By Josh Stanley, MDiv ’16
Helping people connect to the internet, setting up committee rooms, pointing lost people in the right direction; this was my role as a student assistant at the 221st General Assembly. Although it may not sound glamorous, it gave me an intimate view into one of the most important gatherings for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It also gave me the opportunity to spend time with thirteen other people who were passionate enough to give up time from their own summers to be student assistants at the General Assembly.
As one of the student assistants I was among a diverse group of students who ranged from college juniors, who were doing incredible work in the Office of Public witness to recently graduated seminary students already serving the church in a variety of ways. However whether we were seminary students or not made no difference, because we were all there as volunteers. We all decided to take time out of our summer vacations and busy work schedules, because we were passionate about the church and helping it continue to progress forward. Through coffee-fueled days and nights that required us to be working before the Assembly began and after it ended, I formed a strong bond with my fellow student assistants. Whether making copies or setting up the plenary hall, I had incredible conversations detailing the faith journeys people took to be where they are now and the direction they hoped the church would take so that it can flourish.
One of the people with whom I was fortunate enough to serve as a student assistant was a friend from Egypt. He taught me a vast amount about the state of the Presbyterian Church in Egypt and how the violence and instability around that area of the world shaped his ministry. I shared with him details about ordination exams, which he had not been required to take. We learned from each other that although we are both part of the same denomination there are significant differences from place to place within the church. It was these moments that continually reminded me God is not confined to the classrooms in my small corner of Decatur, Georgia.
As I was experiencing this, my role also gave me the opportunity to be directly in the middle of the action and experience why the General Assembly is so special. This uniqueness came in the form of inclusivity. Whether in small committees or the large plenary sessions, no matter who you were, you were encouraged to share your opinion. It did not matter whether someone was for or against an item of business, whether they wanted to ask a question or call an end to all questions, everyone was invited to speak. Like the doors of our churches, no one was turned away and all were welcome to share. This is something rarely seen throughout the world today. Our culture today has drawn lines that have divided us into groups. You can too easily be categorized as too young, too old, too liberal, or too conservative. Depending on where you are this can have a dramatic effect on whether your voice is heard, but not here. We are truly a bottom-to-top denomination where our members have a voice in the future direction of the church.
I was even more impressed by how people respected and cared for one another. There were several controversial topics: the biggest being divestment on which many did not meet eye to eye. The fact that there were so many opinions meant that, no matter what decision was made, a large portion of those present would be disappointed. For me, these moments were more stressful than having a microphone quit working or having a power strip short circuit during my committee’s meeting. We were all here for the same reason and it was tough to see people frustrated and upset.
After all the votes were counted, the newly elected Moderator Dr. Heath Rada roused the entire assembly into song. It was touching to see people who minutes before had been arguing joining together in the singing of hymns. This served to reunite and include everyone, even me a student assistant. It did not matter that I disagreed with some people and agreed with others. It did not matter that my role as a student assistant did not allow me to vote or participate in the debating of business. When a hymn was sung I felt that we were all simply servants of Christ striving to make a better world. It is for these reasons that the 221st General Assembly was full of passionate people striving for a future that allows the church to thrive and share the love of God.
I was ultimately inspired by all the people who participated, especially my fellow student assistants. I arrived in Detroit having no idea of what to expect or how this would shape me. However, after ten days I left having a renewed passion and optimism for the church. Most importantly, I left with 13 close friends whose words and thoughts still stay with me and who I will forever be connected with through the blue smock of the student assistant.
Josh Stanley is originally from Greensboro, NC and graduated from North Carolina State University in 2013. He is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity degree and is hoping to work in Christian Education with youth and adults after graduation.