Communities of Shalom turns 20 amid challenges

PJ Davis runs the Gallatin Shalom Zone, in Gallatin, Tenn., which last year served nearly 7,000 clients with a range of programs and social services, on a shoestring budget, with lots of volunteer help.

Catherine Jordan, a master of divinity student at Drew Theological Seminary, stands beside a mural at Spokane Shalom Ministries in Spokane, Wash. The downtown ministry—started by Spokane Central UMC in the 1990s and supported by volunteers from several area churches and organizations—is part of the Communities of Shalom network based at Drew. PHOTO COURTESY COMMUNITIES OF SHALOM

Gallatin Shalom Zone has been around since 1996, but Ms. Davis still finds herself answering why a United Methodist-sponsored effort would have “shalom” in its name.

“There’s people every day I meet who still go, ‘Are you Jewish?’” she said. “We explain to them that it’s a Hebrew word and that it means ‘peace.’”

The name is enough of an issue that Ms. Davis and her board recently discussed rebranding.

“We’ve decided not to do that,” she said. “We have such a strong identity with ‘shalom.’”

Persistence and identity are definitely key themes as Communities of Shalom, the network of which the Gallatin Shalom Zone is part, prepares to observe its 20th anniversary with Shalom Summit 2012.

Participants and supporters will gather Oct. 3-6, in Los Angeles. That’s where rioting after the acquittal of police officers caught on tape beating Rodney King prompted the creation of Communities of Shalom by United Methodists.

The summit offers a full schedule of workshops and worship. Speakers will include the Rev. James Lawson, a longtime UM pastor and civil rights movement hero, and Rudy Rasmus, a well-known, missionally-focused UM clergyman in Houston.

The Rev. Joe Hyun-Seung Yang—a United Methodist pastor dubbed “the original Shalomer” for his heroic work responding to the Los Angeles riots—also will be on hand.

But while the summit is an occasion for celebration, it’s occurring as Communities of Shalom undergoes budget cuts, staff reductions and a scramble for new revenue.

Communities of Shalom is in the community transformation business. These days, it’s having to transform itself.

“We’ve taken hard measures to make [Communities of] Shalom sustainable,” said the Rev. Michael Christensen, national director and an affiliate professor at Drew University.

Dramatic beginning

The proposal for Communities of Shalom came from the Rev. C. Joseph Sprague, later Bishop Sprague. In 1992, he was a West Ohio pastor and a delegate to the General Conference in St. Louis.

That General Conference was underway when the rioting in Los Angeles occurred. Rev. Lawson, who was from the city, reported to delegates on the civil unrest, fires and other destruction.

Bishop Sprague

Bishop Sprague couldn’t sleep that night, and finally rose and began reading the Bible for some word about how United Methodists might respond.

“I searched the Scriptures for a theologically sound addition to the far too narrow governmental program of enterprise zones in vogue at the time,” he wrote in a recent essay. “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 private and public sectors, would work together to transform urban America one broken neighborhood at a time?”

Bishop Sprague drafted a proposal and took it to General Conference, winning overwhelming approval. That was the dramatic beginning of Communities of Shalom.

Already at work, offering help to those affected by the riots, was Mr. Yang. The early leaders of Communities of Shalom, including the Rev. John Schol—now Bishop Schol— would soon ask Mr. Yang to affiliate his ministry with the effort, and rename it “Shalom Community Center.”

“I called the California Secretary of State,” Mr. Yang said, laughing at the memory. “I was wondering—maybe the Jewish community is already using that name. But I got a good answer.”

The Shalom Community Center is still going—with Mr. Yang recently retiring as director but continuing as a volunteer—and remains a part of Communities of Shalom.

Children at the Gallatin Shalom Zone, in Gallatin, Tenn., took a play break from a summer enrichment program focused on literacy and physical fitness. PHOTO COURTESY GALLATIN SHALOM ZONE

Beyond charity

Early on, Communities of Shalom came under the UMC’s General Board of Global Ministries. Churches and community groups received training, and sometimes help in finding funding, by joining the network.

The aim was and remains ambitious, going beyond charity, according to Patricia Morton, longtime member of the National Shalom Committee which helps guide the network.

“The church has always been known for its social outreach, its health clinics and food pantries,” Dr. Morton, a Rutgers University professor, said. “The question is, how do you make them part of systemic change that revitalizes the community and is no longer a handout, but something that causes empowerment of people?”

Bishop Felton May was an important organizing force in Communities of Shalom, according to Dr. Christensen, who also credited Lynda Byrd, an early director who will be honored at the summit, with building the number of Shalom Zones to an all-time high of 360, in about 2002.

“It floundered a little after she left,” Dr. Christensen said. “There was not a full-time national director, for one thing. For whatever reasons, including leadership change and evolution of sites, it had gone down to 78 active Shalom sites.”

That was in 2008, when the National Shalom Committee and GBGM decided to offer Communities of Shalom to other UM-related institutions, and invited proposals, with the understanding that GBGM would provide $800,000 in carryover funds.

UM-affiliated Drew Theological School in New Jersey prevailed among several applicants.

“Drew seemed the best solution,” said Thomas Kemper, top executive of GBGM. “It was a good environment, but it also had $1 million to support the program for the quadrennium.”

Governance shifted to the Drew board of trustees and theological school dean. The National Shalom Committee, chaired by Bishop Schol, has continued offering support and guidance.

