20th Anniversary Shalom Summit: Communities of Shalom Looks to Past in Forging New Direction

October 11, 2012

By Cate Monaghan
Director of Communications

The 20th Anniversary Shalom Summit in Los Angeles, Oct. 3-6, was a celebration of origins that also marked a turning point in the life of the movement itself.
 
The Shalom Initiative of The United Methodist Church traces its beginnings to Los Angeles and to a pivotal point in the life of one man, Rodney King, whose beating by police officers, caught on videotape, set the stage for a brutal chapter in our nation's history. When three of the officers were acquitted of charges and no verdict was reached in the case of the fourth, rioting broke out in Los Angeles that claimed more than 50 lives, injured more than 2,000, and cost the city an estimated $1 billion. During the riots, King appeared on television and issued the famously haunting plea, "Can we all get along?"
 
Twenty years later, that question seemed to be met with a positive response as 168 people gathered at the Biltmore Hotel to trade shalom success stories. While no one claimed that racial inequality and economic injustice have been vanquished, their narratives – and the diversity in the room itself – testified to the possibility that people can, indeed, work in harmony to achieve a common purpose.
 
A multi-faith movement
Indeed, a spirit of cooperation is at the heart of the shalom movement. The program focuses on organizing the stakeholders in a given geographic area, or "shalom zone," and then identifying and building upon the positives, or assets, of the area to effect systemic and sustainable change that results in a healthy community. Multi-cultural, multi-faith collaboration is an essential part of the process and is one of the six tenets, called "threads of shalom."
 
The Rev. Dr. Michael Christensen, international director of Communities of Shalom, says the multi-faith aspect is "probably the hardest thread, and the hardest training to do," because Christians are accustomed to thinking in terms of evangelism, helping people come to Christ, and growing their congregations. The shalom approach, by contrast, begins with outlining a geographic area, taking stock of its occupants, and asking them to look beyond the confines of religious identity and work together for the good of the community.
 
"So when you draw your Shalom Zone, and you say, 'here's our geographical area that we are called to transform, you have to ask the question, in Shalom Zone training, 'Who lives here? Who worships here? What faith communities are rooted in this community?'" Christensen says. "If there's a Jewish synagogue around the corner from the United Methodist church, the Methodists may host the table, but everyone's invited … because we have a common concern and interest about what goes on in our neighborhood. If there's a mosque, then you invite the Muslims, and say, 'shalom, salaam, peace!' because we have common interest to transform our community. We're not saying to the Muslims, 'Come over to our side, come to our church, and worship as Christians'; we want to affirm them in their own faith tradition … but we can do things together to transform our community." 
 
It is one of the tenets most sacred to Amy Moritz (at right), director of the Center for Transforming Communities in Memphis, a regional shalom resource center affiliated with the national resource center now at Drew University.
 
"Our role is to help equip and mobilize congregations and neighborhoods," she says. "When a congregation says, 'we would like to look at the Communities of Shalom program, and possibly be a shalom zone,' one of the first things that I am real clear with them about, is that they understand that this is not a model to start an outreach program of your church – but instead, this is a program to enter into if you're really willing to be what I would say, a servant leader – to a larger sort of agenda or even an agenda yet to be known, because we won't really know what it is until we get the other stakeholders in the neighborhood together. So I really look for congregations who are willing to be sort of a catalyst or sort of a steward of a more neighborhood vision that involves, ideally, multiple congregations.
 
"If I sense that a church is starting this because they already sort of know what they want to do, they want to create this program, they've sort of got their agenda – I'm really clear with them that I don't think that this is the right program for them. The very first thing that I want that congregation to do, if they want to enter into the Communities of Shalom facilitation, is to go out and find other congregations who will go with them, journey with them, be a team – they would all come together to create something new."
 
Assets-based approach
What that 'something new' turns out to be can be a delightful surprise, as evidenced in one of Memphis' eight shalom zones, Binghamton, which encompasses approximately 15 city blocks. Within Binghamton is a repurposed church building, now known as the Commons on Martin, which houses 15 different non-profits, ministries, and congregations, all connected to the neighborhood.
 
The building had belonged to Everett Memorial United Methodist Church. "When the congregation closed its doors," Moritz says, "they actually donated the building to the agency that I direct, which at the time was an agency of The United Methodist Church. So … we were given this asset, this gift, and then allowed an opportunity to see, what could we do with it. It was kind of very much in the principles of shalom, seeing what assets you have, what building blocks you have, and then to what end can you use them for the common good."
 
