Vilmarie & Cindy – Candidates’ Booklet

Part of the process of standing for Co-Moderators of the 223rd General Assembly was preparing a booklet introducing ourselves to the commissioners and delegates, and answering questions from the Stated Clerk.  The booklet has now been posted on PC-Biz, and is available for your information.

Our answers to the questions can be found here.   This document includes pictures of us, our sense of call, biographical bullet points, answers to five questions, and the letters of endorsement from our Presbyteries.

We enjoyed putting this together and reflecting on our faith journey.   We hope you also enjoy reading our thoughts and getting to know us a little more!

Dragons, Frogs, and Clergywomen… Oh, my! -Vilmarie

A reflection on our time at the National Association of Presbyterian Clergywomen Triennial Conference, Montreat, NC

I have only been to Montreat Conference Center two times in my life. (Yes. I know.)  Compared to other life-long Presbyterians, I am a ‘newbie’ in all things Montreat.  Though last week was my second time there, passing through the Montreat stone gate and entering the Assembly Inn last Monday night felt familiar and welcoming.   Cindy and I, as well as the two other moderatorial candidacy teams, were invited to attend the Triennial and 30th Anniversary Celebration of the National Association of Presbyterian Clergy Women, also known as NAPC.  We feel honored by their invitation and grateful for the opportunity to share briefly who we are, our vision and hopes for the PCUSA.

The theme of the conference was absolutely brilliant: “Dragons, Frogs, and Other Fairy Tales of Women in Ministry”. For this English teacher, the theme was definitely home.  As a declared “Potterhead” (the name given to a fan of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series) fantasy stories and fairytales always catch my attention.  The focus of the conference was not on these stories per se, although the Wizard of Oz, Cinderella, Snow White and two beautiful Red Shoes were referenced more than once. The real focus was on the metaphorical dragons and frogs clergywomen encounter as they do ministry, the challenges and hurdles faced when responding to God’s call to serve.  Stereotypes, societal and religious constructs about women in general and about women in ministry are sadly alive and well in the church.  Doing ministry while working to slay these dragons, so to speak, is frustrating and many times exhausting.   Still, we heard this week about the ways in which these awesome women of God serve their congregations, communities, mid councils and the denomination at large.

We were invited primarily to share about us, but what I valued the most about our time in Montreat was the opportunity to converse and to hear the stories of these courageous trailblazers.  I am grateful for the candid conversations during meals, for the voices of young and old as they shared experiences and frustrations along the journey, their hopes for the local churches, the communities they serve and the PC(USA).  This is, after all, an essential part being church: cultivating relationships, welcoming others and being family.

It would take several pages in this blog to do justice to the wealth of information received, the wisdom of the words spoken, and the “ah-ha” moments lived during our time there.  It was an honor to listen and learn from Rev. Floretta Barbee-Watkins, the conference keynote speaker.  To say that the worship services led by the Rev. Dr. Tracy Keenan and the Rev. Katie Kinnison were inspiring, do not do them justice.  The music, oh, the music…  I’m sure that many of the attendees will be able to sing the chorus of Rev. Keenan’s “Feels Like Forty” or Sara Bareilles’ “Fairytale” from memory.  These are moments we will not soon forget.

Our thanks to Revs. CeCe Armstrong and Liz Wagner, NAPC outgoing co-moderators, and to the steering committee for the invitation to attend.   Thanks to Elder JoAnne Sharp, NAPC Administrator, as well, for the hospitality and care before and during the conference.  It was also a great inspiration to share with Co-Moderator Tawnya Denise Anderson who was also present at the conference.

It is a week to remember and to reaffirm our call to serve.  God is still speaking, my faith siblings, and God’s love for us is ever present.  We see it every single day; Cindy and I certainly felt it this week.  Rev. Keenan led us in a song that has stayed with me since I left the Assembly Inn last Thursday morning.  The song is based in part on Romans 8.  I share verse 38 with you: “… I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.” (NLT)

Nothing, mis hermanas y hermanos, can separate us from the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.  Nada… Not even frogs or dragons, or any other metaphorical (or literal) beast we encounter along the way.  May we live in the certainty of God’s love today and every day, for this love is our true “happily ever after”. SDG

The Emerging Church

On Saturday, April 7, the Shekinah Presbyterian Ministry in Marlborough, MA held its inaugural worship service. An outreach to Brazilian immigrants, the Shekinah ministries are Presbyterian in structure and government in a spirited worship style.

Vilmarie was invited to welcome the first members of the congregation and pray for them. Cindy was invited, as the Presbytery leader, to pray for the lay leaders and preach. We were honored to be present, to see a room filled with people celebrating a new opportunity to worship within the PC(USA), with arms raised high and shouts of “Glória a Deus!”

The Call to Stand – Cindy

My sense of call to stand for co-moderator came through the connectional church, through partners in ministry, and through the belief that I have experiences and insights to share. It has been shaped by my faith in God, my reliance on Jesus, and my seeking for the movement of the Holy Spirit. It was confirmed and bolstered by friends and colleagues who know my work with marginalized communities, struggling congregations and thriving churches. And now that call has been confirmed by both Presbyteries I serve who know my leadership and my gifts in their endorsement to stand alongside Vilmarie as co-moderators of the 223rd General Assembly.

