Is taking time to listen too much to ask?

pma logoThe Presbyterian Mission Agency Board just firmly bit one of the hands that still was feeding it.

The message to Presbyterians who lead, manage and operate the Corrections Corporation of America could not have been more clear: “Our request would be that they cease doing the business that they’re doing.”

The statement was made by Bill Somplatsky-Jarman, coordinator of Mission Responsibility Through Investment, which is part of the Compassion, Peace and Justice division of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.  He made the statement in the plenary meeting of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board on Thursday, Feb. 6 in Louisville, Ky.

After agreeing just minutes before that non-Christians are welcome to work at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and agreeing that the PCUSA wants to dialogue with respect and trust to people of other faiths, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board then agreed that speaking with fellow Presbyterians of whose work the denomination disapproves is unnecessary.

It seemed lost on most that the afternoon session had opened with a video highlighting the positive impact of First Presbyterian Church Nashville.  The senior minister of that church, Todd Jones, was a commissioner to the General Assembly in 2012. He spoke then to the one-sided view of the denomination in relationship to “for-profit prisons.” He asked that the people involved in the Corrections Corporation of America be involved in the conversation the denomination was having about divesting and proscribing investment in all such companies.

fpc-nashvilleWhy would Jones care? Because CCA is based in Nashville and its senior leadership are Presbyterians, specifically, several of them are members of First Church. Efforts for the CCA-related Presbyterians to gain a hearing fell on deaf ears.

Why? Because the mind of the denominational elites was made up on this issue long ago and they are not interested in hearing any information that runs contrary to their opinions. CCA’s very existence runs afoul of PCUSA’s policy and therefore, their own denomination is knowingly aligning itself against them.

During discussion of the matter, PMAB member and candidate for moderator of the 2014 General Assembly, Heath Rada, said, “There is some concern that the members of the CCA board are also members of First Presbyterian Church Nashville.” And that “they do not feel that they have been included in the conversation. This church is one that we want to be sensitive to – they have been exemplary.”

Somplatsky-Jarman responded to Rada, ” This dates back to 2003 … and we had conversations with the people in Nashville at that time.” He said that the denomination did research at that time as to the practices of CCA and other for-profit prisons, adding, “We do not own stock in CCA and so we cannot engage them as shareholders.”

That statement begs the more important question, “Could the Presbyterian Church (USA) through its Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) or its Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee or through personal relationship not pick up the phone and talk with them as fellow Presbyterians?”

Somplatsky-Jarman said, “Conversation would not change anything because the GA policy is that they should not be in the business that they are in.”

He then stated emphatically, “Our request would be that they cease doing the business that they’re doing.”

Rada responded, “I am not speaking against the principle, but I am concerned that I have just heard that the minister does not feel they have had opportunity to address this. So I’m concerned about the process and the message that we’re sending even if we agree that we’re not willing to listen.”

The PCUSA staffer who champions the effort to add for-profit prisons to the denomination’s sin list, Chris Iosso, said, “Todd Jones is the pastor. I have spoken with Todd Jones in the past. I do believe the policy as Bill states is very clear. It is for the abolishment of privately owned prisons.”

Notably, Iosso and Jones were seminary classmates. These are PCUSA officers who know one another personally and yet the denominational staffer whose salary is partially paid by the contributions made over the years by First Presbyterian Church Nashville, whose offering plates are partially filled by the very people Iosso is trying to put out of business, could not find time in a decade to talk about this.

Here’s the question: Is the PCUSA actually committed to hearing from a broad diversity of voices on the matters before it or has she become satisfied to simply ignore those who disagree with the particular agenda being pursued?

The PMAB is interested in talking with people of other faiths but not so interested in talking with Presbyterians whose business practices they perceive to run awry of the denomination’s social witness policy.


Carmen Fowler LaBerge