Thursday, July 28, 2011

Religious Leaders Arrested In Capitol Protest

The Reverend J. Herbert Nelson is arrested in protest over debt ceiling negotiations

Washington, DC, July 28, 2011 – The Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Director of the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness in Washington, DC, together with nearly a dozen other religious leaders, was arrested this afternoon in the U.S. Capitol Building while engaging in prayer and civil disobedience.   Frustrated that their pleas to the Administration and Congress to protect funding for the nation’s most vulnerable people are being ignored, the leaders refused to end their public prayers for an equitable resolution to the debt ceiling debate, despite repeated warnings from the U.S. Capitol Police.

As the August 2nd deadline approaches, negotiations to raise the federal debt ceiling seem to have reached a stalemate.  The PC(USA) Office of Public Witness, along with interfaith partners in ministry, is indignant that, in order to break that stalemate, spending cuts to programs that serve the most vulnerable in the U.S. and around the world will likely be included with an increase in the nation’s credit limit.  The PC(USA) has expressed grave concern about the nation’s mounting debt and deficits.  The PC(USA) General Assembly shares elected officials’ concern at leaving to the next generation a legacy of debt, but neither does the PC(USA) support leaving behind a legacy of poverty, neglect, and underinvestment. 

After Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, accompanied by Reverend Nelson, met with Congressional leadership and staff earlier this week, it became clear that Members of Congress themselves have little hope and do not know how this impasse will come to an end.  But both possible scenarios present dire consequences. 

On the one hand, Members of Congress may come to an agreement to increase the debt ceiling, but it will certainly include severe spending cuts to the programs and services that support the poorest and most vulnerable people living in the U.S. and around the world.  On the other hand, Members of Congress may not come to an agreement by next Tuesday, at which point the U.S. will begin to default on its financial commitments for the first time in its history, resulting in increased hardship for the poor and untold national and global economic consequences.  In either case, the poor and vulnerable will bear the overwhelming and disproportionate burden while those who can afford to pay more escape additional sacrifice.

Joined by Presbyterian ministers Jennifer Butler, Executive Director of Faith and Public Life, and Michael Livingston, past-President of the National Council of Churches, Reverend Nelson led religious leaders in prayerful civil disobedience, kneeling down in the Capitol Rotunda to pray for a debt ceiling deal that does not sacrifice the poor on the altar of political ideology.  His participation was a matter of personal conscience and public witness.  He said, “We are in a political quagmire. Due to the inability of the Congress to work together, the good of people across the globe is being compromised by the self interest of our political leaders. I am convinced that this is not the fault of Republicans, Democrats or Tea Party members alone. Too many Congresspersons of all parties are trapped in a space where commitment to the common good is diminished for the sake of personal gain and the seduction of power. In this process, the American people and others all over the world are left to suffer.  Our denomination cannot stand idly by and watch while the mandate of the gospel to love our neighbors is violated in the halls of Congress.”

Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons Calls To Protect Vulnerable In Debt Ceiling Talks

Washington, DC, July 27, 2011 -- “Inspired by a common spiritual conviction that God has called on all people to protect the vulnerable and promote the dignity of all individuals living in society,” Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons joined other Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders on Tuesday to meet with Republican and Democratic Congressional leadership, lifting up those struggling with poverty in the U.S. and abroad.

As elected leaders in Washington, D.C., continue to squabble over a deal to raise the federal debt ceiling, the faith community is urging them to protect the poor and vulnerable from the effects of indiscriminate budget cuts.  In a time of anemic economic recovery, millions of people are relying on Unemployment Insurance, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, SNAP (formerly Food Stamps), and countless other federally funded services that make a difference in the lives of millions of people.  Severe cuts to any of these programs, or even across-the-board budget changes like a global spending cap, debt trigger, or Balanced Budget Amendment, would increase suffering and exact the most sacrifice from those who can least afford it, while exempting from additional responsibility those who can afford to pay more.

