"Stepping Up to Shalom" at National Summit

November 19, 2009

By the Rev. Dr. Michael J. Christensen

Nov. 9, 2009 | COLUMBIA, SC - Twenty-six states were represented among the 275 people who took part in the Eighth National Summit of the Communities of Shalom, a faith-based movement promoting community development and justice, which met in Columbia, South Carolina, in the closing days of October.
This number was in addition to some 400 "hits" from people who tuned in to all or some of the sessions that were broadcast on the Internet. Viewers of the webcast participated in the Summit through two social networks, Facebook and Twitter.
If the purpose of a summit is to bring together representatives from a national network for a time of community sharing, inspiration, team building, and training, then the October 27-29 event achieved its purpose. The theme was "Stepping up to Shalom: Seeking Systemic Change Through Community Development." It was sponsored by Drew University and the General Board of Global Ministries.
Communities of Shalom currently has some 100 sites in the United States and Africa. Its work is geared to local community assets and needs. Shalom communities address issues such as poverty, health, housing, environmental education, micro-enterprise, and legal services for immigrants. The program is especially strong (with 30 sites) in the South Carolina Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, which served as host for the Summit.
Seventy-one registrants were from South Carolina. The North Texas Annual Conference sent 26 Shalom team members, and Baltimore-Washington, 13. There were 16 persons from the state of Tennessee and 13 from California.* Programs of Global Ministries accounted for 72 participants: 30 from JustUsYouth, 15 from Community Developers, and 27 from ethnic and racial ministries (9 Hispanic/Latino, 8 African Americans, 6 Asian Americans, and 4 Native Americans).
United Methodist Roots, Ecumenical Scope
The initiative has United Methodist origins but is now ecumenical, or interfaith, in some communities. It was administered for 16 years by Global Ministries and, following a plan to find another institutional partner, is now based at the Theological School of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.
Communities of Shalom - the name is taken from Jeremiah 29 - was initiated by the United Methodist General Conference of 1992, in response to urban conflict in Los Angeles following the acquittal of police officers who were caught on videotape beating motorist Rodney King. One objective was to bring peace to communities by addressing issues such as economic opportunity and race relations.
"Stepping Up"
Four general sessions, two worship services, and a banquet were broadcast live online through the facilities of the General Board of Global Ministries, the mission agency of The United Methodist Church. The sessions focused on such themes as "stepping up" from social services to peace with justice, prophetic leadership, new Shalom Zone training units, and the use of web technology to develop Shalom's presence on the Internet.
The two worship services, organized by the Rev. Tanya Bennett of Drew University, which opened and closed the Summit, were image-rich, musically engaging, liturgically-diverse, and focused on God's work in the world. Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, preached at the opening service. Bishop John Schol of Baltimore-Washington, chair of the National Shalom Committee, closed the Summit.
"This event is tremendous," said Bishop Schol, who once served as national director of the Shalom Initiative and hosted several previous Summits. He said of this year's gathering: "Not since our Summit in Los Angeles have we had so many participants, and now we truly have moved beyond just United Methodists to include other faith traditions in the spirit of Shalom."
Motivational Sessions
After a spirited concert by the 70-voice Claflin University Gospel Choir Thursday night, Bishop Joseph Sprague (retired) gave the keynote address. As a pastor in Ohio, it was Rev. Sprague who called for the creation of a "Shalom Zone" at the 1992 United Methodist General Conference, in the immediate aftermath of the social unrest in Los Angeles following the acquittal of policemen who beat motorist Rodney King. Sprague's impassioned call inspired the effort that envisioned justice, community organizing, prison reform, and systemic change in the church, the community, and in the larger society.
Will Dent, a community developer from Canton, Ohio, and senior program associate and a national trainer, presented Bishop Sprague with the first Shalom Dove Award on behalf of the National Shalom Committee. The award acknowledges prophetic action and community development leading toward systemic change. The glass crystal award was inscribed with the words: "Joseph Sprague, Instigator of Shalom, 1992."
Following Bishop Sprague's address, Tanya Bennett and Jayda Jacques of Nine Strong Women - a new Shalom team in Newark, New Jersey - spoke and introduced a clip from the documentary Brick City, produced by Forest Whitaker. The film focuses on official and grass-roots efforts to overcome drug and gang violence in the city.
Participants responded enthusiastically over the three days after viewing eight high-quality and entertaining YouTube-type video clips during plenary sessions produced by selected sites, including:
·         Richmond Shalom Farms in Virginia
·         Gallatin Shalom Zone in Tennessee
·         Deaf Shalom Zone in Maryland
·         Pharr Literacy Project in Texas
·         Tree of Life Ministry in South Dakota
·         Nine Strong Women in New Jersey
·         Bennettsville Cheraw Shalom in South Carolina
·         Hope Homes in Malawi
Each media clip not only profiled the site, but illustrated ways they had "stepped up" to a higher level of shalom ministry in their community.
Celebratory Banquet
The Rev. Kelvin Sauls, assistant general secretary for congregational development and racial ethnic ministries at Global Ministries (and a member of the California-Nevada Annual Conference), spoke at the banquet with great passion about his experience in his native South Africa, on the theme of "Shaloming Across Borders." His appreciative audience was on its feet and applauded with delight.
At the banquet, a Shalom Dove Award was presented to the Rev. Velma Cruz-Baez, pastor of Pico Union United Methodist Church in Los Angeles - one of the original and only surviving Shalom Zones from 1992. Now known as "Mother Shalom," the historic site was recognized for its prophetic witness in South Central Los Angeles and for building Casa Shalom, a 30-unit apartment complex comprising two- and three-bedroom apartments, completed in 2006. The facility has a Head Start Center serving 100 children in three daily sessions, and offers programs for residents and other community members.
At the banquet, a video clip from Hope Homes in Malawi was shown. Linked to a Shalom Zone, the program cares for 100 orphans and received a $20,000 grant from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).
At the banquet, Bishop Schol announced the launch of a special fund to support the work of Communities of Shalom. Tabulations of on-the-spot responses showed pledges of $50,000 and $1,564 in an offering. The fund will be handled through Drew University, the home base of the Shalom program.
The Summit was packed with training that was EPIC (experiential, participatory, image-rich, and connected), a term coined by Professor Leonard Sweet of Drew University. One of the most popular trainings dealt with web technology and the development of a Shalom presence on the Internet.
Specialized workshops covered such topics as "green color" jobs, community mapping, administrative excellence, community organizing, biblical theology, organizing Shalom sites, and "walking the labyrinth," which was the unpredicted favorite.
South Carolina has 30 Shalom sites, of which two in the Columbia area were visited by Summit participants.
Next Summit
The next National Summit is scheduled for fall 2012 in Los Angeles, the birthplace of Communities of Shalom.
For further information, contact Michael Christensen, National Director, Shalom Resource Center, Drew University, at shalom@drew.edu or 973.408.3848.
*Editor's Note: The Rev. Linda Wiberg, Director of Connectional Ministry, and Kelly Newell, Director of Young People's Ministries, were among those who attended from the California-Nevada Annual Conference.
Michael J. Christensen is national director of Communities of Shalom, based at the Theological School of Drew University, Madison, New Jersey. He is a member of the California-Nevada Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.