Local minister aims for top spot in U.S. church

June 02, 1991|By Diane Winston

John Calvin would recognize the type.

In fact, the spiritual forefather of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) would probably see predestination at work in the Rev. Herb Valentine's candidacy for the denomination's top spot.

Clipped beard, clear eyes, see-through frames on his spectacles, Mr. Valentine is a sober type. Astute at business. At home in the world. Aware of a better one to come.

Currently, Mr. Valentine heads the 22,000-member Baltimore Presbytery, a territory stretching from the Susquehanna River to West Virginia. But, if voting goes his way Wednesday, he will become the 1991-1992 moderator of the 2.9 million-member denomination.

Why would anyone want to spend a year trying to turn around the troubled church? Mr. Valentine, like his 16th-century forebear, is a self-confessed "can-do" kind of a guy.

"From the coal mines of Western Maryland to the boardrooms of Baltimore, we have had a vision of mission which puts together a wide diversity of people in a pretty progressive social agenda," said Mr. Valentine, sitting straight-backed in his crisp, colorful, North Baltimore office.

"To the extent I could accomplish that for the larger church, I am willing to do it."

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) came into being in 1983 when the denomination's northern and southern branches -- split since the Civil War -- reunited.

In the eight years since, the denomination has lost 200,000 members. Some churches in the former southern wing, dissatisfied with the progressive notes sounded at reunion, pulled out. In other churches, an aging membership is not replacing itself.

The denomination, like others in the Protestant mainstream, is experiencing an identity crisis. Conservatives are calling for tighter strictures on morality, while progressives push for acceptance of sexual diversity.

Supporters in the heartlands want help with membership, while clergy in the inner cities urge the church to stand up for social justice.

Loyalists, such as Mr. Valentine, say the tensions can be resolved -- by encouraging Presbyterians to cherish diversity while cultivating a theology of stewardship.

"Our presence here is transitory. So what are we going to do about it?" he asked. "We need to ask how well are we managing God's resources -- and that includes everything from conservation of the Earth to the care of human beings."

Mr. Valentine was born in 1935 to Scotch immigrant parents living in Oakland, Calif. Growing up in a racially integrated neighborhood, he became aware at an early age -- when Japanese friends disappeared to internment camps and black buddies were forbidden to play basketball at a neighborhood athletic club -- of the insidious effects of racism.

When he went to the University of California at Berkeley, he planned to be a businessman but, after receiving his degree, he decided to study religion.

In 1960, he finished at San Francisco Theological Seminary, with a new career and a wife, the former Marilyn Taylor.

Interested in urban ministry, Mr. Valentine pastored churches in Indianapolis and Gary, Ind. At both congregations, he pushed for integration and for empowering poor people. He also found time to earn a doctorate at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

In 1977, eager for a new challenge, he was offered the job of executive presbyter (chief executive officer) of the Baltimore Presbytery.

In Baltimore, Mr. Valentine has mixed an entrepreneurial spirit with missionary zeal.

"I don't think business is bad, awful or irredeemable," he explained. "I know a good opportunity when I see it -- an opportunity which can be leveraged for social gain."

Mr. Valentine's first task was to tighten up the presbytery's accounting system. Then he began taking advantage of mission opportunities. He has been instrumental in starting homes for the retarded, senior citizens and people newly released from mental institutions.

Most recently, he initiated a partnership with Presbyterian Homes of Pennsylvania that led to the purchase in October of a bankrupt retirement community in Baltimore County. The new enterprise, Glen Meadows, is already on the way to financial health.

"Just because he's a white male doesn't mean he doesn't have anything to offer," said the Rev. Judith Michaels, a member of the Mr. Valentine's election committee.

"He's a good fund-raiser. He's good with money and stewardship. . . . He made the Baltimore Presbytery solvent, and he's been strong on missions.

"He is a good, solid progressive type with a vision of the whole church."

His vision also encompasses the need for justice worldwide. Since 1985, he has regularly visited Central America. On his left wrist, just above a utilitarian black watch, he wears a hand-woven blue-green friendship bracelet he bought from a Mayan woman in Guatemala.

"I wear this to show solidarity with the people living under terrible oppression in Guatemala," he said. "I went down there in 1985 to study Spanish, but I was captivated by the beauty, the poignancy and the terror of the place.

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