DETROIT — Every two years I take a busman’s holiday, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I adjust my focus from my normal city hall beat to a more heavenly realm, covering the goings-on of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 221st General Assembly, being held June 14-21 at Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit.
Heck, I may even take in a Tigers game.
Our denomination meets every two years in a different city. The church selected Detroit years ago and stuck with its choice even after the bottom fell out of the Motor City’s economy. I’m glad for the church’s faithfulness. Folks here have treated us with nothing but kindness. Dozens of volunteers in teal-colored smocks, all of them Detroit-area Presbyterians, are stationed around the hall, answering our questions and often offering us the first smile we see every morning.
The best thing is they know all the best coffee stands.
The national church has a few professional communicators on staff, but there’s so much going on at General Assembly that they can’t possibly report it all. So the church invites a handful of reporters from around the country to augment the group. I and my friend Chuck Proudfoot, a pastor in Arizona, get up early every morning to offload bundles of the General Assembly News and distribute the newspapers throughout the building. Most nights we’re up pretty late putting the paper to bed. Then we stumble off to our hotels, sleep a few hours, rinse and repeat.
At every General Assembly — we Presbyterians have been doing this since 1789 — we take on weighty matters, wrestle with them, argue, make parliamentary moves and then cast our votes. It’s kind of like Congress, except that the representatives — we call them commissioners — have little or no experience doing what they do. Somehow, with an abundance of God’s grace, we get through the docket and go home on time.
This time, the General Assembly is debating who can be ordained as pastors, how to smooth things over in the Middle East, which companies to divest from and other important matters. A committee I’m bird-dogging decided to reduce the number of synods — large, multistate groupings of churches — from 16 to 10-12. It’s going to cost some people their jobs and it’ll probably undo some good ministry, but with improved methods of communications and shrinking church membership — and offering plates no longer brimming with cash — difficult decisions need to be made.
In addition to seeing people I have truly grown to love, the best part of GA is sitting down and talking to people you may not know, but who have walked a faith journey similar to yours. The nearly 700 people elected to vote on these difficult issues are, from what I can tell, people who love God and have a genuine and deep faith they don’t mind talking about. I could probably spend my whole week here just profiling interesting people, but then I wouldn’t get my assigned work done. I don’t want to let my editors down. They might not ask me back.
^pDetroit is the home of the best music America ever made, the Motown sound. I’ve been racking my brain to come up with a title that might best describe our church’s time together. Among the candidates: “Where Did Our Love Go?” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Mercy, Mercy Me,” “Higher Ground,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” and, sadly, “All Night Long,” which describes how long some of our plenary sessions sometimes take.
This is the week when we experience innovative worship, hear world-class sermons and meet people from all over the world. And sometimes we hear God’s still, small voice — not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but still audible if we stop talking and just listen.