Tag Archives: PCUSA

photo: coffee, kenya, and community

This mug was made by hand at the Eastleigh Community Center, a ministry of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, seeking to serve, train, educate and empower those living in the Mathare Slum, one of Nairobi’s largest.

The Eastleigh Community Center provides a school as well as job retraining for young adults and work in the community in areas of health and clean water.

As I drink my morning coffee back here in Baja California, Mexico, I’m reminded of and thankful for their work and their tangible actions to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’


© erin dunigan 2013


Backstory:  In early February I accompanied a delegation from the PCUSA’s Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) to visit a partner church, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA). The purpose of this trip was to see the work that the PCEA is doing to reach out to those in need with the love of God – sometimes in the form of drilling boreholes (wells), providing education, offering food relief from drought and famine, as well as planting churches and building schools. The week spent with the PCEA was an inspiration and a gift.




let there be light (photos from #GA220)

I love to ‘document’ an event, to tell its story, through photography. I actually had someone say to me once, on a trip to the Sea of Galilee, “Why don’t you put down your camera and enjoy a bit?”

To which I responded, photography is how I ‘enjoy a bit.’

let there be light, Pittsburgh
© 2012 erin dunigan

More #GA220 photos are available in my 220th General Assembly Gallery.

As a ‘tentmaking evangelist’ photography is also one of the ways I earn my living. So, though I love to share my photos freely to help those not present get to ‘experience’ an event such as the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly, I also exist in a world where I need to continue to fund that life.

There are basically three ways that takes shape:

1. You are welcome to order prints of any of the images from General Assembly (or other events) on my website.

2. If you are an individual/blogger please feel free to use any images for your blog, but please credit them. If you are a church/presbytery/institution/organization I am happy to discuss usage rights (for the web or print) and provide you access to high resolution images. Contact me at erindunigan (at) gmail (dot) com for more info.

3. If you’d like to hire me to come shoot images of your church/event/presbytery/organization I’m happy to discuss this with you. Contact me at erindunigan (at) gmail (dot) com for more info.

what we leave behind: Amy Grant and #GA220

On Thursday, July 5, during one of the breaks of the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly, I was taken by this image–an image of what was left behind, in the empty hall.Some trash, some ‘stuff,’ and it appears much paperwork.

It got me to thinking, what have we, what are we, leaving behind? The ‘we’ in this sense, was both the event called the General Assembly, but also the ‘we’ of the Presbyterian Church more generally. What are we leaving in our wake? Knowing, of course, that the word ‘wake’ has two distinctive meanings, both of which, it seems to me, apply.

what we leave behind, Pittsburgh
© 2012 erin dunigan

That got me to thinking about Amy Grant. I know, it seems a bit of a non-sequitur. Stay with me.

Many years ago I had the opportunity to attend the National Youthworkers Convention. This particular year the big news was that Amy Grant would be performing. As a huge fan, I was thrilled.

But something didn’t go exactly as planned. There was a problem with her earpiece, or the sound. What I remember was not the issue with the sound, but her response–irritated, annoyed, and not all that nice to those who were responsible for the screw up.

Let me say–I have no idea what was going on from a technical sound standpoint, and of course no idea what had happened earlier in the day to her–this is not meant to be a slam on Amy Grant. We are all human. Sometimes we respond well, sometimes less well.

But what stood out to me all those many years ago, and what has remained with me, is that her response to the problem actually made a much more ‘unpleasant sound’ than the actual problem itself. Her response to the situation was what I heard loud and clear. And it was not a pretty sound.

Which, of course, brings me back to the PCUSA and the General Assembly, and makes me wonder, what is it that we are leaving behind us, in our wake? What is the sound that the world (those who care to pay attention) are hearing from us?

Lately online there has been a discussion of whether or not ‘liberal Christianity’ is dying. The first piece in this recent volley was by Ross Douthat, Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved? It is a critique of the Episcopal Church and its ‘flexibility to the point of indifference on dogma’ (including its recent decision to bless same sex unions) which Douthat implies is the reason for the church’s dwindling attendance.