I attended my first General Assembly in 2012 in Pittsburgh as the Resource Presbyter for the Presbytery of Northern New England. From the moment the meeting was called into order, I was hooked. There was a palpable sense of the Holy Spirit at work in the conversations and deliberations in the room, and I longed to be more than an observer. Returning home, I requested the handbook from the Office of General Assembly on the process of standing for moderator.

In 2016, watching Jan and Denise answer questions and then be elected as our first co-moderators, my wondering from four years earlier began to blossom into possibility. I turned to a friend from seminary who has known me for over eighteen years now and asked, “What would you think about me doing that some day?”

Close colleagues and friends responded with immediate enthusiasm, which I pushed against. “Why? What do you think I have to offer to our church in this time and place?” Their questions back to me helped me test the shape of my discernment, as the sense of call continued to grow and mature.

Towards the end of the assembly, Jan addressed the gathering and said something like, “Someone sitting here is wondering if they’re next. I want to tell you to go for it.” The first friend I had asked immediately texted me, “I think she’s talking to you.”

Once I returned to my work, though, the thought of serving two Presbyteries and standing for co-moderator felt overwhelming. My sense of call to Boston and Northern New England hadn’t shifted, and, if anything, had strengthened. The needs of our immigrant congregations and emerging worshiping communities, the challenges facing rural, suburban, and urban churches, and the unfolding possibilities every where I turned required everything I had to offer. I took stock of the coming months, prayed hard, and finally released the dream of standing. It wasn’t the right time, and I needed to focus on the people to whom God had called me.

Then a crisis exploded within the Presbytery of Northern New England. The Marturia Presbyterian Church, our Indonesian congregation in Rochester, NH, reached out in panic and desperation. The long limbo of “Temporary Protected Status” they had been living in suddenly ended, and members of the church were told to buy plane tickets to return to a country they had fled in fear ten, fifteen, and twenty years ago. The Presbytery kicked into gear, the Synod came alongside, and members from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and the Office of Immigration Issues, as well as the Stated Clerk, came to offer support, advice, and the presence of the larger church.

During the Stated Clerk’s visit, I asked him to encourage the next co-moderators to continue inviting the larger church to read a book together, something I had led both Presbyteries to embrace and used to plan education and retreats. Sitting there in the passenger seat in my car, J. Herbert said, “Well, maybe that will be you.”

I was stunned. I hadn’t thought about standing for co-moderator for months. After a few heartbeats, I replied, “I had actually considered that, but I don’t think I can do it now.” To which he replied, “Now is the time.”

Later, when we were alone together in the car, my husband turned to me. “You heard that. You have to do this.”

Suddenly, all the conversations from the previous summer, all the thinking and praying, all of the searching for the movement of the Holy Spirit came rushing back. I met with my spiritual director. I prayed a lot. Three weeks later, I called the Moderator of the Presbytery of Boston and then the Moderator of the Presbytery of Northern New England to broach the possibility with them. Both responded quickly and unequivocally with encouragement and support.

For me, this call has been informed by listening, by seeing the movement of the Holy Spirit, by looking back and noticing how God continued to prepare the path even when I thought I was no longer walking it, and by the faith I have that Christ will indeed be a sure foundation for me, no matter what comes. It is a call to remind this church that I love that the God I love is not through with us yet, that Jesus is still alive, and the wind of the Holy Spirit is blowing us into new waters, new possibilities, a new time. It is a call to offer all of who I am, all of how God has gifted me, all of my faith and all of my weakness, to service within the body of Christ.

It is a call I have embraced with fear and trepidation, with joy and gladness, confident that the grace bestowed upon me in baptism is sufficient because it is God’s grace.

Living in Gratitude – Vilmarie

“Viviendo en gratitud” (2nd Corinthians 4)

Have you heard this saying before? “Life isn’t fair.”  I certainly have.  I’ve even said it on occasion.   My students were quick to remind me sometimes as well, particularly when I scheduled an English literature test for a Monday, or when I gave, what they judged to be, too much homework.   (To be fair, sometimes it was, in fact, too much homework.)  But lately, I’ve been reminded that life isn’t fair in other ways.  I’ve been reminded when hearing of yet another school shooting, when authority figures abuse power and prey on those considered weak, when a woman is “catcalled” walking down the street, when the effects of unfair social systems long in place seem so hard to eradicate, when sudden floods or fire destroy entire towns, when a life crisis strikes, when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, or when a category five hurricane hits.  Yes, in so many ways life isn’t fair, and when this unfairness manifests, we feel the weight of it all.  And it is heavy, difficult, sometimes impossible, to bear.

