On this 20th Anniversary Day for Communities of Shalom, I asked Bishop Joseph Sprague, Instigator of Communities of Shalom, to reflect on the origins of Shalom on April 29, 1992--the day of the social uprising in Los Angeles after the non-guility verdict for the officers who beat motorist Rodney King and the response of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church to create the first "shalom zone" in south central LA.
Origins of Communities of Shalom (1992)
By Bishop C. Joseph Sprague
on the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of the Shalom Initiative at General Conference, April 29, 2012
There was a certain irony about how I got to General Conference in 1992. As a pastor from West Ohio, I had been elected as a delegate at two prior General Conferences. However, this time Good News and IRD targeted me to not get elected, apparently because of some of my social justice stands. Consequently, I was the last clergy delegate elected and seated. As luck or Providence would have it, I was seated on the aisle in front of the chair of the Presiding Bishop, perfectly positioned to make a motion from the floor.
While we were in session, the verdict was announced in the trial of the police officers involved in the Rodney King arrest in California. James (Jim) Lawson, a UMC pastor in Los Angeles, hosted and led the Los Angeles contingency as they gave a report to the General Conference about what was happening in their city in the wake of the verdict’s announcement.
The General Conference Rules were suspended and we all listened. The Order of the Day was set aside for over an hour. Rev. James Lawson, representing the Los Angeles delegation, was asked to speak about the civil unrest in LA. (Jim, I believe, is the second most influential person in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Having been trained in the Gandhian method of active resistance and non-violence, he trained most of the children and freedom riders in the movement. I knew Jim over the years and we had done justice organizing together, and his brother, Phil, was a seminary classmate and part of our delegation to the Selma to Montgomery March decades earlier.)
. That night, following the reports from James Lawson and Brandon Cho on the social uprising in LA, my fear was that the next day the delegates would adopt an empathetic, eloquent Resolution about the Rodney King incident and the plight of urban America, and we United Methodists would assume that by such action we had addressed the attendant issue and its systemic causes.
Sleep would not come. In the ensuing restlessness, I searched the Scriptures for a theologically sound addition to the far too narrow governmental program of Enterprise Zones in vogue at the time. The prophetic admonition in Scripture to “seek the Shalom of the city” leapt off the page from the Letter of Jeremiah. What about United Methodist--initiated Shalom Zones to be organized in myriad urban communities through which vast networks of religious bodies and called servant leaders, along with the private and public sectors, would work together to transform urban America one broken neighborhood at a time?
I drafted a proposal for creating a shalom zone in long-hand on paper and early the next morning passed it by as many people as I could. It required some early morning caucusing with the Los Angeles delegation and others who care about cities and urban ministries. The Los Angeles delegation affirmed it enthusiastically and suggested that the first Shalom Zone be organized in South Central LA.
Before the first session of the day, the proposal had a lot of support.
I was positioned directly in front of the chair as the last clergy to be seated. I was ready with my card to be raised at an appropriate time. The Presiding Bishop saw it right away and recognized me. I read what I had written out during the night and brokered with others in the early morning.
Many spoke in favor of the resolution and a few against it. The language of shalom was acceptable and supported. Specific actions were suggested. Many of the Good News delegates understood shalom as a faithful, tangible, biblical response to violence and injustice.
When the vote was taken, support for the motion and the concept behind it was overwhelming. The General Conference adopted the proposal nearly unanimously. It was one of the few times that the General Conference was able to make a bold decision with bipartisan support.
The work began almost immediately. And, the rest of the story is now both history and an indication of God’s preferred future of Shalom for all humankind.
Providentially, it has been my joy in Shalom’s 20th Anniversary Year initially to organize and then watch committed young adult leaders work with their older United Methodist and other colleagues to develop the dynamic Greater Hilltop Area Shalom Zone, aka, ‘The Zone’ in a forsaken neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. To see hundreds of at-risk youngsters served regularly, legal and health clinics emerge, non-violence and conflict mediation taught as lifestyles, and much more because private and public systems are working tirelessly with ‘The Zone’ is a gift to savor.
This gift of the Great Mystery and Shalom’s twenty year history combine to urge me to state unambiguously that we United Methodists have at our fingertips a viable model for faithful ministry with the poor for the transformation of lives, families, and the world God loves. This proven model is within reach for effective, faithful ministry with the poor, if this is a genuine priority and not a mere rhetorical Resolution.
May it be that we United Methodists will covenant with God and each other to seek the Shalom of the city in urban America and around the globe. Bishop C. Joseph Sprague
April 29, 2012
About Communities of Shalom:
Communities of Shalom is an international network of congregations and community partners that work together to transform their communities from the inside out. Trained Shalom teams engage congregations and communities to build a future of hope and peace together through multi-cultural, multi-faith, collaboration and asset-based community development.
The Shalom Resource Center at Drew University provides on-going training, technical assistance, and relational support to 150 registered communities of shalom
For more information, visit communitiesofshalom.org