Douthat’s piece brought a speedy and thoughtful response from historian and author Diana Butler Bass, Can Christianity Be Saved. Bass is herself on the more ‘progressive’ side in the Episcopal Church and in her recent book, Christianity After Religion: the end of church and the birth of a new spiritual awakening goes into much depth on the issues surrounding denominational decline.

But I think my favorite post was by Adam Copeland, Douthat & Bass: Asking the wrong question in which he admits that “The premise of both pieces has left me wanting.”

To which I say, Amen.

Because though liberals and conservatives alike enjoy claiming that the reason denominational numbers are in such decline is because of them, those people, the ones we disagree with (because it can never be our problem, can it?) I wonder if we are not more like Amy Grant than we realize.

Because what I have begun to wonder is if it is the disagreements themselves that are the problem.  By that I mean, the way we are living them out.

So we disagree? The world is full of disagreement, on really important issues.

Why not, rather than more of the same tearing each other apart that we can see modeled daily by the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow, on Fox News or MSNBC–why not model how to disagree well, respectfully, lovingly–prayerfully, more than politically.

Why not model how to love one another in spite of our differences, in spite of our disagreements? It is, of course, easy to love those who love you–the Bible tells us. Why not practice what we preach and learn how to love those we’d really rather not? Those who bug the you know what out of us? Those who we’d rather not include in our family photos of what it means to be Presbyterian, or Christian? Of course this isn’t easy. Of course it doesn’t come naturally. Of course it’s not always our first response. Or even our second.

The thing is, I don’t even remember what song Amy Grant was singing that day–and I was a fan. It would be safe to say that hearing her perform would have been the highlight of most definitely my week, perhaps even month or more. I knew all the words of all her songs by heart. All of them.

I don’t remember the song, because all she left me with was the memory of her response. Irritated. But more than that, rude to those she deemed responsible for the problem. There was a problem. It needed to be solved. It was not even her fault. But she lost some of my respect that day because of how she handled the situation.

So, I ask it of myself, and of my church, the PCUSA–will the rest of the world remember our song–the words we are singing, the beautiful melody, that which we feel deep down at the core of our beings that we are called to share with everyone who can hear?

Or will the only thing left in our wake be our response?

on #GA220 : take me out of the ballgame?

The thing is, I could have gone to the ballgame. Baseball. Pirates vs. Astros. The Pirates ended up winning, on a home run, in extra innings. I could have gone. There was an extra ticket.

But instead, I chose to stay.

Staying, in this case, meant attending two events of the 220th PCUSA General Assembly back to back—one hosted by one of the more conservative/evangelical groups within the denomination, the other, one of the more liberal/progressive. It occurred to me, as I was walking from the first to the second, that in attending both I was, as it were, in a fairly small subset of the wider Assembly population.

It’s a subset that I find myself in quite often, actually, mainly due to my work, as a writer and photographer, for many ‘wings’ of the Presbyterian Church. But it’s also one I’ve chosen to occupy, as it were.

Most of the time, it’s a choice that I am happy to make.

But last night, after two encounters with fear, suspicion and distrust of the ‘other’—the first from the more conservative side, the second from the more liberal one, I wondered. Why bother? Why not just leave? The sounds coming across the river from the PNC Park and the Pirates game, of the crowd cheering made me question—had I made the right decision, am I making the right decision? Why not just go to the baseball game?

It was a far place from the ‘giddiness’ I felt as I began this journey to Pittsburgh. Was it a more ‘realistic’ place, this weariness and wondering, than the giddiness? Many would say so. Many would say that the giddiness, and its related hope, are at best optimistic, more likely naive. They may well be right.

As I left the second of the two events I was disheartened to the point of almost choking up. Frustrated by the fear. Discouraged by the distrust. Saddened by the suspicion.

