The 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) begins in four weeks, and the Committee On Local Arrangements (COLA) from the Presbytery of Detroit has been busy making preparations for the event.
The General Assembly will meet June 14-21 in Detroit, Mich., at the recently refurbished Cobo Center on the banks of the Detroit River overlooking nearby Windsor, Ontario, in Canada.
The Rev. Peter Smith, pastor of Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church in Detroit and the COLA chairman, said plans for the event started five years ago when Detroit was announced as the host city.
“We’ve been raising funds to support our work at the COLA since then,” Smith said. “We’re really about the gift of hospitality for all those who attend the General Assembly. “
Noting that the COLA has worked tirelessly to make arrangements for Detroit to serve as a viable host for the General Assembly, Smith is convinced everything will be in order when commissioners and other visitors arrive.
“We’re ready for this from a COLA perspective. The denomination does countless work to get ready for this onslaught of Presbyterians to come to Detroit, and we feel our committee has done its part,” Smith said, noting that the collaborative efforts of Detroit Presbytery and Synod of the Covenant have been crucial in preparing to host the event. “There is some anxiety hosting an event of this size, but there’s also a growing sense of excitement.”
Smith said the COLA has nothing to do with the GA agenda or the business that will take place during the week-long event, noting that the volunteers are told not to advocate for or against any issues raised during the gathering.
The function of the COLA is to welcome commissioners and other guests at the airport, hotels and Cobo Center, while helping provide support for the variety of activities that takes place at the General Assembly. Volunteers will assist with communion, provide musicians and liturgists for assembly worship services on Sunday, June 15, make arrangements for buses to take commissioners to worship services and lunch in local Presbyterian congregations.
“We’ve been involved in this process for such a long time that it’s hard to believe it’s this close,” Smith said. “It’s a little overwhelming to think about all the things that have to happen at each moment.”
Estimates indicate 1,000 commissioners, advisory delegates, synod and presbytery executives and stated clerks, and another 2,000 visitors will descend on the city for the weeklong event. Smith anticipates upward of 1,500 volunteers will be used to carry out the various tasks during the General Assembly in a city that certainly has had its fair share of problems of late. But he expects Presbyterians to rally together, bringing support and witness to the Motor City.
“Christ wants unity in the church, and this is a collaboration of that unity,” he said. “There will be a strong Presbyterian presence coming to Detroit with an opportunity to make a difference. We have an opportunity to be in community with one another in worship and fellowship. The Lord is stirring within us.
“We’re pleased the GA made the decision to come here. We want to share the message that Detroit has its challenges but also provides a great opportunity to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The message of sharing the Gospel of Jesus is one the PCUSA has been touting in promoting – or in some cases defending – the decision to have the Motor City host the General Assembly.
Detroit once was a megacenter for manufacturing, particularly in the automobile industry, and known for the sweet sounds of music from numerous Motown artists. But the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in July 2013, seeking protection from creditors and unions renegotiating an estimated $18.5 billion in debt and other liabilities.
Detroit’s woes have come as a result of a dwindling population (down to approximately 700,000 from 1.8 million in the 1950s) and substantial loss in tax revenues along with decades of financial mismanagement. Many of the companies that once were there have long since left, and the city has one of the highest crime rates in the country. City services also have been hampered greatly, and 10,000 derelict buildings/homes have been demolished or stand vacant, a landscape that dots approximately 30 percent of the city’s 140 square miles.
Given those challenges, Detroit certainly is viewed as a city in decline in a number of ways. But Smith and his fellow COLA members want commissioners and other Presbyterians visiting for the GA to view Detroit as a city that’s not abandoned, but one that is vital, living and in need of a strong witness of care and concern. He pointed to Jesus’ teachings to reach out those who are outcast, those who are oppressed, those who are hurting, those who need a helping hand and the testimony of the Presbyterian Church in reaching them during the stay in Detroit.
‘Abound in Hope’
The GA’s theme of “Abound in Hope,” based on Romans 15:13, provides the church with an opportunity to touch the lives of those who may not know Jesus, Smith said.
“We should not view this as a challenge but as an opportunity,” he explained. “That’s what we need to be about: creating opportunity out of challenges. A city that has been darkened by economic issues now can be touched by the Gospel that proclaims hope. I think the message sent by Detroit’s selection as the host site is that the Presbyterian Church is committed to touching the lives of many the world sometimes passes by.”
PCUSA Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, in a video touting Detroit’s merits as the host city produced by the Office of the General Assembly (OGA), touched on that sentiment, saying, “This is a unique opportunity for a city that needs hope and a church that needs hope to come together and allow God’s spirit to embrace both of us and bring us to a hopeful place.”
Thomas Hay, director of General Assembly Meeting Services from the PCUSA, supports the assessment that the church and the city have a lot to offer each other.
“We stand with people in love to serve. We are witnesses to Jesus Christ’s justice. We can show the world this is a place worth loving. We can witness to the rest of the nation that this is a city of people, not fear. It’s a place like where Jesus would go because it is a place where people hurt and need Him,” Hay told the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board in September 2013. “God wanted us to be in Detroit because of what we will learn and what we will say. It’s an opportunity for us to be part of a special gathering.”
Impacts, good and bad
Smith said the downtown area of Detroit has not been impacted like many of the neighborhoods surrounding it, areas most commissioners probably will not see during their stay unless they take a tour.
“Anybody who lives in an urban environment knows that disaster can strike at any moment, but our downtown area is well-lit and has a strong police presence,” he said. “Criminals can strike anywhere at any time, but crimes in our downtown tend to happen randomly. We feel like our downtown is going to be very safe for the people who come to Detroit.”
The financial status of the city certainly has been in question and continues to face a steep uphill climb to return to viability. But Smith said the presence of an anticipated 3,000 visitors has to make a viable impact, from an evangelistic stance as well as a stream of revenue.
“Detroit is facing challenges of survival, but we are going to welcome those people coming in,” he said. “The church can provide a vibrant witness to our neighborhoods. There’s going to be an impact on the economy from 3,000 people visiting our city.
“But the church being here rather than somewhere else will have the greatest meaning of all. It provides the chance to proclaim the Gospel of reconciliation. We have a mission to do right here. It’s an opportunity for us to share the story of Christ in mission, love and service with all those who attend.”