Interestingly, "a small remnant" of the Everett Memorial congregation re-emerged as the Binghamton United Methodist Church, and worships within the repurposed building. Other tenants include services for refugee families, including after school tutoring in English as a second language; an agency resourcing families of incarcerated persons; Door of Hope, which serves the homeless community in Memphis by providing transitional housing and case management support; Memphis School of Servant Leadership; a photographer who works for non-profits; a violinist; "a couple congregations"; and a community choir, along with the offices of the Center for Transforming Communities.
 
"So it's just a building that has come alive," Moritz says. "Would have been a boarded-up building, but we've really tried to practice the shalom principles, and really have found that it's continued to be a place of God's presence in that neighborhood – and even though it isn't a traditional church in the sense that a congregation owns it, it is still, I think, church, in a very deep way."
 
Taking shalom to Atlantic City
The Rev. William Williams, a recent graduate of Drew Theological School, is eager to test the approach. Appointed to his first charge, Asbury United Methodist Church in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in July, Williams (at right) has been told that the church had a shalom connection at one time. Interested in re-involving his congregation in shalom, he came to Los Angeles to learn the concept and what it means to be a shalom trainer, hoping to utilize shalom principles to make a difference in the inner city neighborhood where Asbury is located.
 
"I know, I heard, of all the good things shalom has done across the nation, across the world. I came because I have an inkling in my heart that Atlantic City, where I'm currently appointed, is primed for a shalom zone. It's primed to be a shalom zone. And I say that because there are people, organizations, Methodists and non-Methodists, already doing some of the basic tenets of shalom in Atlantic City," Williams says. "I came as just a way of learning how all these things might work together, in a seamless sort of way."
 
Asbury UMC, with a fairly diverse congregation of some 70 people, is located in the heart of the Atlantic City casino district.
 
"Mission Home for the homeless and for those who are hungry isn't too far away from Asbury – and the drug rehabilitation home is a block, two blocks away," Williams says. "Prostitution occurs right outside our doors at times; prostitution and drug dealing. Homes are boarded up right across the street from Asbury. But at the same time, we sit in the tourism district of Atlantic City, a district that the state of New Jersey has carved out and said, 'we want this district to be tourism-friendly.' And there are some challenges to that, because the feeding that we do, the monthly feeding for the homeless, attracts homeless people to the tourism district, and that doesn't really sit well."
 
Before Williams arrived, the congregation set a vision, called Roadmap to Renewal, he says, "to be a church that ministers and provides activities and opportunities for kids, young adults, and retirees." That vision is articulated in a video on the church's website (http://www.asburyumcac.org/roadmap2renewal.htm). However, "I really understand that it's God's vision and the church is just playing a role," Williams emphasizes. "It's God's vision for Atlantic City, and Asbury is just playing a role. The Hamilton United Methodist Church, the Venice Park United Methodist Church, [all] the United Methodist churches in Atlantic City are just playing a role; the other churches, the other faiths are just playing a role … but I want to be a part of it. I'm excited … I'm just excited to be part of what God is already doing in Atlantic City, and trying to understand how we might do better, how we might work together, and how we might be able to really encourage peace in Atlantic City."
 
Beyond U.S. borders
But the movement birthed in the United States in response to problems in our own back yard now extends far beyond the boundaries of this country, and is having success there, as well.
 
Baamu Moses is a Pentecostal pastor, and shalom practitioner, in Uganda.
 
"Right now we have three sites of shalom zones. One, we are doing farming – we grow coffee. Two, another one, the second one, we are dealing with HIV/AIDS within the community. And … we are empowering the ladies – the widows and the younger ladies – we are doing jewelry, so that they can be skilled. If they are skilled, they are trained in jewelry, they can sustain themselves by getting some money to pay school fees for their children, even the widows can be able to get money to look after their families. So that's what we are doing in Uganda."
 
Moses brought examples of necklaces and beaded purses made by the women in Uganda, and is hoping to find a market to sell the goods in the United States. The money will be used to buy schoolbooks.
 
"I just want to pass a word of thanks with The United Methodist Church, for this great work they have done in the Communities of Shalom … the Communities of Shalom doesn't have boundaries – it involved everybody. Me, I am not a United Methodist, but I'm coming from the Pentecostal background, but I'm blessed that now we are cooperating within the community. Many of faiths, we are working together, as a community, and I have seen this working in Uganda. We are seeing the relationship of coming together … of people from different faiths, from different denominations coming together. We share the love of God, we address the problems we have within our communities, we come up with the solutions … and I have seen this working.
 
"And I want to tell you that within the community I am coming from, I am seeing that Communities of Shalom, it is – it is creating the harmony, the oneness, within the community. Because right now, before we introduced Communities of Shalom in our community, you will find that the Christians were not working together with the Muslims, someone who is coming from the Pentecostal background cannot work together with the Catholic. But since right now, Communities of Shalom, since it has been introduced in Uganda, especially in my region, we are coming together: Muslims, Protestants, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, Catholics – we are working together as a team."
 
