In Rev. Drew Sams’ Sunday sermon before his congregation at Bel Air Presbyterian Church on June 22 — just two days after the national umbrella organization of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) endorsed divestment from three companies that do business in Israel — Sams registered his firm opposition to the vote to the 1,500 people in attendance.
Sams’ defiance against PCUSA may not be enough, though, for the members of the massive Bel Air congregation to avoid the question so many Presbyterian churches have faced in the past few years — stay a member of the liberal-leaning PCUSA and try to influence it? Or break away in protest against policies enacted by its leadership?
Bel Air Presbyterian is known to be a traditional Presbyterian congregation, and Sams said that because a portion of his members’ dues go to PCUSA, some of his congregants are threatening to quit the church unless Bel Air Presbyterian does so from PCUSA first.
“There’s been huge fallout just within our congregation,” Sams said of the Presbyterian General Assembly’s (GA) 310-303 vote on June 20 at its biannual convention in Detroit.
“It doesn’t represent who we are.” Sams said. “To develop policy that would convey the message that we are turning our back on our brothers and sisters in Israel is just very, very disappointing.”
The vote requires PCUSA to sell the approximately $21 million worth of stock it owns in three companies — Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions — which, many in the church say, assist Israel in its occupation of the West Bank and its alleged mistreatment of Palestinians there. Similar divestment measures previously have failed among Methodists, Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ.
The Presbyterians, a mainstream Protestant denomination, debated a similar motion two years ago, defeating it by just two votes. And, in 2006, the GA repealed a 2004 resolution that also called for divestment after widespread protest among its membership.
It is those people — the average Presbyterian churchgoers — whom Sams feels are being misrepresented by PCUSA’s leadership.
George Douglas, an elder at Pacific Palisades Presbyterian Church, is a leader at Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, a group that was formed shortly after PCUSA’s initial endorsement of divestment at its 2004 assembly. The group opposes divestment.
Douglas said that the recent push by Presbyterian leaders to divest from Israel stems partially from the group’s long history of missionary work in the Middle East. “Those mission workers have tended to take the Palestinian point of view, since 1948,” Douglas said, alleging that at the convention, which he attended, he personally witnessed some clergy, elders and Palestinian Christian partners make inflammatory anti-Israel comments, including claims that Israel subjects Palestinians to “biblical scale enslavement” and tortures children as a matter of policy.
“The General Assembly acts as a platform for activists,” Douglas said, explaining why divestment, which he estimates has only 15 to 20 percent support in the pews, has majority support among the church’s clergy and lay leaders.
Rev. Bill Wood has been the pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica for 15 years. He echoed Douglas, pointing to the passion of pro-divestment activists as perhaps the main reason for their success. “When people get up on their horse and they are tilting toward their windmill on a justice issue,” Wood said, “people get swayed.”
The Presbyterian Church, in contrast to the Catholic Church, is structured from the bottom up, with each church in PCUSA governed by “elders” — lay leaders similar to synagogue board members. Each church belongs to a regional “presbytery,” of which there are 173 in the United States, most of which include between 50 and 150 churches. Those presbyteries are represented by voting members, both lay and clergy, at the church’s biannual General Assembly.
Sams said that as with any law or government policy, a decision by PCUSA’s voting representatives should not be read as an endorsement by all or even most of the church’s 1.7 million members in this country.
“When the U.S government brings a policy and it gets turned into law, it’s very easy for people around the world to believe that every U.S. citizen believes the same thing,” he said. “In the same way, the decision of our General Assembly doesn’t represent the views of every Presbyterian.”
Wood, setting aside a few minutes for an interview, said that, just moments earlier, he had sent an email to one of his friends, a local rabbi, with one word in the subject line — “Embarrassed.”
“If I’d been there I would have voted ‘No,’ perhaps ‘Hell, no,’ ” Wood said. “GA speaks to the churches and not for the churches. They don’t speak for the rest of us.”
While it would appear to be a stretch to suggest that the GA’s decision sits comfortably with most Presbyterian congregations, it could not have passed without a formidable coalition of pro-divestment voices.
Tony de la Rosa is an elder at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, a progressive church in the Koreatown neighborhood. While he chose not to say whether he supports or opposes the divestment vote, he emphasized that the same vote also reaffirmed Israel’s right to exist and explicitly disassociated PCUSA from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which serves as a major tool within the pro-Palestinian movement.
“[PCUSA] doesn’t purport to speak for everyone,” de la Rosa said. “But they are, if you will, the symbolic expression of the voice of Presbyterianism as we seek to understand how God is speaking to us.”
He emphasized that the “fundamental” motivations of those crafting the divestment bill is “promoting peace in the Middle East.”
“People were certainly civil, torn, passionate, desperately trying to discern the mind of Christ in our action,” said de la Rosa, who attended the convention in Detroit and observed the vote.
This fissure, already manifest at Bel Air Presbyterian — which has chosen to remain in PCUSA so as to keep its voice in the discussion — is just one of many that have developed in recent years as the national group’s liberal-leaning leadership has clashed with more traditional churches over issues like the definition of marriage and the expectation of celibacy among unmarried pastors.
In just two years, these rifts have contributed to an exodus of nearly 200,000 members and hundreds of congregations nationally.
While Wood, the Santa Monica pastor, said he hopes that internal opposition and protests by Jewish groups may prompt the leadership to again repeal divestment, he is concerned about how Jews will now feel toward Presbyterians.
“It’s perceived and experienced — as I understand it — by Jews as being one-sided against Israel, and I’m sad about that,” Wood said.
“We Presbyterians are not against Israel.”