when we broke into committees, I was really excited. I could not wait to get into stuff in polity. And I’m not kidding. I’m somewhat of a polity nerd. I mean, who else is going to come up with #politypickuplines?!

We started off like I imagine most committees did. We had some icebreakers and “get to know each other” time, where we went around the room saying how long it took us to get to Pittsburgh, the first album we ever bought, etc., etc. After that, we had somewhat of a “what are we going to do here?” session where we came up with a covenant and briefly went over some of the topics we were going to cover. And I must say, our leadership team immediately impressed me. Our moderator knew her stuff, as did our vice-moderator, assistant, and parliamentarian. They were awesome all week long.

I’m not going to cover all the things that we talked about, because that would probably bore most of you to death. So I’ll just talk about the big things that I remember, which were the things we spent the most time.

The first really big thing I remember covering was an overture from some Southern California Presbyteries that had to do with church property. These overtures were presenting the idea that a church could leave a Presbytery with all of the property involved, not owing anything to the PC (USA) if they had a congregational meeting and 2/3 of the congregation voted to leave. Now, I’m Presbyterian through and through. So, when I read these overtures, I did have a good chuckle. I thought, “Really? Do the authors think this is going to pass committee?” (I mean no offense to the authors of the overtures here. I understand their situations given the recent church environment and why they would present these ideas… But, c’mon… These overtures were extremely anti-Presbyterian.)

So we get into discussion (we often had informal discussion before starting the actual business) and others immediately expressed my concerns on the committee. If this were to pass, then this could be a very slippery slope for the PC (USA) to lose a lot of congregations. However, when the formal stuff started, someone immediately moved the motion on the floor with the intent of approving the overture. Surprisingly, it was seconded. So we got into debate and it got a little bit intense. The party that moved to approve the overture also amended the language so it read ¾ of a congregation instead of 2/3. This, my friends, did not help their cause. Our main concern ended up being, “Well, what about the people that don’t want to leave? What will they do for their congregation? Should they just be left out in the cold?” That’s right. Just like Robert wanted us to do, we thought of the minority and protected them. The motion failed. Hard. (It was later presented as a substitute motion in plenary where it was ruled out of order by our esteemed Stated Clerk [#teamGradye] because the Book of Order does not designate this as a congregational duty. They would need to amend two parts of the Book of Order to get this passed.)

It just struck me that what I just covered might have been the second big thing. The first was really an overture from the Presbytery of Western New York that was attempting to change some language in the Book of Order that eliminated a list of people that the PC (USA) does not discriminate against (Warning: this section is going to be a bit long).

Again, I did not think that this was a good idea. In an ideal world, I don’t think there should be a need for such a list. However, we don’t live in an ideal world. If we eliminate that list of people we don’t discriminate against, what do you think is going to happen? Bad stuff. Bigotry kind of stuff. We’re would get, “Well, it wasn’t explicitly listed, so we didn’t know not to include these people!” It would have been a mess if this overture had passed.

But in the middle of this discussion, the Young Adult Advisory Delegates (YAADs) stepped up their game. They started presenting amendments that tried to expand the list of people we don’t discriminate against! And, might I say, they did a damn fine job. In the end, their amendments were struck down, because the first time they just didn’t use the right language. But on the next day, they moved we re-visit this overture and they tried to amend it again. The reason we were doing this is because one of our YAADs, Jeremy, felt so strongly about this issue.

You see Jeremy had a transgender friend. She was told, by a Presbyterian pastor, that she had no place in the church and that she was going to Hell. She then went home and shot herself. When Jeremy shared that story, we all cried. It was horrible to hear. And it gave us a lot of understanding into his reasoning for doing this. (Jeremy, if you read this and think I was out of place for sharing this story, I apologize. But it was one of the more important parts of my week and I felt that it needed to be shared. You are strong for sharing it with us and I wanted to convey your strength, as well as the strength of the other YAADs for doing this. You all are going to be great in the church.)