Annie Allen of Communities of Shalom leads a training session in Haiti. Drew Theological School students have served Communities of Shalom internships there as well. PHOTO COURTESY COMMUNITIES OF SHALOM

Bouncing back

Drew assigned Dr. Christensen, who had been running its doctor of ministry program, to be full-time director.

He notes that Communities of Shalom doesn’t fund sites. It offers training and support, and its imprimatur can sometimes help a local group get funding from United Methodist sources and other sources, he said.

But using the funds from GBGM, as well as UMC “Advance” offerings for Communities of Shalom, the network was able in its first Drew years to offer seed grants for training to sites that produced a “Shalom plan.”

Communities of Shalom began a comeback, Dr. Christensen said, and now has 150 active sites. He added that Drew has encouraged depth and collaboration through clusters of sites, and points to what’s happened in Memphis.

There the Center for Transforming Communities, a local organization with UM roots, worked with congregations in 2010 to create six neighborhood Shalom Zones. The center has helped them with training and fund-raising.

One group started a community garden on two vacant lots in its neighborhood. The group gradually added lots with the help of a local government land bank.

“They patched together a full city block,” said Amy Moritz, director of the center and a national trainer for Communities of Shalom. “It’s an urban farm, and it requires a tractor now.”

Green Leaf Learning Farm, as it’s known, has been the subject of several feature articles.

Macon, Ga., is another city where the cluster approach has taken hold, and Mayor Robert Reichert has become a champion of Shalom Zones in helping neighborhoods attack specific problems, including removal of dilapidated housing.

The Center for Transforming Communities in Memphis has helped to establish Shalom Zones, including one that led to a community garden. It expanded into Green Leaf Learning Farm, big enough to require a tractor. PHOTO COURTESY CENTER FOR TRANSFORMING COMMUNITIES

Under Drew and Dr. Christensen, Communities of Shalom has offered summits that allow for focused training and networking. It also has added sites internationally, in Africa and in Haiti, and used a $250,000 grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund to create an internship program for Drew master of divinity students.

The Rev. Joshua Clough—pastor of West Kauai UMC in Hawaii—used an internship while at Drew to go to Haiti, to do community organizing with a focus on education about HIV/AIDS and other health issues. He followed up by organizing trips of Drew students to bring supplies and work with local arts groups.

“Communities of Shalom, and other justice ministries within the UMC, remind us of our call to ministries of justice with the marginalized as we continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” he said.

Ongoing challenges

But community work is rarely easy, and keeping tabs on a sprawling network of sites is a challenge for Communities of Shalom, since it operates with a small staff and a limited budget, and doesn’t provide direct, ongoing funding or oversight.

Dr. Christensen acknowledges that there’s a good bit of turnover among sites, and that their level of identification with Communities of Shalom varies.

Indeed, it’s not hard to find out-of-date information about sites on the Communities of Shalom Web page, and some sites don’t seem much involved with the network.

“I read all the stuff that comes across my desk from them, but we’ve not done training with them,” said the Rev. Will Reed of Servant of Christ UM Parish in Houston. He added that one of its longtime partners, Shalom Health Ministry, was created out of the Shalom Zone concept.

The biggest challenge facing Communities of Shalom is financial. In this year’s annual report for the network, Dr. Christensen notes that Drew itself is in a period of cost-cutting. He’s having to cut Communities of Shalom’s annual budget from about $350,000 to about $225,000.

Specifically, that’s meant suspending a summer internship program, replacing paid national trainers with non-paid regional trainers, eliminating a staff position, ending seed grants and moving to video-conferencing for National Shalom Committee meetings.

UM Bishop Jeremiah Park (second from left) preached at an interfaith service for Occupy Wall Street, accompanied by representatives of Communities of Shalom and Drew Theological School. UNITED METHODIST NEWS SERVICE PHOTO BY MELISSA HINNEN

It’s a budget-cutting time for many UM agencies, as the denomination grapples with ongoing declines in the U.S. church. But Dr. Christensen said Communities of Shalom is counting on doubling its Advance contributions to about $50,000, and would like to maintain that much in annual funding from GBGM.

Mr. Kemper said GBGM remains supportive of Communities of Shalom, and provided a grant for the anniversary summit. Other grant requests will be considered, but he said annual funding is not in the cards.

“We are cutting programs at this moment, and we cannot take on additional kinds of core program funding for an organization we let go,” he said.

Meanwhile, Communities of Shalom is building an endowment, with a six-year goal of $3 million. Dr. Christensen said he’s also about to debut a revamped, technologically-enhanced training curriculum that he hopes can be marketed well enough to generate a healthy revenue stream.

“It rolls out at the summit,” he said.

Dr. Christensen acknowledges that lots of things need to fall in place, but remains optimistic that Communities of Shalom can have long-term sustainability.

Even as he was working toward a business plan to help guarantee that, Dr. Christensen joined others from Communities of Shalom and Drew in helping lead an interfaith service at Occupy Wall Street in New York, in December 2011.

Dr. Christensen considers it crucial to recapture the original vision of community transformation and challenging the status quo that excited United Methodists and many others.

“We’re really trying to present Shalom as a movement, not a program,” he said.


Sam Hodges, Former Managing Editor, UMR

Sam Hodges

Sam Hodges was the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter from 2011-2013. A formee reporter for the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer, Sam is a respected voice in United Methodist journalism.

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