Reflections: The Big Tent and Vision 2020

Debbie G. Foster, Associate Stated Clerk Foothills Presbytery

This year’s Big Tent conference took place in St. Louis and had the theme, “Race, Reconciliation, Reformation.” I was participating in the conference as a Presbytery leader, but also as a member of the 2020 Vision team for our denomination.

As I prepared to go, I found myself looking at the location, reading the workshop titles, looking over the schedule and wondering, “Is this conference going to be a thumbs up or a thumbs down?

Jill Duffield, editor of The Presbyterian Outlook, nailed it when she wrote, “Reading the workshop titles proved daunting. “Human Caused Disaster Ministry,” “Presbyterian Response to Native American issues: The Apology and Doctrine of Discovery,” “Cuba, Israel-Palestine, South Sudan, Korea, and Mexico: The Church’s Stories and Struggles of Reconciliation,” “Disrupting Racism: Building the Intercultural Community,” “The Least of These: Engaging Presbyterians in the Work of Preventing and Alleviating Poverty,” to name of few offered on just the first full day of the conference.

Who wants to engage in such huge, messy, and seemingly intractable issues?” Jill is right! These workshops and topics were focused on so many of the issues, which cause division in our congregations and our denomination. Issues that prompted Foothills Presbytery GA reform group to write nine overtures. (all which were sent to GA 2016). Issues that bring out defensive strategies and often cause us to “spin-off in multiple directions”.

Now, take a deep breath! Except for the oppressive heat (whine, whine, whine) and long walks from Washington University parking lots – it was an excellent conference!

Gradually, the Kingdom of God Stories behind the “daunting” workshop titles and plenary topics began to come to life. I was grateful to be sitting in the chapel at Washington University (founded by the grandfather of TS Elliot by the way) while J. Herbert Nelson “preached-it”!  I heard the word of God challenging the people of God.  Don’t you just love an unexpected gift from God?

Rev. Denise Anderson and Rev. Jan Edmiston, Co-Moderators of the 222nd General Assembly lead plenary conversation titled, “At the Cross: Intersections the Church Must Navigate”. They introduced the book  Always With Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor, by Liz Theoharis, as the second book in their church wide book study. (click here to read a blurb about Liz’s book)[1]

It was a “loaded” three days for sure. Much like the conference name; however, the Big Tent became a divine space for a wide variety of people to faithfully grapple with the relevance of 21st Century church and ask tough questions about God’s vision for our future. It was a divine space to hear God’s word read, proclaimed and set before as a holy reminder and a challenge to continue to be a church of integrity, a church participating in the covenant promises with and for God.

This was a gathering when the “messy issues” did not divide. We (PCUSA) still have work to do for sure, but The Big Tent modeled how mission and ministry grounded in God’s word can enable us all to travel home challenged to be the messengers of God’s healing love in our corner of the world.


All things Big Tent, including three articles about the work of the 2020 Vision Team


[1] Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor

Liz Theoharis 

Jesus’s words “the poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11) are regularly used to suggest that ending poverty is impossible, that poverty is a result of moral failures, and that the poor themselves have no role in changing their situation. In this book Liz Theoharis examines both the biblical text and the lived reality of the poor to show how that passage is taken out of context, distorted, and politicized to justify theories about the inevitability of inequality.

Theoharis reinterprets “the poor you will always have with you” to show that it is actually one of the strongest biblical mandates to end poverty. She documents stories of poor people themselves organizing to improve their lot and illuminates the implications for the church. Poverty is not inevitable, Theoharis argues. It is a systemic sin, and all Christians have a responsibility to partner with the poor to end poverty once and for all.


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