When South Central Los Angeles exploded on April 29, 1992, after police officers accused of beating Rodney King were acquitted, a group of United Methodists knew they had to take some kind of action.
The turmoil in Los Angeles drew national attention even as the 1992 United Methodist General Conference was meeting in Louisville, Ky. There, the Rev. Joseph C. Sprague, now a retired bishop, set about crafting a resolution about what was happening that would be more than just a statement of concern.
Working with the Rev. Jim Lawson and other church members from the California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference, he adapted the idea of an economic enterprise zone into something that could be used in a church-community relationship promoting the concept of shalom (peace).
“By a huge margin, nearly unanimously, the Shalom motion passed and we were able to move ahead fairly rapidly,” Sprague recalled.
He was one of several speakers talking about the “Communities of Shalom” (www.communitiesofshalom.org) initiative of The United Methodist Church during a April 30 press conference at the 2012 General Conference. Housed for 15 years at the Board of Global Ministries, the program is now part of Drew Theological Seminary in New Jersey.
Washington Area Bishop John Schol, who began working with the “Shalom Zone” concept as a board staff executive in 1993, attributes the program’s success to four factors: the asset-based approach, the relationships with communities, the training program and the specific design for each community. “There are no two Shalom sites that are exactly the same,” he said.
Communities of Shalom has since gone global and has trained 10,000 people worldwide and 600 local communities, with more than 150 active sites in the U.S., Haiti and Africa. As part of its presence at General Conference, the program will offer a mini-training session from 4 to 5:30 p.m. May 1 at Hyde Park United Methodist Church. Register at www.ministrywith.org/about/contact.html.
A shalom community can span a block or a mile, can be rural as well as urban, and can focus on one program or many. Joe Samalenge, a Drew student from the Congo, spent six weeks last summer as a Shalom intern at a community garden in Scranton, Pa. The garden not only provides food for the community, he said, but also allows for conversation about successes and failures and for participation by a diverse group of people.
Sprague, now living in Columbus, Ohio, has been working with eight small urban congregations in a neighborhood called “Hilltop” on a Shalom program. Within 18 months, residents, schools, businesses and city services have banded together to institute programs like a teen after-school center.
Such successes depend upon whether “we have the guts and the wherewithal…and are willing to get our hands dirty,” Sprague said.
What will succeed is not always apparent at the beginning, Schol pointed out. He recalled a congregation in South Carolina that didn’t seem prepared, at first, to do the work and ended up leveraging $30 million for economic investment in the community. “It began with six church people who really caught the vision,” he said.
Communities of Shalom has a 42-hour training program with a multi-cultural, multi-faith approach, said Annie Allen, national trainer. “The training gives participants the nuts and bolts to do community work on the ground,” she added.
Michael Christensen, international director, Communities of Shalom, said the training program also can be licensed by other institutions.
One of those is Bacone College, an American Baptist college in Muscogee, Okla. The college’s president, the Rev. Robert Duncan, a United Methodist pastor from New Jersey, said he is excited about the partnership.