By a vote of 447 to 112, the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) elected the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson as its new Stated Clerk for a four-year term.
Touted as a historical moment, Nelson became the first person of color in the 300-year history of the Presbyterian Church in the United States to hold the highest ecclesial office of the church.
In response, Nelson said, “This is a powerful day – not only in my life – but for many people of color who did not envision the possibility of this ever happening.”
Nelson has a rich Presbyterian history, following in the path of his father, James Herbert Nelson; grandfather, Warren Julius Nelson; and two uncles who were all Presbyterian pastors. His mother, Johnalee B. Nelson, was a ruling elder and active at the national level of Presbyterian Women.
“My mother and father believed in a faith that would not let them go. They were a model of justice and mercy, and my father was a model of evangelism in campus ministry. Today, they stand in heaven, and if it rains, it is their tears – tears of joy,” Nelson reflected. More than once Nelson held together the tension between evangelism and justice. “It is not an either/or but a both/and relationship.”
Nelson, director of the PCUSA’s Office of Public Witness in Washington, was the pick of the Stated Clerk Nomination Committee. Rev. David M. Baker, stated clerk and communications director for the Presbytery of Tampa Bay, was the challenger after he was placed in nomination by Ruling Elder Dan Johnson from Tampa Bay Presbytery.
Baker campaigned on a populist platform, saying, “It is evident from the voting yesterday that we need to do more to be transparent as a national body. We need to resource the local presbyteries and congregations. If you are going to be a leader and serve others, the leaders should be helping. Many congregations have a sense that the national body could be doing more. We need to reorient to focus on the local – the stronger we are at the local level the stronger we will be at the national level. We need to solve problems at the grassroots level.”
Quickly capitalizing on this idea, Nelson spoke to the upcoming General Assemblies scheduled in St. Louis (2018) and Baltimore (2020), saying,
“Those communities feel alienated. I live almost down the street from Baltimore, and I’ve traveled to St. Louis. Those communities are broken. What would happen if we worked together and went into St. Louis not just a few days before but for 18 months to work together – to build houses, facilitate Self Development of People development projects, create new opportunities for economic growth, and took our hunger program and other programs within the PGA and OGA. And, rather than looking at the demarcation, we would look at the place. Perhaps we could have a community worship service bringing everyone together where we are celebrated for coming – not in a commerce way but not leaving it the same way. This would bridge the gap between local and national. We could work in the midst of those communities, and they would know that the Presbyterians have been there. We would build partnerships and relationships at both the national and local level.”
Perhaps it is no wonder that Nelson told a story about his daughter, Alycia Yvette Nelson, saying that she believed he should stand for the position of Stated Clerk, “Because, Daddy, you are a fixer.”
Nelson concluded his remarks by saying, “We can build a vibrant and powerful denomination. We are not dying. We are reforming. We are alive and well and will transform this world, one person at a time.”
Retiring Stated Clerk, Gradye Parsons, gave a blessing to the newly elected Stated Clerk. “May you go to bed each night knowing that you have accomplished great things for God’s Kingdom, but when you can’t, know that you have another morning coming when you can do again.”