There is much left of this 220th General Assembly. There is possibility for contention, and lots of it. There is possibility for cooperation, and even celebration.

I’m still here. Partly, because I have to be—I’m working. But more because I choose to be.

Because in spite of our challenges, on all sides of many issues, to love each other well, I trust that God is bigger than all of our differences. I choose to trust in the Triune God who has created us, redeemed us, and continues to sustain us—all of us, liberal, conservative, evangelical, progressive, Pirates fan, Astros fan…

May the peace of Christ, the love of God, and the power of the Spirit be with us all as we begin this Assembly.

on #GA220: bridges

It’s hard not to notice them–they’re everywhere in the riverside town of Pittsburgh. Bridges.

bridge, Pittsburgh
© 2012 erin dunigan

Our shuttle from the airport brought us over one as we entered into downtown. From the convention center, where the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA is being held, you can see them whether you look to the left or to the right.


It seemed to me, as I looked out over the river, that it is an interesting physical location, to be in a place, geographically, that demands bridges while of course being in a place denominationally that seems to need them so critically at this moment.

Bridges, of course, don’t turn one side of the river into the other. Both ‘sides’ keep their distinction. But what bridges do is to allow those ‘sides’ to relate to one another, to have contact with one another, and to even travel back and forth between them.

A bridge doesn’t change the fact that there are sides. A bridge by its very definition assumes the reality of ‘sides.’ But a bridge sure makes it a lot easier to navigate them than having to jump into the water and try to fight the current across.

on #GA220 or, how did i become *that* person…?

It struck me, sitting at LAX, waiting for my flight to Pittsburgh. What is this emotion I’m feeling? It’s one I’ve felt before. Oh wait, I know what it is…giddy. Giddy? Yep, giddy.

That was not the disturbing part, necessarily. The disturbing part was the object of the giddiness, which, I realized, to my astonishment, was the Presbyterian General Assembly.

Yes, of course, I do say that somewhat in jest.  But as a ‘West coast Presbyterian’ (it’s own breed…just ask Tod Bolsinger if you don’t believe me) admitting one’s excitement at attending the national gathering of Presbyterians is something like admitting to wearing socks with your flip flops. It is just not done–at least not publicly.

But I realized, in my pondering, that giddy is exactly the right word.

The thing is, this will be my fourth General Assembly. Compared with many who will be in attendance, that makes me a new kid on the assembly. But, it’s also long enough to have gained an understanding of ‘perfecting the motion’ and ‘amending the perfected motion’ and other such GA speak. For the fourth time, I will be reporting on the Assembly (with the Presbyterian Outlook) and photographing it, attempting to ‘capture’ the experience for those who are not having the giddy privilege of attending.

In the Presbyterian circles in which I was raised, General Assembly was, at best, something to be tolerated, but never to be celebrated. If anything, it was the tangible representation of a top heavy institution that was concerned about its own survival and out of touch with what was ‘really happening’ in the world, and rife with political infighting. Plus, it was stuffy and somewhat geeky.

It is not that those accusations are entirely false—the Presbyterian Church is, after all, an institution, and as such, it, at some level, has to be concerned with its own survival. The assembly can be somewhat geeky, in that ‘decent and orderly’ presbyterian way. There can even  be moments of stuffiness.  And, yes, political infighting seems to be the way of the world—in the church just like in the wider culture.

So, why the giddiness?

Because this gathering, since my first attendance in Birmingham, Alabama in 2006 (I came back early from Europe to attend, which should have been my first warning), has also come to represent, for me, friendship, community and a sense of common mission and purpose, even in spite of our ‘differences’ that we seem so intent on trying to amputate from the body.

I love seeing people, those who have become friends, that I interact with on twitter or facebook but only see in person every two years. I love observing the, yes, nerdy presbyterian process at work, and marveling that I am a part of this institution, even as I often find myself at the far outlying boundaries of it. I love that there is such a concern for the world and its people—that is what the fighting, I would hope, really boils down to—a love that wants the best, even as it disagrees as to what the best actually is.

