2012: Julianna Hedberg – Presbytery of Europe

It’s often difficult to put a profound experience into words.  To describe in a way that others might understand one’s seemingly muddled perception of colours, emotions, debates, and experiences that formed the General Assembly of 2012 seems daunting at first.  Over the weeks and months that have passed since the event, however, I have shared its story countless times with friends and colleagues.  I share it as a defining experience in my life. I would like to express my deepest and sincerest gratitude to everyone who made it what it was and enabled me to attend.

As a person who grew up in a Muslim country, where true Church events were rare and Sunday school was a covert affair at a local embassy, I found the opportunity to take part in such an open celebration of faith to be unbelievable.  I spent one week surrounded by people of all ages, from all walks of life, with one big, certain thing in common: God.  Often there was much, much more, but the Scottish Church was our bond.

As a youth representative, I had a role that was at once very different and very similar to that of the voting representatives at the Assembly.  While we “youth reps” could not vote (a hot topic for years), we learned how to argue passionately, how to speak clearly, and how to twitter concisely to get our point across (and get our point across, we did).

The youth representatives were headed up by a team of leaders (Suzi Farrant, Bruce Sinclair and Iain McLarty) who were beyond knowledgeable, patient, committed, and enthusiastic.  They had no qualms about staying up late guiding us through the next day’s events, and getting up at the wee hours to get us set up again.  During the nightly youth sessions we would work in groups, reading through sections of the Blue Book and organizing our thoughts.  There was so much support and outreach from Suzi, Bruce and Iain (as well as other youth reps) for those who chose to stand up and speak. Some of us even succeeded in getting motions passed!

The role of the youth reps at the GA, and, conversely, the role of the GA for youth reps has often been in question.  What are we good for?  I wanted to summarize this, because it seems to be a crucial question for the program.  Youth representatives think of themselves as the voice of a new generation, the voice of a diverse minority of young adults in the Church that insist on being heard.  The way that the GA was organized for youth representatives this year maximized our effectiveness.  Through Suzi, Bruce and Iain, as well as the many speakers we modelled, we learnt to argue in a way that was not only passionate, but diplomatic, concise, and effective.  This is a skill that shapes the leaders of tomorrow: Gather information, understand, synthesize, and make an argument supported by evidence.

Couldn’t a debate team do just as much? This is a question that popped up in my mind, but the answer is very simply ‘no’.  There was an incomparable education provided by the atmosphere of the GA hall, the tension of the arguments, the twitter “storm” reactions to motions passed or not (although we were told that this was a more peaceful Assembly than there have been in the past).

In the immediate context, our effectiveness at the General Assembly depends on how the elders judge our message and whether they are open to it (will they pass the motion? Won’t they?).  But that is part of the challenge.  Our positions are as diverse as those of the members of the Church of Scotland itself: some of us are conservative, some are liberal, and yet more are in-between.  This provided many stimulating debates behind the scenes this year, an excellent balance in our discussions, and I believe, greatly increased the quality of the motions and statements that ultimately did make it to the floor of the GA.  Very few youth rep statements were made ‘in the heat of the moment’ – we learned to deliberate, evaluate, and present.

I had the opportunity to stand up and speak out on the issue of domestic violence against men.  The speech was formulated over several days, with input from many Elders, and a lot of guidance from Iain.  I did not present that speech alone.  I did not write it alone.  I did not believe in it alone.  And although my motion to study this issue further did not stand, which I know is sometimes the case, I feel like I still helped bring some awareness.  800 people heard: perhaps some will remember the point.  For now, that’s enough for me. This is something else that the youth delegates learned to process: not everything is passed, no matter how great the idea seems to be or how hard a group works to word their argument.  I loved the experience of formulating my thoughts, and was grateful for the chance to voice them.

So many of my amazing youth rep colleagues stood up and were heard this year.  Many more helped behind the scenes in putting speeches and arguments together.  We all played an important role in what we perceive to be a great success of the youth representation this year, and it felt great.  Not one of us went home less than fulfilled, if feeling a little sad for the end.

Personally, I was exhausted by the time I boarded my plane home, but absolutely brimming with new purpose and energy. I was filled with a new understanding of the purpose of the Church, and what role young people might have in it.  I had had so many experiences that I haven’t shared here in full, lest the report become a novel: going to the Heart and Soul festival in Prince’s Street Gardens (Fishy music!), getting lost in the GA “One Way System”, luncheons organized by the World Mission Council, and not least, the reception at Hollyrood Palace.

I hope that someday I can return in some capacity to experience some of this General Assembly beauty again.  I cannot express well enough to the Presbytery how grateful I am to have had this opportunity, and how important I believe it is for young people of the church to be encouraged to take part as a component of their education for the church of tomorrow.