Wednesday, December 12, 2007

New “Shalom Zones” in Baltimore


Although I have not officially started my duties as National Director of the Communities of Shalom initiative at Drew University, I got a preview of what lies ahead for me in the New Year.

Bishop John Schol of the Baltimore-Washington DC Annual Conference called last week with some urgency in his voice that convinced me to join in for a day in Baltimore to help launch a new “shalom zone” in the city in response to the alarming murder rate in the city over the past year.

With more than 270 murders in the city in 2007, Baltimore now has the third highest murder rate in the nation. Bishop John Schol and conference leaders pledged to take five decisive actions in the coming year to address the systemic issues that contribute to the high murder rate. One of those actions is the establishment of five new Communities of Shalom, to be trained by Drew University, to bring peace, wholeness, harmony, and prosperity to their neighborhoods.

The Baltimore initiative will be among the first Shalom efforts that Drew will undertake in a new partnership with the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) beginning in January. The partnership represents an effort to deepen and broaden the reach of the initiative, which the GBGM has administered since its inception in 1992. Now, Drew University will provide Shalom training to congregational and community leaders, as well as prepare Drew students for prophetic leadership roles in community-based ministries.

The call for Shalom Zones in Baltimore was issued by Bishop Schol at a Service of Remembrance at John Wesley United Methodist Church in a blighted downtown neighborhood in Baltimore—the birthplace of American Methodism—and attended by over 200 church and community members. Representatives of the mayor’s office, city council, the police department, the governor’s office, and the president of the NAACP, pledged their support and collaboration with the effort.

The names of 269 murder victims in the city this year were inscribed on beautiful purple banners and hung in the sanctuary. Several members of victim’s families took turns to read a remembrance. Choir and congregation sang and prayed. I read the scripture from Jeremiah 29:1-7 and Bishop Schol challenged us all to “seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you, for in it’s shalom you will find your shalom.”

Following the worship, the congregation marched in freezing rain to one of the murder sites two blocks away. When they returned, Drew alumnus Rev. Jean-Pierre Duncan and I met with the leadership of 9 churches and outlined the steps to begin training church and civic leaders in the city’s troubled neighborhoods. What will follow are five months of intensive training to help the downtown congregations address the issues that have contributed to homicide in the community. Local leaders hope that the Drew-led training will begin in late spring.

The Shalom training equips congregations to mobilize community leaders in focusing their strengths in four strategic areas: spiritual development, economic development, strengthening race and class relationships, and promoting health, wholeness, and healing. See www.communitiesofshalom.org

In addition to the establishment of shalom zones, the Baltimore Washington conference has also pledged to

Provide free camp scholarships for children who have lost a family member to violence;
Provide free counseling services for affected families;
Enlist churches as collection centers in a handgun give-back program;
Establish a special prayer day for all churches to pray for peace in the city.

In many ways Baltimore is a microcosm of what is happening in our country in terms of increased violence through the use of handguns and other illegal weapons. The bishop’s encouragement in the establishment of five new shalom zones in Baltimore is an opportunity to respond at a grassroots community level.

The prospective Baltimore shalom sites would become part of a worldwide network of grassroots faith-based community development teams coordinated and supported by the Shalom Initiative at Drew University.