In addition to meetings with Congressional leadership and their staff, the religious leaders led a daily prayer vigil on the grounds of the United Methodist building on Capitol Hill, where Reverend Parsons said, “We have come to Washington to meet with Congressional leaders and to join with you in daily prayer for a global economy and a federal budget that breaks the yokes of injustice, poverty, hunger, and unemployment throughout the world.” 

After their meetings with Congressional leadership, religious leaders were struck by the pessimism they encountered when they expressed hope for a productive, balanced approach to the nation’s fiscal woes.  The Reverend J. Herbert Nelson, PC(USA) Director for Public Witness, who attended the meetings with Reverend Parsons said, “There seems to be no movement and no hope among political leaders.  Now is the time for faith leaders and the faith community to take deliberate and forthright action to express disgust at the current situation and to demand a fair solution.  We must be actively involved in this debate, both in Washington, D.C. and across the country.”

As the likelihood of a federal default on the nation’s debt grows and the August 2nd deadline looms, PC(USA) leaders, together with interfaith partners in ministry, are growing increasingly alarmed.  If a deal is reached, they are concerned that a raise to the nation’s debt ceiling will be coupled with callous and draconian cuts to programs that serve the “lease of these.”  Conversely, if the federal government is forced to default on its debt, they fear that the affects of such a failure will be catastrophic for millions of individuals and families both nationally and worldwide.  

Monday, July 25, 2011

Washington Post: "At United Methodist Building, a meeting of prayer and politics"

The Presbyterian Office of Public Witness has continued participating in the WISC Federal Budget prayer vigils, advocating a just federal budget.

On Wednesday, July 22, the Washington Post covered the gathering on the front lawn of the United Methodist building in Washington, DC.

To read the full article as it appeared in the Sunday issue of the Washington post, click the link below.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Colombia Free Trade Agreement Prayer Breakfast

Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson addresses the Colombia Free Trade Agreement from a biblical and theological perspective at a prayer breakfast with Jim McGovern, D-MA. As we near a vote on this issue, Dr. Nelson reminds us that it is important to consider how we can best love our neighbors. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

If Over 150 CEOs Had Been Assassinated in Colombia Over the Past 3 Years, Would You Still Think It a Safe Place for Investment?

Read Representative James McGovern's (D-MA) most recent Dear Colleague Letter against the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA).  Click here to call your own Representative and ask him/her to vote NO on this agreement that will lead to human rights violations, poverty, and death.

If Over 150 CEOs Had Been Assassinated in Colombia Over the Past 3 Years
Would You Still Think It a Safe Place for Investment?

Dear Colleague,

            That’s how many labor leaders and activists were targeted and murdered in Colombia, according to the annual reports of the International Trade Union Confederation.  Each year, the number of trade unionists assassinated in Colombia has equaled or surpassed the total number of such murders in the rest of the world combined.  That’s why Colombia remains #1 as the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist. 
               And 2011 is no different.  So far, this year, 17 labor activists have been murdered, as documented by the National Labor School (ENS/Escuela Nacional Sindical) based in Medellín.   These are real people – not just statistics.  They were teachers and workers in factories and farms.  We should care about their lives and their deaths.
               I support the measures outlined in the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan (LAP) – but they don’t go far enough and it’s a plan that rewards intentions, not results.  Congress should demand that the increased protections called for under the LAP actually result in protecting and reducing the violence against trade unionists before the U.S.-Colombia FTA is debated.  Congress should require that Colombian workers are able to organize, speak freely and negotiate directly with their employers – without fear of violence and death aimed at them and their families – before taking up the FTA for debate and approval.
Please take a look at the names of the 17 labor activists murdered so far this year in Colombia.  Remember that they had families, children, friends, neighbors and colleagues.  Remember the 150 trade unionists targeted and assassinated over the past three years.  Demand that conditions change and improve on the ground in Colombia before the House takes up the Colombia FTA for consideration.

