Voices of the Voiceless

by | Oct 8, 2018

Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!

Isaiah 58:1a

Hello from Chicago!

I am writing from the Mid-Council Leaders Gathering, an annual meeting organized by the Office of the General Assembly for synod and presbytery staff and stated clerks, known by veterans as the Polity Conference.  In even-numbered years like 2018, it’s a meeting to review what happened at the recent GA, and figure out what we need to do to follow up.  In odd-numbered years like 2019, the meeting is held in the host city of the upcoming GA, so we can scope out the conference site, hotels, and restaurants.  Regardless of the year, it’s a time to connect, to give feedback to national leaders, and gain some training.

Yesterday turned out to be a very enlightening and empowering day.  It started with Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett, the new President/Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, speaking at breakfast with her constant passion for mission, calling us all to be “love with skin no it” for the world.  She shared a compelling concept, that the church needs to be kenotic, as we empty ourselves in order to welcome the world.  I am so grateful to be on the team with Bong Bringas to call Diane to this critical position; she fulfills so well the most urgent request from the larger church—a person of faith who can communicate and inspire mission for the church.  I also heard from a couple of friends what Bong had already told me, that her first board meeting was a great initial start for the new design of the PMA and its board.

The morning continued with some insightful remarks from Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, the Stated Clerk.  He continues to challenge the church to be relevant, and to use our still-abundant resources to stand with Christ on the margins.  His call for hope and responsibility was magnified in the stirring sermon from Rev. Cindy Kohlmann, co-moderator of the General Assembly.  Focusing on Isaiah 58, Cindy asked what fast do we choose—do we put on mournful faces and focus inwardly on the loss of members and churches, or do we instead lift up our heads and fast from our attachment to being right, to shy away from risk or God’s call to us to move beyond our comfort zones.

Because it was World Communion Sunday, Rev. Kohlmann requested the worship leaders to find people who could participate in many languages.  What resulted was an intriguing illustration of the complexity of language and ethnicity.  For instance, I was approached by Jihyun Oh, who thought I could do the words of institution in Japanese.  I explained that I did not speak Japanese, and the best I could do would be to say “the body of Christ” and “the bread of Christ” in Hawaiian.  She approached Elder Elona Street-Stewart, Executive of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, whose heritage is with the Delaware Indian nation.  I approached two white leaders who have served among the indigenous people in Alaska.  If we all were able to participate, we could have had four indigenous languages represented.

Instead, the two white leaders could not participate, and Elona could not speak the language of her people, because the last person who was fluent in Delaware Indian just died, so effectively the language is dead.  So the only indigenous language represented was Hawaiian, but it was spoken by a Japanese-American woman from the North American continent.

Jihyun was able to locate others who contributed Spanish, Korean, Portuguese, and French.  But there was a moment that brought all of us to tears.  Rev. Raymond Meester, Stated Clerk of Homestead Presbytery in Nebraska, whose parents were deaf, had been using American Sign Language to translate the words of institution over the bread.  Then it was his turn to give the words of institution, which he gave silently over the cup.

I can’t explain the impact it had on all of us, to watch him signing to a totally silent room, but I get teary every time I remember it.  It was more than beautiful—I think ASL always is.  I thought it might be because Elona had just told me how her language had just died.  But others said that they also responded just as strongly to the silent words of blessing and sharing of the cup.

Perhaps it was just the fresh awareness of a totally new way to receive the word of forgiveness of sins, the new covenant sealed in the blood of Jesus.  Or perhaps it was a reminder of the importance to listen for the voices of the voiceless, voices that can be so lovely if we only stopped to listen.  I was reminded of the part of the confession A Brief Statement of Faith 10.4, when it says:

In a broken and fearful world
the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.

There are so many silenced people all around us, even in the church.  I even experienced being silenced at dinner the same day, as someone decided that my voice was not sufficient, until he turned to someone else to confirm it.

I pray that we can take more brief sacred moments when we stop, look to Jesus, and receive the message that we too often neglect.  And may our churches be those sanctuaries of grace, where the gospel is proclaimed through all forms of word, deed, gesture, and music; where those whom the world has ignored can be seen, heard, and respected; where all the nations of the world and all of Creation may rejoice in praise, bow down in worship, and reflect God’s glory.

I return Tuesday night, and look forward to some celebrations for La Casa de San Gabriel and Pomona Hope this week.  And a month from now, November 17th, the West Covina Ministry Center plans to hold an open house and thrift store with some beautiful clothing and other items.  Details to follow.

Listening for God’s quiet voice,