Tag Archives: PCUSA

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.

a tale of two presbyteries…

the view, with the US/Mexico border fence in the distance, looking out from Dios es Amor

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to a meeting of the Presbytery of Northern Baja California, Mexico. I was there in my photographic capacity, rather than as my pastoral self, but as I met the Mexican pastors I was introduced as both a photographer and also a pastor.

The men (they were all men as the Presbyterian Church of Mexico does not ordain women as pastors, though they are set to vote on the issue at their upcoming General Assembly) were friendly, welcoming, and pleasantly surprised by the fact that though I look like a guera I actually do speak some Spanish. I had met many of them earlier in the week as I went around to the various churches of the Northern Baja Presbytery, in Tijuana and Tecate, photographing the buildings as well as the pastors and their families.

So, it was more than a little bit awkward when Rachel (my host, a local PCUSA mission coworker also ordained as a minister in the PCUSA, and clearly, by her name, also a woman) and I realized that the first item on the morning’s agenda was an American (and also a male pastor/missionary to the area whose Spanish was, as far as I could tell, fluent) speaker from the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) presenting a case against the ordination of women.

As the speaker was being introduced he corrected his host and clarified that he was not presenting ‘a case against women’s ordination’ but rather ‘the Biblical case regarding the ordination of women.

And so it went.

Unfortunately my Spanish is good enough that I caught pretty much all of the presentation, about how the speaker did not hate women–“I love my wife and my daughters”–but that he was simply trying to obey the Bible, which “clearly states that there are different roles for men and for women” and that was all he was asking of the men gathered. To love women, to treat them well, and to remember that they occupy a certain complementary  (a word he used to contrast with ‘equal’) role to play–but to, above all else, honor and submit oneself to the authority of Scripture which clearly (though this ‘clear’ case was not really laid out) tells us that women should not be pastors.

There was more. His presentation went on for nearly an hour.

But what struck me almost immediately and stayed with me throughout the duration of his presentation was how much it reminded me of something I had heard recently in my own presbytery, only there it was the ‘Biblical case against the ordination of homosexuals’ rather than the ‘Biblical case against the ordination of women.’ As I sat in that Baja church (called “Dios es Amor” or “God is Love”) listening, I couldn’t help but feel that I was in some sort of odd time/space warp between their presbytery meeting and my own recent presbytery meeting.

During that February gathering in Los Ranchos, Richard Mouw, who has had a key role as a reconciler between ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ in the ongoing debate/conversation regarding homosexuality, similarly made the point that he was not against homosexuals–“I love homosexuals”–but that, at the end of the day, he had to be true to Scripture which makes the clear case against the ordination of homosexuals.

He spoke of his desire not to put down gay people or to hate them, but the greater conviction to uphold the authority of the Scripture. It was almost apologetic, in the “I’m sorry” kind of way, as in “I’m really sorry I have to believe this, but I just can’t do anything else and be true to who I am, who God is, and who God calls me to be.” He was very gentle in his presentation. So gentle and humble in his presentation, in fact, that one was almost tempted to wonder if even those with whom he disagreed might actually somehow be won over to his ‘side’–an assumption that was debunked after talking with a handful of the more ‘liberal’ members of the presbytery.

But sitting in that Baja church, listening, in Spanish, to an hour long presentation of why I, as a woman, was unworthy to be called by God as a minister, what I was struck by, in addition to how similar these arguments seemed to those used regarding ordination of homosexuals, was how painful it was to be the subject and focus of that argument being discussed around me.

To be honest, before seeking ordination, I didn’t do a thorough Biblical study on why I, as a woman, might be justified to be a minister even though the apostle Paul clearly says in 1 Corinthians 14:32-35

As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

I didn’t have to justify my case, or actually even think through how I might do so, as I have the benefit of others having paved that way before me–the PCUSA has been ordaining women as ministers since, if my memory of Presbyterian history serves me, 1964.

When I felt called by God to enter the process of discernment for ministry, it was my sense of God’s call that was questioned, not my gender. I took it for granted that I could be ordained, provided that my sense of God’s call (that had been nurtured in me by the evangelical church of my youth),  was confirmed in community and through the process. So, though one might assume, being a woman minister, that I had already worked through these ‘Biblical arguments against the ordination of women,’ to sit there and listen to them delivered was surprisingly painful and somewhat foreign.

As the presentation regarding the ‘Biblical case regarding the ordination of women’ came to a close and the meeting adjourned to a break, I stepped outside the church for a breath of fresh air, probably metaphorically as well as literally.

The church building for “Dios es Amor” is on the corner of intersecting pot-holed dirt roads in eastern Tijuana, a city burdened by the ramifications of media reports about its drug problems, violence and crime.  As I looked around I wondered about the many challenges facing the church in Mexico–and I wondered about their current debate over women’s ordination. I wondered what Jesus would see, walking down the road past Dios es Amor?

In the distance, beyond the variety of dwelling structures, one can see the ‘border fence’ between the US and Mexico, cutting its path through the hills. One of the Mexican pastors saw me looking at it and said “Otro lado esta muy cerca pero muy lejo”–more or less, “the other side is so close and yet so far.”

The other side is so close, but yet so far.

Driving home from the meeting that day, though many hours after the morning’s presentation, I couldn’t shake the sense of both discomfort and frustration, but also the irony of the context in which the debate was being waged.

But overwhelmingly I felt a sense of sadness for those who have had to sit through such debates about their own worthiness for much longer than an hour. The morning’s debate really had nothing directly to do with me, and yet it was still painful and uncomfortable to be, in a sense, its focus. As I was driving through the hills of northern Baja, along the Blvd 2000, I picked up my phone (while using my headset, of course) and called a gay minister friend of mine, apologizing to her for not really ever realizing how much she had to sit through as other people discussed whether or not God might call someone like her.