James P. McGovern
Member of Congress

Colombian Unionists Killed January 1 – June 21, 2011 (ENS):

1.     Alejandro José Peñata López, teacher and member of the Asociación de Maestros de Córdoba – ADEMACOR (teachers’ association of Córdoba), affiliated to the CUT, was murdered on June 20.   After he disappeared after leaving school, his body was found with signs of torture.  He had been hanged with barbed wire.                          

2.     Margarita de las Salas Bacca, judge on the Sixth Circuit Labor Courtand member of the Asonal Judicial union, was killed in Barranquilla on June 9, 2011, after leaving the courthouse.  She was survived by her husband and daughter.

3.     Jorge Eliecer de los Rios (pictured left), teacher, environmental campaigner, and member of the Ser union, killed June 8, 2011 in Pereira, Risaralda department.  He was shot several times from a motorbike while on his school’s campus.  A leading member of the Meedrua non-governmental organization, he had led a campaign to expose the damage wreaked by an open air mine belonging to multinationals.

4.     Carlos Julio Gómez, teacher and member of the Sutev union, shot and killed May 29, 2011 in Cali, Valle department.  

5.     Freddy Antonio Cuadrado Nuñez, teacher and member of the Edumagunion, killed May 27, 2011 in Cienaga, Magdalena department. He was shot in the head and killed as he celebrated his 46th birthday.

6.     Carlos Arturo Castro Casas, 41, engineer, member of the Sintraemcali union, and father of three, shot in the neck by two armed men and killed May 23, 2011 in Cali, Valle department.

7.     Juan Carlos Chagüi Cueter, prison guard and member of the Sigginpec union, killed May 15, 2011 in Barranquilla, Atlántico department.

8.     Dionis Alfredo Sierra Vergara, elementary school teacher and member of the Ademacor union, killed May 15, 2011 in La Apartada, Córdoba department.

9.     Luci Ricardo Florez, 28, teacher and member of the Ademacor union, shot by armed men on motorbikes and killed May 3, 2011 in Ayapel, Córdoba department as she was walking home with her mother.

10.  Antonio Ramiro Muñoz Sánchez, member of the Asotmem union, killed April 8, 2011 in Puerto Boyacá, Boyacá department.  According to witnesses, he was shot repeatedly by two men riding a motorbike as he was leaving a union meeting. According to Justice for Colombia, the union had been organizing workers and the local community to demand that oil companies hire local labor.

11.  Héctor Orozco, 35, father of three and Vice-President of the Astracatol union, killed March 30, 2011 in Chaparral, Tolima department.  In the days before he died, Orozco had reported to the local office of the Reiniciar human rights non-governmental organization that he and several other persons had been threatened by an army officer named John Jairo Velez. 

12.  Hernán Yesid Pinto Rincón (pictured left), member of the CGT union and Founder and member of the national board of the new farmers’ organization, killed March 19, 2011 in Tibacuy, Cundinamarca department.  Before his death, he had taken the lead in the struggle of farm workers.
13.  Carlos Alberto Ayala Moreno, member of the Asepunion and Director of the Caucasia Rural Education Institute, killed February 5, 2011 in Puerto Asís, Putumayo department.  He was shot and killed by gunmen as he left his home.

14.  Humberto de Jesús Espinoza Díaz, teacher in the Mistrato Agricultural Institute and member of the Ser union, shot and killed by armed men in January 30, 2011 in Mistrató, Risaralda department.

15.  Jairo Enrique Veloza Martínez, 35, member of the Sigginpec union, shot three times in the head by gunman and killed January 27, 2011 in Bogotá, Cundinamarca department.

16.  Silverio Antonio Sanchez(pictured left), 37, member of the union Ser, killed on January 24, 2011, from an intentional explosion which caused burns to 80% of his body on December of 2010.

17.  Manuel Esteban Tejada, teacher and member of the Ademacor union, shot and killed in his home by armed men on January 10, 2011 in Planeta Rica, Córdoba department.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

“Communities of Faith Budget Conference Call.”