Moses also is a proponent of shalom's assets-based approach to community building.
 
"Most of the big problems that we had is people knowing to identify what they have. Because for example, for us, we are coming from the rural area, we have bought the land, but you can find somebody sleeping hungry. [He needs to] understand he has got the land, he can use it to grow food and the food can help his family, the community. But right now the strengths of the Communities of Shalom – it teaches somebody that he can sustain himself. That's the first strength; number one – I really like that one, someone can identify what he has and use it, so that he can be able to sustain himself."
 
Moses (at left – with blue name badge holder – in photo below) was introduced to shalom when he met Michael Christensen in Mzuzu, Malawi, and learned what the Rev. Copeland Nkhata, a United Methodist pastor, is doing there. 
 
Nkhata (seated second from left, in photo below) also came to L.A. for the summit, and talked about the work of shalom in Malawi.
 
"As a pastor, God impressed my heart to participate in empowerment programs. And I have two wings of the Hope Initiative programs. One of them is nutritional care for young children, who are very vulnerable, and the second one is educational care, under the Hope Scholarship, for boys and girls between 13 and 20. And the third one is a women's empowerment program, where we train women who are vulnerable – most of them are widows or single mothers, but basically without proper education to help them with employment. So we engage them into jewelry classes, and they do jewelry classes for one year, which is a blend of three terms. And we empower them, we give them skills so that they can use those skills to generate some income for themselves, so they can sustain themselves, they can help their children [and] they can help their families."
 
Nkhata says in four years, some 40 boys and girls have been placed in high school or college course work. Eight boys have graduated from the business management class and some others from the accounting classes, and have found jobs. In addition, "We have more than eight who are active participants in church leadership roles," he says. "But we are also proud of many children, who were helpless and we give them nutrition for a few years, and others have moved from kindergarten to primary school – but what is very outstanding is that three of those children have moved from primary school; they are now in high school – and they are very outstanding students. One of them is HIV-positive. She was very unwell when we started to take care of her, but now she's very healthy … and we're very expectant that next year she might even be admitted to university, because her school performance is outstanding." 
 
Nkhata says he came to Los Angeles with a specific goal.
 
"I wanted to learn the shalom model, from a higher dimension – because all along, the only person who has shared with me some shalom material is Michael Christensen. And when he shared with me the idea of the summit, I felt encouraged to come and so I told him I would like to come and see what's happening at a higher dimension.
 
"I've been practicing the shalom model all this long. But it's like, I didn't know that there is this model. I was practicing it out of intuition; now it's out of information. I am better informed than I was before. So what I've covered here kind of supplements or fulfills what was already me – and so I'm feeling sure I will be able to do it much better.
 
"So I'm satisfied, I'm satisfied."
 
Shalom program changes
But the Communities of Shalom itself is not satisfied to rest on its laurels – and hopes to improve on its model.
 
"For 20 years," Christensen (second from right in photo at right, in white shirt) says, "Communities of Shalom has offered training free of charge, by national trainers who have been trained as trainers, and who are on a national stage … and it's been subsidized by The United Methodist Church. And we've just continued that at Drew … for the last five years, Drew has been running Communities of Shalom as a subsidized training model. And it's worked for 20 years to do it that way, because there's been sufficient funding, and, you know, all that."
 
However, Christensen says, "in this age of scarcity, and downsizing, and budget cuts," program leadership decided that if Communities of Shalom is to be sustained for the long term, the business plan and business model needs to change from one of "giving the product away to whosoever wants it and needs it," to selling the product: cost-recovery.
 
"So we've developed a very fine, technologically-enhanced version of the old shalom zone training," Christensen says.
 
Drew utilized an $85,000 curricular-development grant, "to step up to state of the art in how to train people." Christensen says the product will be available through http://communitiesofshalom.org for some $100 a person. 
 
"Now, they may be able to raise that from their local church, or they may be able to find a community grant, that will grant capacity building for them – but it won't be given out free again," Christensen says. "It's a paid-for program."
 
Likewise, Christensen says, the program no longer will pay national trainers, but instead will host one-to-two train-the-trainer events per year, to produce Drew-certified local facilitators who then will be equipped to train others in their local or regional setting. "And then they can charge what they need to, within a range, or volunteer and give their services away," he notes.
 
Christensen estimates more than 360 shalom teams have been trained, in the last dozen years, by paid national trainers. The regional approach, he says, is a more cost-effective way of doing training.
 
"West Coast branch"
The program is undergoing another radical change, as well. From a single operating base – Drew University for the past five years, Board of Global Ministries headquarters in New York before that – Communities of Shalom is moving to a regionalized system.
 
