The Boston Food Justice Young Adult Volunteers were sent to the 221st General Assembly in Detroit to experience change at a denominational level and to specifically follow three food-related overtures (like bills sent to Congress) in committee meetings to the plenary floor (where all of the delegates vote.) In the social justice committee we were following “On Food Sovereignty for All” from the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta and “Affirming the Importance of Maternal and Child Nutrition over 1,000 Days” from the Presbytery of National Capital, and in the environmental and immigration committee “On Affirming the Importance of Sustainable Development and the Precautionary Principle” from the Presbytery of Southern New England.
I was especially excited about the maternal and child nutrition and the First 1,000 Days— this is the time between the start of the mother’s pregnancy and the child’s second birthday. The critical cognitive and physical development that happens during this time can never be made up if either mother or child experience malnutrition. The overture passed unanimously in committee. Bread for the World has been a strong partner and supporter in this effort, and it was great to see the Presbyterian church join in this work.
The other overtures were also uncontroversial and passed fairly easily in committee (there was some weird discussion and uncertainty about the term “sustainable development,” which was a good reminder that not everyone is living and breathing food justice) which gave us time to check out other committees as well as the exhibit hall and other cool events. We knew marriage equality and Middle East divestment were the two big controversial issues going in and fossil fuel divestment also ended up being a hot topic.
The marriage equality committee meeting was packed– standing and sitting on the floor room only– and emotional and sensitive, yet not hysterical or destructive. After much discussion the committee and plenary voted to allow (but not force) pastors to officiate same-sex marriages in states where its legal and to change the Book of Order’s definition of marriage (this is part of our constitution– a very big deal.) The second change has to be ratified by a majority of presbyteries, but this decision was not made lightly. The argument was framed as a pastoral care crisis– that pastors are not able to serve all of their congregants in wedding ceremonies instead of an equality and justice issue. This topic is also not new, and has been discussed at GA since way before I was born.
It was a great feeling to be there when the vote was decided and our church got a little bit closer to being how church should be– just and open to all.
We didn’t have time to sit in on the Middle East committee (and to be honest I wasn’t sure I wanted to), but did listen to debate on the plenary floor about divesting from three American companies who are assisting in human rights violations against the Palestinians.
This was the most divisive issue, and one that didn’t follow typical party or ideological lines. The challenge was daunting– how can we possibly start to join in the conversation about peace and resolution in the Holy Land, and at the same time how can we witness oppression and poverty and stay silent. We are called to be in the middle of difficult and uncomfortable conversations. Questions of how to show love, support, and nonviolence for both sides was a constant theme, as well as terms like two-state solution and threats of anti-Semitism. It was intense.
For better or for worse, instead of the discussion really being about Israel and Palestine the question was about what the Presbyterian church should ethically invest in. My thoughts on the issue were that as people of faith we should not be supporting exploitative and oppressive capitalist systems, and at the very least should not be profiting in any form from war. At the end of the day the body voted to divest from the 3 companies in question by 7 votes– out of over 650.
The most disappointing decision from our perspective was the decision to refer divesting from fossil fuel companies to a separate committee (MRTI) for study. The GA committee gave no real discussion of the overture itself, someone quickly made a motion to refer and it felt like game over. On the plenary floor there was a chance to substitute the main motion (to refer) with the minority report (to divest), and there was some discussion but it didn’t pass.
The most frustrating part is that (almost) no one argued that using fossil fuels is causing climate change, that climate change is bad, or that we are faced with a crisis for both humanity and creation that needs to be taken seriously and dealt with quickly. But as soon as representatives from the board of pensions got up to talk about their concerns, specifically that change is hard (and that we should just wait and trust the process that hasn’t been working for 30 years to suddenly convince these companies to do the right thing.) Several people argued that by divesting we give up our place at the table during shareholder meetings to engage in corporate dialogue to create change. In the back of the room where the YAVs, YAVAs, and friends of YAV (other young folks) were hanging out we were whispering/sometimes yelling “That’s the point!!” We believe divesting would make a statement that the church does not profit from the exploitation of the earth and that we won’t engage in corporate dialogue on the company’s terms. The overture was referred to MRTI (committee that does investment stuff) and will come back with their suggestions in 2 years, so it wasn’t a defeat and if you’re interested you can learn more from Fossil Free PCUSA.