Expressing “grave concern and dismay” that an agreement between the Administration and Congress to reduce the deficit may place an unjust burden on the poor, “while shielding the wealthiest from any additional sacrifice,” leaders representing the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths are letting the President and Congress know that without federal and state assistance houses of worship and communities of faith will be unable to take up the slack in funding to maintain support for the increasing number of individuals and families facing economic hardship due to budget cuts.

Listen to the audio recording of Communities of Faith Budget Conference Call, moderated by Dr. J. Herbert Nelson of the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness and a panel of faith leaders including Rev. Canon Peg Chemberlin, President, National Council of Churches; Executive Director, Minnesota Council of Churches, Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church USA, Rabbi Steve Gutow, President, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Rev. John L. McCullough, Executive Director and CEO, Church World Service, Sister Mary Hughes, OP, President, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, National Director, Office for Interfaith & Community Alliances, Islamic Society of North America.

Andrew Stern of Reuters also covered the conference call in his article "U.S. religious leaders urge moral solution to debt talks".

Read the full article below.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Taking Up Your Cross By Carrying A Coffin
It’s not every day you see a man in a preacher’s stole having his hands tied and being thrown in the back of a police vehicle. 

But that’s exactly what happened to Rick Ufford-Chase, Executive Director of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and Former Moderator of the PCUSA, and 3 other Presbyterians on Monday, July II.  At noon, a group of over 200 concerned US citizens, some of whom had traveled hundreds of miles to attend, held a rally in front of the White House to oppose the pending Colombia Free Trade Agreement.  Standing in heat that could only be called oppressive, we listened to speakers from the faith community, advocacy organizations, and labor unions, both from the US and from Colombia.  Among the speakers were Rev. J. Herbert Nelson II, our Director here at the Office of Public Witness, and afore mentioned Rick Ufford-Chase.  The spoke to us words of prophecy in the face of injustice.  They raised their voices on behalf of the trade unionists and human rights activists murdered, the indigenous communities forced off their land, the small farmers whose incomes will be reduced by as much as 70% when they are forced to compete with subsidized imports from the US.  We as the crowd raised our voices in response – we yelled and sang, waved signs and coffins.  Coffins?  Yes indeed.  Before the protest, members of the organizing groups constructed and painted 51 cardboard coffins to represent the 51 trade unionists killed in Colombia in 2010 (more than the combined number of trade unionists killed during the same period of time in the rest of the world).

After listening to the speakers, we formed a single-file procession, walking from the park where we’d gathered to the White House fence, where we laid our symbolic coffins down in the street as an act of civil disobedience.  The police asked us to leave and remove the coffins.  Most of the crowd stepped back to the other side of the street, behind the police line, but a brave remnant stayed refused to move.  While the rest of us sang, encouraged them, and took Communion in the park, they held their signs and prayed until the police finally arrested them and carted them away in the back of their van.

And then it was over.  After weeks of phone calls, planning, logistics, the protest was over.  Was it successful?  Did we “win?”  A couple of news sources mentioned our story, but did people with the power, the people who make the decisions hear us?  Our work and sacrifice through this protest, education, grassroots organizing, letters, calls, news stories, etc. – will it make them reconsider, or maybe even change their mind?  Honestly, I don’t know.  According to the news reports I’ve read, the considerations in the Obama Administration and Congress are almost exclusively political – inclusion of the Action Plan, the TAA, when the FTA will hit the House floor.  The real human considerations often seem not even to be on the table.  But that’s where we are, and that’s where we’re staying.  That is our call as Christians and Presbyterians – to speak the truth to power with love.  Click here to call your Representative and ask him/her vote no on the Colombia FTA.  Join a great cloud of witnesses and be an advocate for justice, a member of the human family, and a follower of Christ.

The Respectful Dialogue Initiative

OPW Summer Fellow Erika Weed showcase the OPW’s forthcoming initiative, Respectful Dialogue, a program that will train Presbyterians to facilitate meaningful and civil conversations about issues affecting their churches and communities.