When they presented the motion to re-visit this overture, they were pressured by many in the group to share their reasoning and after much confusion, a young man named Wilson (another YAAD who absolutely kicks @$$) gave an adequate explanation and the committee agreed to bring it back to the floor at the end of the day. The YAADs fought long and hard for this change in language. They expanded the list to include many more people, but at the end of the day, it didn’t pass. We decided that we couldn’t just do this right here. The committee knew it was hard to say no to those kids. They put their hearts, souls, and all of their faith behind this. It was not easy to vote them down (For the record, I voted in favor of sending it to plenary, because I knew it was going to fail and those kids needed all the support I could provide them. I closed my eyes for the vote, because I didn’t want to see who voted yes/no.). At the close of committee, I told Jeremy, “Don’t give up kid. You’re too good to give up. Remember that we find a lot of grace through this pain. Even Jesus had to die before He conquered death.” I hope Jeremy and the other YAADs heard the massive amount of support they had in the committee despite their motion failing. It broke my heart, but I know these kids will be resilient and keep fighting the good fight.

On to lighter overtures: the ones presented to us by the Presbyteries of Baltimore and National Capital dealing with sexual abuse.

So with these, the Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC) recommended we disapprove the overture both Presbyteries agreed on, mostly due to the second paragraph they wanted to ad. They had no problem striking the language that would drop the language limiting reportable sexual abuse cases to only minors and people without mental capacity for consent. Their problem was with how these cases were to be handled and reported to judiciary committees. What we did here though was talk it out and find an agreement between the overture advocates and the ACC.

We found that in the Book of Order, in a different section, that this second paragraph written out in the overture was already covered. There was already a section that dealt with judicial committees and administrative leave in the case that these things need to happen in a congregation. The overture advocates supported our amendment that we drop the second paragraph and just adopt the first part that struck the language I mentioned earlier. We found that by doing this, the ACC and the advocates could find common ground in protecting a wider range of abuse victims as well as having the administrative leave done decently and in order (You might remember that I got on the floor and defended our action when it came before plenary). It was a total win-win. I was extremely proud of our committee for hashing this out. Of course, before we came to this, there were amendments upon amendments and much heated debate about what all this would entail. It took us over a day and a half, but we did it properly. This, in my opinion was what committee work is all about. Polity really kicked but in this regard.

I obviously didn’t give all the details of what happened in polity. You can still log on to PC-Biz.org and check out all of our overtures and what was said, but I can’t describe it all here. I’m already over 1520 words and my fingers are tired. These were the things I remembered the most, briefly described, and the discussions that mattered the most to me.

Look for Part 3 in the next couple of days. I’m going to get into the really emotional stuff in that. The “big” plenary sessions; where the marathon was all uphill.

Seeing Things (for the First Time) – GA220 Part 1

July 11, 2012

In this little story of my first GA experience, I’m going to go ahead and skip the travel portion of my story. From what I heard, most people had a hard time getting into Pittsburgh and an even harder time getting onto a shuttle to their hotel. So, for brevity’s sake, I’m going assume none of us had a good time getting to the conference and we can just share that feeling quietly.

So as I just said, this was my first time at GA. I had been to Presbytery meetings before, both back home in Arkansas and out here in California. To be honest, I expected a little bit of the same at GA, only on a more expansive scale. Turns out I was right. The only thing, though, was this was the kind of Presbytery meeting that I had never before attended.

The whole week was a bit of a blur, the kind of blur that slows down when you’re in the middle of it, but looking back seems to have gone awfully fast, and in my GA-hangover (aka #gangover on Twitter), I forget a bit of the details, especially for some of the “smaller” committee reports, so I apologize if I forget any of those details.

