Irwin Smallwood: How I see General Synod
And I thought I had seen it all…
After you have attended a dozen or more General Synods, as I have, you get the feeling that the more things change, the more they stay the same. At least, that’s what I expected when I was asked to be a delegate again, this time without having to leave the comfort of my hearth and home.
Wow, how I was fooled.
Nearing the midpoint of General Synod 33, I’m still trying to get that old Synod feeling. Just doesn’t want to come, I guess.
Maybe it’s because you can’t send cookies over the internet. I tried asking my wife Judy to bring me some ginger snaps from the kitchen, but they just didn’t measure up to those delicious sweets, of every kind imaginable, our Synod hosts have provided in years past.
My sweet tooth aside, I must admit that what really makes General Synod 33 so different is that I can’t touch anybody. Or talk to anybody. Or hear the buzz of voices from the next table during plenary, with those wonderful kids running back and forth with notes to the podium or to those volunteers manning the speaker microphones.
Or just be there.
When I was having my internet training session, I immediately saw pictures on the screen of two old Synod friends. I wanted to say hello, to speak to them but, alas, I could not. After I listened to Ben Chavis retell the story of the Wilmington 10, I wanted to run up and talk old times with him. (My newspaper had been the first one to tell The Untold Story of the Wilmington 10 in all its sad detail.) No chance.
But it brought back warm and fuzzy memories, as did that stirring keynote address by Valerie Kaur. Her admonitions made you want to run out the door and take to the streets as if really “Rooted In Love.” It reminded me of another Synod stem-winder. It was 1985 in Ames, Iowa, when Jesse Jackson “took to preaching” as the old southern saying goes, close to midnight and finished an hour or so later with an altar call.
They call General Synod 33 a “virtual Synod,” but I call it remarkable. Putting all these bells and whistles together, including a voting system that is itself dazzling, is a task hard to imagine. One wonders how many there are behind the curtains making it all work. I know first hand of half-a-hundred or more who answer the “help” phones. By Tuesday they had already answered close to 500, and one of them, Dave Sarkies, navigated me through what appeared to me a jungle of clicks from here to there.
As we head into the meat of General Synod 33 this weekend, I wonder whose face I will recognize next as I dream of sights and sounds of Synods past. Will I see another Sophia DeWitt, a wheelchair-bound young Synod delegate I first met sitting by her lonesome watching the July 4th fireworks in downtown Columbus? I certainly hope so.
What grit Sophia had then, and still has. She later went to Laos and Thailand working in refugee resettlement and now labors as an advocate for affordable housing in her native California.
What perhaps is missing most from General Synod 33’s “virtual” life is simply the sights and sounds of being there. I attended Synod as a conference president, a delegate, and as a press room working stiff, and I still have unforgettable dreams of what I saw and heard – like the day the late UCC communications giant, Everett Parker, handed me a copy of what seemed to be a million-word sermon by theologian Walter Bruggeman and said “give me 300 words on this”… like glancing out the window of the press room and seeing our beloved late president, Avery Post, walking down the sidewalk holding hands with his precious wife … or hearing the cheers on that July 4 in Atlanta when the same-gender marriage resolution joyously passed.
But, dear friends, when it is all said and done, I doubt we will ever see a closing plenary like the one in St. Louis in 1973, whether in person or on the internet or whatever comes next.
Synod had been pondering how they could best support the United Farm Workers locked in a bitter battle with farm owners in Coachella Valley in California. The answer was simply go to California and show our solidarity. Thereupon 95 volunteers, on their own nickel, chartered a DC-9 (that’s an airplane, kids) and soon stood with the farmers against what one participant described as a line of armed thugs.
Fast forward to the momentous final business session of the ‘73 Synod. The doors of the meeting hall flung wide open. Ninety-five dirty, sweaty pilgrims, hefting boxes of grapes over their heads, streamed down the center aisle, tossing clusters of fruit to the adoring, clapping assembly … and all joined in a dancing parade around the plenary hall to the tune of “The Saints Go Marching In.”
Including me, I’m happy to report.
Irwin Smallwood, 95, is a delegate from Southern Conference UCC, a former long-time General Synod Newsroom volunteer, and retired managing editor and executive sports editor of the Greensboro News & Record.
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