Revealing Communications Insights

As part of its new communications strategy, the OPW has distributed an on-line survey to solicit feedback on how to connect with Presbyterians most effectively. This presentation reports on the preliminary findings from that survey.

And Who is My Neighbor? The PC(USA)’s Call for Justice in International Economic Policy and Trade

OPW Summer Fellow Ginna Irby addresses the OPW’s policy, action, and theological concerns surrounding trade justice, specifically focusing on the pending Free Trade Agreement with Colombia.  

30 Years of AIDS: Reaffirming the PC(USA)’s Commitment to HIV/AIDS Issues

Beatitudes Society, and Office of Public Witness Fellow, Matthew Dimick, examines the implications of the overtures concerning HIV/AIDS passed by the 219th General Assembly, how they fit into the history of the church, and where we stand today in the face of an epidemic (with special attention to the changing face of HIV/AIDS in the USA). Below are his reflections on this presentation.

June marked the thirtieth year of HIV/AIDS in this country. For thirty years, the U.S. and the Global community have groaned under the weight of this disease. In thirty years, HIV and AIDS showed the world the harms of poverty, gender inequality, violence, homophobia, and inequity. HIV has never simply been a body illness, it has been an indicator of social illness--social inequality. 

The first cases of HIV preceded my birth by five years. It is odd to think that this epidemic is older than me, and yet affects so many people in my own personal life. I started doing HIV work because of a sense of Christian charity--I saw my role in addressing HIV/AIDS as something a good Christian should do, as fitting into my role in the history of my community. But as I have worked and researched, my charity has turned to a passion for justice.  Those affected are no longer simply numbers to me but rather names of neighbors, children, brothers and sisters in Christ. 

I gave the above presentation during the "Second Tuesday,” a monthly briefing held at the office. As I prepared this presentation and reflected on the thirty years of the epidemic, it also meant looking at the last thirty years of commitment from the Presbyterian Church which began with a statement from the 195th General Assembly calling the church to “become an advocate of God’s justice by expressing the concern of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at the immensity and complexity of this escalating epidemic.”

In addition to reminding those who attended about the PCUSA’s continued commitment to the ailing needs of those suffering from HIV/AIDS, I argued that we are called to look at systemic causes as well.

I drew particular attention to two communities: the incarcerated and older adults. (See above slides for some statistics on these two groups.)

Already, the Presbyterian Church has ministries serving the spiritual needs of the incarcerated. As we learn more about the needs of those in our criminal justice system, how do we advocate for their health needs?

Intentionally, I drew attention to the needs of older adults in the church. Many older adults lack information on HIV and the need for safe-sex practices. To quote a recent AARP article, “We need to move beyond the late-night jokes on Viagra and recognize that sexuality and intimacy continue to be an important part of everyone’s lives, even after someone turns 60.” 

The challenge I issued to those in attendance and now issue to those reading this blog is to get tested for HIV. Regardless of your risk, or if you are married—experiencing testing, being opening about it, and knowing your status are steps in reducing stigma.  (Visit to find a free testing site near you.)

The global church has yet a role to play in ending this pandemic. There is such a need for the global church! I am convicted and compelled by the words of Donald E. Messer from Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence:

"The Church of Jesus Christ is called to be in the very heart of this global pandemic of pain and suffering. We have no choice; there is no escape; the body of Christ has AIDS.

*note: the Presbyterian HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is now also on December 1st (World AIDS Day)

Update on the Federal Budget: What’s Ahead for the Social Safety Net

As part of his work at the OPW this summer, Beatitudes Society Summer Fellow Chris McCain discusses proposals for the FY2012 federal budget and their potential implications for programs that support poor and vulnerable populations.