On September 7, 2017, before the imminent passing of Hurricane Irma through Florida, our neighborhood was instructed to evacuate.  Though my husband, José Manuel, and I have experienced hurricanes before, this would be the first time we had to leave our home behind because of a mandatory evacuation.  As we packed, I felt a deep sadness mirrored by the uncertainty of not knowing what would happen.   We left our apartment in The City of Miami towards safe haven at my sister-in-law’s home in the city of Tamarac.  The hurricane came and went, and we stayed with our family until power was restored in our area.  I look back at these events and, despite the uncertainty and destruction,  I’m grateful for family willing to take us in, feed us and care for us, and for prayerful messages and calls.  I’m also grateful for a presbytery family that responded in support and encouragement with a clear call to help those who were still hurting.  A few days later, hurricane María hit the Caribbean islands, and among these, Puerto Rico.  It is hard to describe the feelings while watching the news of this massive hurricane hitting my birth home.  Unfair? Indeed.  After two days of silence, I received a text message from my Mom; one phrase came to mind: “¡Gracias a Dios!” (More on this story to be continued in a future blog post.)

I think back to the days after hurricane Irma.  When there is no electricity, in the dead of night, and the only sound is the murmur of a battery radio – or when crisis knocks on the door– it is very hard to see past the unfairness of it all.  Yet, in the midst of this, the words of the Apostle Paul remind us that “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed… always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”  (2nd Corinthians 4) For me, this is living a life in gratitude: looking back and considering the ways in which one has not been crushed, driven to despair, forsaken or destroyed by the vicissitudes of life, and pressing on making the life of Jesus visible to others.

Amid joys and sorrows, although it is not always easy, I choose to live looking at life through the lens of grace and gratitude, thanking God for small mercies along the way:  a helping hand, the hug of a friend, the smile of a stranger, the long-awaited call, the surprise visit.  In all its beauty or lack thereof, life is, most of all, an opportunity for grace.  “Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”  May we strive to live in gratitude and may we extend God’s grace in ways that invite and create fairness in the lives of others.  So help us God.  Amén.

#livingingratitude #viviendoengratitud

(Blog entry picture:  Sunset view from the balcony of our Miami apartment the day before the mandatory evacuation.)  

Living in gratitude – Cindy

Why did we choose the hashtag “living in gratitude” as a signature phrase? At heart, it sums up for me the daily choice to give thanks in all circumstances, because God is good, all the time.

One of the honors I’ve had is the ability to travel to different parts of the world and interact with many cultures and ethnicities. I’ve seen what many Americans have seen: people living in much harder circumstances than the ones I do filled with joy and gratitude. So often, we focus on what we do not have, on the things we wish were different, on the ways we would improve ourselves and the people around us. Instead, I have been taught to count the blessings I have received, which are numerous! I’ve learned to look for the possibilities and the bright spots instead of the difficulties and the barriers.

Think about a dark spot on a bright sheet of paper. You could even draw one if that would make it easier to visualize. If you focus your gaze on the dark spot, it overwhelms your vision. It seems larger than the bright space surrounding it, dominating your entire perspective. But if you pull back, acknowledging the dark spot within the larger shining field without focusing on it, you begin to see that there’s more space for light to shine through.

This is what living in gratitude means to me. Acknowledging the challenges, the injustices, the places where the world is simply broken and where we are broken too, but not allowing that alone to fill my vision. There is more. God is at work in our midst. Jesus is still Savior and Lord. The Spirit is on the move, more powerfully than we often suspect.

On Christmas Day, I slipped on ice and went down hard, with my left hand making first contact with the frozen ground. It was clear immediately that I had injured myself. X-rays revealed a fractured radius which, I learned later, meant wearing a cast above the elbow for at least four weeks.

There’s more than enough to be frustrated about with this situation. I can’t scratch my nose with my left hand, and getting comfortable anywhere is challenging. But there’s so much more to be grateful for, and that’s what I’m trying to focus on. I didn’t need surgery. I didn’t hit my head, or injure myself worse. I have a loving spouse who loves to cook and doesn’t mind doing the dishes too. It’s my left hand instead of my right hand. The list goes on and on. In fact, the list of things I can be grateful about is so much longer than the inconveniences and difficulties, it’s not hard to remember to be grateful when I start to feel down. Focusing on the bright space surrounding the dark spot. Living in gratitude.

Feeling called by God to stand for co-moderator of the 223rd General Assembly alongside Vilmarie is something that fills me with gratitude. Gratitude for the opportunity to work with and deepen a friendship with an amazing woman following Jesus. Gratitude for the friends and colleagues who see gifts of leadership in me and encourage me to use them. Gratitude for the way the Spirit moves in and through my life, challenging me to follow more deeply and live more faithfully.

Are there dark spots in the church today? In the PCUSA? Are there difficulties and challenges, barriers and brokenness? Yes. Definitely, yes. We have some hard times ahead, and I’m serving two Presbyteries where many of those struggles are obvious and crystallized. Membership declining and aging, churches leaving and closing, ministers struggling to make ends meet and juggling multiple jobs. There are plenty of dark spots.

But there is so much light shining through, too. There are small congregations re-connecting with their neighbors. There are young adults looking for authentic community and finding it in the body of Christ. There are innovative and creative ministries springing up all across the country. There are new partnerships and new worshiping communities and new possibilities. There is a whole lot of bright space where God is doing a new thing in our midst.

This is where my vision rests. This is what I mean when I say I choose to live in gratitude.

#livingingratitude #viviendoengratitud