I’m sitting in the airport on the way back from Big Tent 2013 and am just beginning to reflect on my experiences there and what was most memorable from the four “Presbyterian” days. Clearly what I enjoyed the most was the chance to get to know some of the other stated clerks, EPs, and Hudson River folks better. The other things that stood out were the first of the mid-council workshops I did, the embarrassing and unaccommodating planning elements of Big Tent, the human trafficking workshop, and the demonstration at Wendy’s.
Mid-council folks gathered together for workshops beginning early in the morning on the first day of Big Tent. We were each asked to pick three workshops and I chose “Marriage Conversation” (which would be offered in all three workshop slots), “Preparing for Membership Shift,” and “Shifting Church Culture.” It became clear early on that the goal of these workshops wasn’t to take positions on any of the topics so much as it was to report to each other what our individual presbyteries were experiencing in relationship to them. (This seemed to imply, at least to my first time attending mindset, that my job was to stay in my stated clerk role for these gatherings as much as possible rather than sharing personal positions on any of the topics.) The second and third workshops were fairly non-memorable—focusing on moving from preservation of the past to engagement with the future and various shapes that worshipping communities that are more “lightweight” might take. They weren’t bad; there just wasn’t anything new or exciting in either of them. The first workshop was on marriage and how various presbyteries were responding to the possibility that same-gender marriage discussions would come up or might pass in the next General Assembly or two. Discussion began by talking about the “huge hit” that presbyteries should be preparing for because of these. It quickly became clear from comments that the only people in our group of 40 or so people who were actually dealing with presbyteries where same-gender marriage is legal were Harold Delhagen, the Synod of the Northeast’s Transitional Leader, and me. The discomfort that the church position raises for pastors in our presbyteries because of the difference in position between the denomination and the state was quickly dismissed as not being important. Instead what the discussion ended up focusing on which group was more important—our new Korean congregations that see even discussing same-gender marriage as “captivity to culture” or our youth who aren’t going to wait around if we don’t change our position on same-gender marriages. (The Korean congregation perspective was referred to for the first fifteen minutes or so as “whether we value our racial-ethnic groups” until one of the national church staff who works with Latino congregations said that it had become clear as she met with young Latino groups that they want to discuss and act on same-gender marriage just as other younger people do, so saying all racial-ethnic groups feel the same way isn’t accurate.) What amazed me in this discussion was that the two groups that ended up being valued were the Korean congregations and young members of congregations. Except for Harold and my comments early on in the discussion, not a single person around the room was at all concerned about what would be just or how the decisions would affect those of us who are lesbian and gay. I know I’m a new stated clerk but this just blew my mind.
The most negative part of Big Tent for me was around poorly planned logistics and accommodations of needs. I had put down on my form when I registered that my dietary needs were “vegetarian gluten-free” and that I am hearing impaired. I was delighted that people who were planning Big Tent contacted me ahead of time to both say that I shouldn’t worry at all about diet – that it would be no problem to accommodate—and to ask what I would need to help with my hearing impairment. I explained that if workshops were miked and I could sit where I could read lips I’d be fine but asked if that would be the case. I was told every workshop would be miked. When I got to Louisville, neither of these statements were true. Only one workshop was miked and since parts of many were run as large room discussions I lost a lot of what was being shared. And the food situation was a disaster. Except for the first meal—where there was a nicely labeled meal waiting for each of us who had dietary needs—not a single meal that I had at Big Tent was able to give me food without it being an issue. I was told again and again that I could have a gluten-free meal or a vegetarian meal but that I couldn’t have both. At the World Mission Conference luncheon, for example, they brought a vegetarian meal to someone at my table (pasta with a nice selection of cooked vegetables) and a gluten-free meal to someone else (gluten-free pasta with chicken in a sauce). Which of the two, they asked, did I want? I asked if I could have a plate the gluten-free pasta that was on the one plate and the vegetables on the other. No, they couldn’t do that. I explained as patiently as I could that I couldn’t eat either and could they please look into a way to do the combination I was suggesting. I was told they’d have to check with a manager. As dessert was being served to everyone else the manager finally came walking across the dining hall with a plate of the gluten free pasta and a few of the pieces of squash that had been on the vegetarian plate. Dinner that night was even worse. The waiter brought me a “vegetarian gluten-free” plate that was a puff pastry in which was couscous. I explained that I knew cous cous wasn’t gluten free. He said he’d take care of the problem and came back with a plate of rice with turkey on top of it. I explained that turkey wasn’t vegetarian and asked for something else. He said they didn’t have anything. I said “there must be some way to put together something. There are rice and green beans on each plate. They could be added to something.” He left and came back with a plate covered with a huge pile of green beans—so much for dinner. Not being able to hear discussions and having to go through this again and again at each meal was embarrassing when what I really wanted was a chance to get to know those at my tables while getting at least some basic food. The whole experience makes me hesitant to go to future events like the October Polity Conference if this is the way that the denomination functions.
Most of the workshops I attended were fairly bland—not bad, just not providing any new information, skills or ideas to take back to the presbytery. (I didn’t go to any of the workshops that OGA was offering around polity topics because most of them were the same as ones I’d attended in May at the new stated clerk training, so I can’t reflect on how good any of them might have been.) The exception was the workshop addressing human trafficking that Noelle Damico led. There not only did we share what we knew about the topic, but we were given other information and ways to both bring the topic back to our presbyteries (including the offer of free training workshops) and to act on this justice issue ourselves.
On Saturday I spent the morning at a community organizing workshop. It was “meh”—very basic tools (learn to listen to others, take time to get to know the neighborhood before making decisions, etc.). Afterwards, though, the group had a choice of four lunchtime activities—a tour of community gardens (which sounded great but wasn’t open to me since I hadn’t done the whole conference), an environmental racism tour, some other choice I don’t remember, and a demonstration at Wendy’s on behalf of fair food rights for farmworkers, asking that they be paid a penny more per pound of tomatoes and agree to only buy from fields where workers’ rights were respected. Kathy and I chose the last. On the bus on the way to the demonstration we ran through chants and Noelle gave us both the background on why we were demonstrating and what to expect, but what impressed me most was the apology we were given for the fact that we’d be given plastic bottles of water to drink so that we didn’t become dehydrated –showing an awareness of this environmental issue in a four-day period in which so much was disposable plastic cups, plates and utensils, plastic water bottles, plastic toys on tables, etc. When we got to Wendy’s we carried our signs and did our chants for about 30 to 45 minutes. The manager refused to take a letter we’d signed but he did say that he’d called his superiors who were notifying Wendy’s top management, so that probably mattered more than the letter. All in all, a good use of an hour or so!
Plane’s boarding so no more reflections now!