On preparing and sharing his presentation, Chris writes:

As a moral document, the federal budget expresses the values and priorities of the American people. In the current debt-ceiling negotiations, both Congress and the President have proposed plans that, to varying degrees, would make significant cuts or changes to Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and other programs that serve low-income and vulnerable populations. For the most part, if any of these changes are passed, many people would experience a decrease in benefits or a complete dis-enrollment from programs they depend on for their livelihoods.

As a person of faith who seeks to heed Jesus' 
call in Matthew 25 to pay particular attention to "the least of these" in our midst, I am very concerned that the forthcoming deficit reduction package would place disproportionate burdens on those who can least afford it -- the poor, sick, disabled, and elderly. To whatever extent possible, we must not allow this to happen.

In this presentation, I explain and examine the social implications of some of the basic proposals that have been suggested by Democrats and Republicans. From the budget proposal introduced by the GOP and passed by the House of Representatives to possible changes to the Medicaid program which serves poor and disabled persons, I discuss several ideas that may make their way into a final compromise bill. While I firmly believe that reducing the long-term deficit is essential for our country's fiscal health and an important step toward stabilizing and growing the U.S. economy, it is critical that it be done morally and responsibly.

The fight over the federal budget will not be over anytime soon. Even if Congress meets 
the August 2, 2011, deadline to increase the national debt ceiling, the debate over the size and scope of the federal government will continue. To that end, I encourage you to contact your senators and tell them that the health and well-being of our brothers and sisters, as well as future generations, depends on essential investments and that a deficit reduction deal must include new revenues from those in society who can afford to pay.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson: "From Success to Significance"

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson preached the sermon at the closing worship of Big Tent '11 in Indianapolis, IN, in which he called for the Presbyterian Church to embrace the changes in our denomination and accept that a little pruning is needed if we are to bear fruit.  

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Big Tent: AIDS in Malawi

“The thing that surprised them most,” said Phylis Weezman speaking about her educational program on HIV/AIDS in Malawi, “is how bad things are in Mawlawi compared to other parts of the world. They simply believe that HIV and AIDS are as big of a problem in the rest of the world as they are in Malawi.” According to Weezman, there is stunned silence with the inevitable, “Why is that?” She responds.“Well, why do you think?” she asks participants. And so begins the week long program on HIV and AIDS education in Malawi.

During a break out session during the Big Tent conference, a committed group of individuals came together to discuss some of the international AIDS work the Presbyterian Church was doing, specifically how God was working through Malawi congregations.

The facts are these (from the UNAIDS 2010 report):
  •        There are an estimated 33.3 million people living with HIV and AIDS worldwide. Nearly one third of them live in southern Africa.
  •        68% of all people living with HIV are in sub-Saharan Africa. More than 72% of all AIDS deaths occurred in this region
  •        40% on all adult women with HIV live in southern Africa
  •      Lack of education of education and comprehensive knowledge about HIV/AIDS and gender inequalities (including some traditional practices) put individuals at an increased risk risk.

During the course of the session, Weezman explained how the large Malawian population in South Bend, Indiana (an estimated 1,500) were a catalyst for her work. They brought attention to the needs of Malawi to her church. Though working with Malawian people in her congregation, missionaries, and the Nkhoma Synod of Malawi, Weezman created an educational curriculum.

What is unique about Weezman’s work is the way it utilizes various methods of learning and the Malawi traditions, including songs and story.  What Weezman realized was, in a place of limited resources and limited literacy; you have to find various ways to educate the community.

Though the need is great in Africa, and our efforts often seem like a drop in the sea of need, Weezman closed her presentation with Esther 4:14, “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance from the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

“For such a time as this” that we live, that we are called to minister to. As we reflect on 30 years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we recognize that we are called to do our part in meeting the needs of those suffering, both domestically and internationally.  

What impressed me most about the work in Malawi our church is doing, is the way existing faith communities were utilized--the Church of Central Africa, Presbyterian (CCAP) is comprised of 1.2 million members. Including youth, this figure can exceed 5.5 million! It is not the we needed to create something that did not exist, instead we are utilizing our faith community, mobilizing them, equipping them. Frankly, it’s awesome.