So, here I find myself. In Pittsburgh. And looking forward to soaking in the Presbyterian punch. At least for a week.

the beautiful shop

“I will take you to the beautiful shop.” It took me a minute to realize what Mary Lien was talking about, but then quickly I realized.

The ‘beautiful shop’ is, of course, the local salon, or beauty shop. Mary Lien had taken one look at the remnants of my last pedicure, chipped from stubbing my toe on a curb, and informed me of our need to visit the beautiful shop.  That fading pedicure, of course, had been at a Vietnamese nail salon—but half a world away, in Southern California. Now I was in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City to be exact, and discovering that it is not just in America that the Vietnamese are known for their beauty shops, but here in Vietnam itself as well.

Mary Lien and her husband are the leaders of the local Presbyterian Church, the United Presbyterian Church of Vietnam (UPCV). Because the communist government is not overly comfortable with ‘religious organizing’ in Vietnam, most gatherings are forced to meet in houses, and remain small—in the range of 20-25 people attending.  This government persecution has, as a by-product, birthed a vast network of such house churches. Often those who are leading them have only a bit more training about the ‘stories of Jesus’ than those who they are seeking to lead, but the UPCV has developed a nimble training program to match the fluidity of their churches and leaders.

I am here with a group from the PCUSA as well as representatives from the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan (PCT), to see how the three (PCUSA, PCT and UPCV) might partner  in mission together. It is like a ‘triangle mission,’ as Pastor Andrew Chang, General Secretary of the PCT (and also a fabulous photographer!) described it—with the love of Christ at the center, and each of the three churches making up the equal sides, working together, learning from one another.

Today was a day for just such learning. Our group spent the majority of the day in a meeting (thankfully, with 95+ degree temperatures and 85% humidity, in an air conditioned room) learning about the persecution of the church in Vietnam (“we must keep one leg in the prison, and one leg in the church” was how Pastor Khoa described it—he’s been imprisoned for being a pastor) but also learning how the church in Vietnam has managed to adapt to a changing political climate and not just survive, but thrive and grow.

The UPCV has, even in the midst of its own difficulties, also sought to reach out to migrant workers, many of whom are from Vietnamese tribal groups, who go to Malaysia or Taiwan or Thailand for work and can be vulnerable to issues that often face migrant workers in this area of the world. Because of their caring for these people, it is happening that when workers are able to return home to their villages in the tribal areas of Vietnam, they are bringing their families and sometimes communities into the UPCV house church movement as well. These workers have been loved by the UPCV and it is a love that they then are sharing with their own friends and family when they return.

In the middle of all of this talk of ‘big things’ we took a break for lunch—prepared by Mary Lien and one of the women in the church. Rice, vegetables, meat, crab, soup and mango were all in the mix, and delicious. As the meal was winding down Mary Lien came to get me—we were the only two women in the group. “We have to go do women’s things,” she explained to the men, who were rather afraid to ask anything more.

We walked outside their house that also serves as a church, down about three doors, to another house that also serves as the ‘beautiful shop.’ It was simpe—no spa chairs in this shop. My chair was plastic. I was given a small plastic bowl of water to soak my hands, and another one for my feet. Mary Lien chatted with the women in the shop as I sat there, as oblivious as I am to the Vietnamese around me in the nail shops in the US, but completely content to sit and take it all in. Mary Lien wanted me to take pictures of the single girls, joking that it might help them find American husbands. One woman was in curlers. Another was in the midst of a color job. A third was getting some sort of facial mask, and another was getting a pedicure. The small little front room of the house was full of activity.

As I sat and waited I was struck by the blessing of being able to share that space with those women. Women who, in many ways, might seem very different from me—in hair color or appearance or other external criteria. Women who took me into their space with no hesitation.

I was also struck by the living example of the house churches of the presbyterian church—a hospitality, as well, offering the love of God to those in their neighborhoods and those in need.

A beautiful shop indeed.