The thing I remember the most from the first plenary session was when I had to go on stage and pray in front of everyone. My friend and polity instructor, Kathy Runyeon, came and retrieved me  and led me behind the curtain about 15 – 20 minutes before I was told to check in. Once I was told where to sit and hang out for a bit, I looked around expecting to see a faux-wizard running the show. Alas, there were only the tech-guys, making sure the broadcasts and voting systems worked properly. Business really is handled by people in front of the stage! When it was my turn to go on stage, I was actually led up there about 20 minutes early. So I got to sit on the chairs stage-right of the GA leaders and await my turn. Now normally, I don’t have any problem praying in public or in front of a group. But it dawned on me that this is GA. This is where the big dogs come to play. I admit it, I became nervous. I had the humorous anecdote planned, but winged the prayer. After all, I said that any prayer that comes from the heart, as led by the Holy Spirit, can’t be a bad prayer, right? I think I did alright, at least I hope I did. Never got any complaints. But hey, who’s going to complain about a prayer at a national church meeting, right?

After our dinner break, the fun in plenary session started. We more or less dove right into the election of the Moderator of the 220th General Assembly. I remember connecting to two candidates during their speeches – Robert Austell and Neal Presa. I thought both had a clear idea of what they were trying to accomplish and spoke very well. However, that changed during the question session. The first question I remember was on the issue of gay marriage. Presa answered the question first and, I admit, he probably dodged the direct answer. But he did it pretty eloquently. Austell gave his traditional definition of marriage and he was pretty much off my list at that point, sorry Rev. Austell.

As for Randy Branson and Sue Krummel, I must simply say that neither wowed me one bit. Besides, as I grew to know more about Neal and especially his vice-moderate candidate, Tara Spuhler McCabe, I knew he was my front-runner. He admitted his definition of marriage was not my own, but Tara’s definitely was. Their platform of unity in the Church despite our differences had me at this point. I think it was obvious, based on the Advisory Delegates’ (ADs) votes that they had most of our generation as well. I knew this was going to be a good duo to represent the PC(USA) for the next two years. But, as we all know now, it was not meant to be.

The next day, we were all greeted with some pretty disturbing news. Tara, after receiving an “open” letter from Stay PC(USA) and several nasty, nasty Tweets (including, from what I hear, some death threats), decided that she would resign from the position of Vice Moderator. This was a pretty heartbreaking moment for me, and I’m sure, many others. My feelings at the time went a little bit like this: If she wasn’t there, why the hell did I give my advisory vote for Neal? There’s no unity in one without the other, right? Just because some folks were bullying her, doesn’t mean she should have resigned! Why isn’t the GA doing anything about this or even just addressing this issue? They’re just simply accepting her resignation!

Of course, after time to digest and get my head about me, I knew Tara was doing this because she thought it was best for the church. If her attempt at unity sparred divisiveness, then it was no longer an attempt at unity. Tara, with all her heart and soul, was doing the most pastoral thing she could do. And I love her all the more for that.

So with her stepping down, we had to confirm a new Vice Moderator. Neal picked Tom Trinidad, which turns out was fine, but at the time, I’d say 90% + of the floor didn’t know a thing about him. We were stuck in this position where we had to give this guy a confirmation vote and no one knew who he was! Again, my thoughts at the time read something like this: Hold on! Who is this guy? Why did Neal pick him?  Is Neal sticking up for his platform he ran on? Is, after Tara’s resignation, he changing his mind? Why don’t we get to question a new candidate?! RAWR! CAMERON SMASH!

I was floored. I do love our polity and Robert’s Rules of Order. But given these circumstances, I can’t say that they were the best system. We were stuck between a rock and a hard place. With these sudden changes, we were more or less forced to confirm a candidate for a position when we had no idea who he was and had no chance to get to know who he was. If I could change our system, that process would definitely be something to re-write. This took up so much of my emotion and brain power, that I hardly remember what happened for the rest of that plenary session. I know Gradye Parsons was elected Stated Clerk, again (#teamGradye), but that’s really about it. Did anything happen after that?

Now I’m looking at my word count. I’m already over 1120 words, so it looks like this is going to be at least a 2-parter, but more likely a 3-part series. So I’m going to peace out for a bit and look to post part 2 later this evening. Don’t worry, it’ll be even better than this one. I’m going to focus on committee work and I was on polity. I know, I just felt that tingle too.