The 219th Presbyterian Church General Assembly (2010) committed itself to building competency in HIV and AIDS--a history that began in the 1980s of reaffirming and reforming ourself to meet "such a time as this." 

As we move into the next decade of this epidemic, with no end in sight, how will our church step up to play its part as a faith community? What role does a community of faith play in fighting a global pandemic?

Matthew Dimick is a Boston University School of Theology and School of Social Work graduate student. He is currently a Beatitudes Society Fellow working in the Presbyterian (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness on HIV/AIDS related issues and policy. He can be reached at

To follow more of the Big Tent happenings, be on the lookout for the hash-tag #bigtent11 and also check out the Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference blog!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Big Tent: Be Awake!

Presbyterians far and wide have descended upon the city of Indianapolis for the second Big Tent conference.  Starting in 2008, the Presbyterian Church brought together ten various conferences to meet during the summer alternating with General Assembly.

In her welcome to the participants of this year’s Big Tent Cindy Bolbach, moderator of the 219th General Assembly promised, “Unlike General Assembly… I can promise there will be no malfunctioning voting machines!”

Instead, participants are here to engage with each other on various issues from poverty and gun-violence, to Internet communications and international missions.

During the course of this weekend, I will be blogging occasionally on various conference events, sessions and discussions—particularly in partnership with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference. I hope this can be a resource for those who are unable to attend the conference this year, and also be a springboard for discussion.

A discussion that has already begun here at Big Tent is the pursuit of meaning and ministry in a changing global landscape. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, began this conversation as the opening plenary speaker of Big Tent.

Comparing the shifting social landscape of 16th C. Europe, the world of John Calvin—where the mode of communication was changed by the printing press, boarders built between nations thus mitigating who could come and go, and the birth of the middle class upset feudalism. This world experienced growing pains that sound oddly familiar in the face of our own shifts in media, global economy, nation states and trade agreements.

“Rather than our world expanding, your world has collapsed,” said Jones speaking of the effects of the Internet. “It is overwhelming to grasp how big it is.” It this liminal space of oxymoron: of expansion and collapse, in labyrinths and abysses, in crumbling facades but exploding doors, this is the world we live in as reformed theologians, explains Jones.  “Reformed theology won’t take the easy way out. Human life is complex. We live in these tensions and we are called by God to be here now.”

Jones explains, further drawing a comparison between the world of Calvin and our own, that the most important thing Calvin did was to stay awake: “[Calvin] refused to close his eyes!” Staying awake is the active role of not falling asleep, in actively using our imagination, in seeing the world contradictions and all.

She states, “My social theory of social change is one that I have referred to as ‘just breathe’—stay awake, take in the moment we find ourselves, cast off the burden that it is up to you to in this moment change history; because what we all know is that it is happening—with or without us. Our task is not force history forward.”

She concludes with a final commission: “Be Awake!”

This begs the question, for the laypersons, the elders, and the ministers; for the policy and peacemakers; from the YAVs to the Seminarians—what does this calling mean to you?

For myself, it means to be awake to the contradictions we live in, to engage ourselves in the shaping of this world, but also (which is perhaps more challenging), opening my eyes to the providence of a God who set this world into being and motion.

I think there is another aspect to the call to be awake. That is to shake our church to awaken them. I see this as the role of the Peacemaking conference this year which its campaigns, for examples, against child soldiers and gun violence. On the other sides, it means being open to being awaken to those things we have closed our eyes to. 

So other than fighting against sleep as we run hither and thither around the JW Marriot this weekend, what does it mean for you to “be awake” here at Big Tent and as a Presbyterian?

Matthew Dimick is a Boston University School of Theology and School of Social Work graduate student. He is currently a Beatitudes Society Fellow working in the Presbyterian (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness on HIV/AIDS related issues and policy. He can be reached at

To follow more of the Big Tent happenings, be on the lookout for the hash-tag #bigtent11 and also check out the Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference blog