Christensen, an elder in the California-Nevada Annual Conference, in September was named to a yoked appointment in which he will serve, equally, both Communities of Shalom and as senior pastor to Epworth UMC in Berkeley, California. The appointment is effective Nov. 1 and means Christensen will move from the East Coast to the West Coast. 
 
"And we'll have in the Western Jurisdiction, and in the Cal-Nevada Conference, a regional center for Shalom Zone training. Where that will be – whether it's at Epworth Berkeley, or whether it's San Francisco, whatever – or even L.A., you know, across conference lines – we'll have a West Coast headquarters for shalom, just like we have an East Coast headquarters," he says.
 
Christensen says there probably will be a regional center in Mississippi, as well. There already is a regional center in Dayton, Ohio, at United Theological Seminary, and one in Memphis, Tennessee.
 
"So we're sharing Shalom – we're not just keeping it in one place," Christensen says.
 
Christensen said the program's salary base will not be expanded, "but we're increasing our team by increasing the regional centers, who will in turn have their own staff, and their own team – whether they're paid or unpaid, they're team members of the Shalom Initiative – so that's how we're expanding. Creative ways like that."
 
At the Shalom Resource Center, Associate Director Annie Allen will take over the day-to-day operations, while Christensen, operating from a mobile office, focuses on "promoting shalom as a movement" and marketing the new training product, along with giving the information meetings and initial consultations that lead to training.
 
While he acknowledges that maintaining a balance with two half-time jobs can be difficult, Christensen says he believes it can work.
 
"It's not a new concept. If we [at Epworth UMC] can see that we are not just a local expression of the church, that we are an international, global church that has a connection and that shalom is part of that whole network. Like John Wesley said, 'the world is my parish.' So we can't be exclusive, and we've got to see this work as connected, joint. So it's not like two half-time jobs that don't connect to each other or relate to each other, not bifurcated jobs.
 
"It's [also] challenging because, you know, Shalom will lose a fulltime international director, who won't be able to travel as much or administrate as much as I did before – so others will have to step up to serve in the administrative, labor-intensive aspects of that. So there's a loss but there's also a gain in that you spread out the work, and it's not just up to one person to make it work."
 
Christensen also is excited about the possibilities of a more visible shalom presence on the West Coast.
 
"Yeah, the West Coast branch! Again, I don't know the details of that, but there's a desire in Cal-Pac Conference, there's a desire in Cal-Nevada Conference, there's a desire in the Western Jurisdiction – to have shalom resources in the West. Besides Los Angeles, where the movement began, most of the shalom zones are in the South, and the Northeast, and there's not a lot out here in the West. So to replant shalom on the West Coast is really going to help the movement, where there's a disproportionate representation. Out of 140 sites, 120 sites are not in the Western Jurisdiction, so we don't have a lot of things going here – but with a West Coast branch, we can do that."
 
Awards
The summit began Wednesday evening (Oct. 3) with a reception atop the "L.A. Live" entertainment complex, home of the Grammy Museum. Actor Gaius Charles (Friday Night Lights, Grey's Anatomy), also a Minister of Shalom, acted as emcee, as guests with a variety of connections to Communities of Shalom – including shalom leaders from five countries – got acquainted and shared their stories. (Later in the week, Charles – at right – would host a screening of a Friday Night Lights episode, followed by a question and answer period and open discussion of racial issues.)
 
The opening plenary and Communion service, Thursday morning, featured a sermon by venerated Civil Rights leader the Rev. James Lawson. Los Angeles Area Bishop Minerva Carcaño and Bishop John Schol of Greater New Jersey, chairman of the National Shalom Committee, served as celebrants.
 
It was Lawson whose appeal led (now retired Bishop) Joseph Sprague and a few other church leaders to create the Shalom Initiative at the 1992 General Conference. At the Friday evening awards banquet, Lawson received a Spirit of Shalom Dove Award as "Prophet of Shalom," while other Dove Awards went to "Original Shalomer" the Rev. Hyun-Seung ("Joe") Yang and to Lynda Byrd, dubbed the "Mother of Shalom.".
 
Shalom Apple Awards were presented to Mayor Robert Reichert of Macon, Georgia, who initiated six shalom zones in his city; Jeri McKie, associate general secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries; and Wilbert Mitchell and Respond, Inc. 
 
Pastor Rudy Rasmus of St. John's Downtown UMC in Houston, Texas spoke at the banquet and at breakfast Saturday morning, on the topic, "Re-think Church, Shalom Style." The summit concluded with "The Church Has Left the Building," a hands-on ministry at MacArthur Park, where Shalom participants hosted a worship service and provided lunch for the community.
 
[See more photos from the summit at http://www.cnumc.org/galleries.]