By Erin Williams
Special to The Commercial Appeal
J. Herbert Nelson has never been one to turn down a call. The bigger challenge for him lies in knowing when to pick up the phone.
“The Lord almost has to beat me down to the ground and drag me out of the place,” the former Memphis minister said recently over a cup of coffee. “I really never feel that my work is done.”
Nelson didn’t feel his work was done in Memphis two years ago when he got a call to serve as director of the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness in Washington — the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.’s) 66-year-old lobbying office for social justice policies.
Nelson and his wife, Gail, had served for 12 years as co-founding pastors of Liberation Community Presbyterian Church. “If I could have moved that congregation to D.C., I would have,” Nelson said of the congregation — the first of its kind in 46 years to be developed under the Presbytery of Memphis.
But Nelson didn’t feel his work was done before he moved to Memphis in 1998. The South Carolina native was serving as pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, N.C., a position he held for 11 years.
“The move from there to about five people in Memphis — no one understood that,” Nelson said. “I didn’t spend a whole lot of time trying to explain it, except the fact that I felt really called there.”
Over the past two years, Nelson has had his work cut out for him.
Last month, he worked to persuade his denomination to divest from three firms whose products help Israel enforce its control of the Palestinian West Bank. Last month, the PCUSA’s General Assembly rejected the proposal by two votes.
In July 2011, Nelson and 10 other religious leaders were arrested inside the U.S. Capitol building after kneeling in prayer to protest proposed cuts to social services. Misdemeanor charges were later dropped.
“We knelt in prayer on behalf of the voiceless, on behalf of the poor, on behalf of the children, on behalf of the elderly,” Nelson said. “Sometimes nonviolent civil disobedience has to be done when the government and the forces of politics are moving in the wrong direction.”
Nelson’s social advocacy is nothing new. New Life Community Presbyterian Church was the first new black Presbyterian church in Memphis in 46 years. Its urban ministries included the Dr. Gayraud S. Wilmore Community Learning House, an after-school enrichment program.
While he was in Memphis, Nelson also worked as assistant director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis.
“Social consciousness is his passion, and I support that,” said Gail Nelson, who is a minister at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Washington. “It’s not my passion, but I love the work that he does.”
The Nelsons moved to Washington in May 2010, a year after their daughter Alicia graduated from high school and they began to discuss ways they could serve the broader church.
The Office of Public Witness “is a reminder to people that there are advocates in Washington who act and serve on behalf of God’s people.” As he deals with issues such as labor, indigent health care and public housing, he travels constantly, meeting with church leaders across the world and speaking to congregations at home and abroad.
“Coalition building is accomplished by being a visible presence, visionary promoter and vibrant listener to the concerns of God’s people,” Nelson says. “Since I am no longer in a local church or community leader, it is important that I get out of Washington to hear the pressing concerns that people are facing.”
Dr. Steve Montgomery, senior pastor of Idlewild Presbyterian Church in Memphis, believes Nelson’s work is “invaluable to the Presbyterian Church. He helps us understand the implications that our faith has in the public arena, and is an advocate for those who generally do not have a voice in the halls of power. He reminds us where the church ought to be.”
For Nelson, the church ought to be in Washington, dealing on a daily basis with such matters as the nation’s debt ceiling and the federal budget. [RSSImport display="5" feedurl="http://feedurl.com/" before_desc="
" displaydescriptions="TRUE" after_desc=" " html="FALSE" truncatedescchar="200" truncatedescstring=" ... " truncatetitlechar=" " truncatetitlestring=" ... " before_date=" " date="FALSE" after_date="" date_format="" before_creator=" " creator="FALSE" after_creator="" start_items="
- " end_items="
" target="" rel="" desc4title="" charsetscan="FALSE" debug="FALSE" before_noitems="
" noitems="No items, feed is empty." after_noitems="
" error="Error: Feed has a error or is not valid" after_error="
" paging="FALSE" prev_paging_link="« Previous" next_paging_link="Next »" prev_paging_title="more items" next_paging_title="more items" use_simplepie="FALSE"]
“It is important more than ever before that powers and principalities recognize that there is truth beyond the one that they create for themselves,” Nelson says. “We are not beholden or captive to corporate or political power without an ability to overcome it. No matter what role I may find myself, it remains important that the people of God be reminded of this fact of our faith.”