Shalom - Changing the World for Peace

Nov 13, 2002 03:00 AM EST

LOS ANGELES - Ten years after the civil uproar that ravaged the streets of Los Angeles, the United Methodist Church celebrates the 10th anniversary of its "Shalom Summit VI." This summit brings together leaders from the 40 congregations participating in the program. They will gather at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, Dec. 12-15.

The historic riot that followed the acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers charged in the beating of a black motorist, Rodney King; left behind severe destruction, poverty, and neglect. In response to this havoc, the United Methodist Church, at its 1992 General Conference, created a "Shalom Zone" in Los Angeles, expressing its hope for the Shalom Zone concept to act as the prototype for "proactive ministry" in other places.

A National Shalom Committee was formed, and the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries was assigned responsibility for the national Shalom Initiative. It offers to annual conferences and local sites initial training, start-up funding, technical assistance, a newsletter, brochures and videos, and biennial Shalom Summits.

The program, now known as Communities of Shalom, focuses on geographic areas where churches collaborate with local organizations, businesses, institutions and residents to transform the conditions that affect people's lives. Through these Communities, the United Methodists and others serve the homeless, help troubled youth, provide job services, and many other works in areas throughout the United States.

The first international Shalom community was established in an impoverished suburb of Mutare known as the Sakubva Township, where crime and HIV/AIDS are prevalent. Currently, Shalom ministries are under way in about 40 U.S. annual conferences, Zimbabwe and Ghana. Inquiries about the program also have been received from parts of Europe and the Philippines.

Jim Conn, the urban strategist for the California-Pacific Annual Conference noted that "the strongest outgrowth of the Shalom program in the Los Angeles area."

Shalom communities in South Central Los Angeles, East Los Angeles, the Korea-town, Long Beach and East Valley are still very active.

These Shalom communities have linked together different parts of their ministries. The Zaferia Shalom Zone Agency, operated by Wesley Church in Long Beach, has linked Wednesday morning Bible study with its food ministry.

As people who wait in line for food engage in Bible study, controversies arise throughout the congregation.

"We've had some interesting discussions," she says. Some 25 percent of those in the class have started attending Sunday worship, and 15 percent have joined the church. New members help in the kitchen, serve as ushers and greeters, and take leadership in church committees. From an all-white congregation, the church has become racially integrated.

"Yes, there has been controversy," Cunnigan says, "but we've taken time to discuss differences. New members have the same rights as old members."

CASE (Creating a Safe Environment) is the center's domestic violence prevention and education program, run in partnership with Interval House. CASE based its outreach program to African Americans on the faith community.

The CASE workshop for pastors train pastors on overcoming domestic violence with its victims. This 40-hour program, "Domestic Violence," currently relies on state resources, but soon, two congregational members will serve as resources.

"We've been able not only to provide services but to offer a church home for people in the community who would not have come to worship otherwise," Cunnigan says. "The community is calmer, less violent."

Rakestraw Community Education Center in South Central Los Angeles illustrates a major principle of Shalom philosophy. "We provide a place where members of the community can come together, assess the community's assets and decide what they want to do," says Addie Clark, a volunteer at Rakestraw since 1990.

In addition, the center enables the community to access resources from a variety of places. These include such city services as transportation, pothole repair and tree planting. DarEll T. Weist, head of the United Methodist Urban Foundation has trained 40 community leaders in asset-base community development. Rakestraw brought existing block clubs together with the police to work on neighborhood safety. AmeriCorp workers do after-school tutoring. The California Youth Authority sends young men doing community service to clean up after weekly food and clothing distribution.

"Rakestraw illustrates how a combination of government and private resources were put to use to bring blighted areas back into shape, with the emphasis on service to young people and economic development," says Cornish Rogers, retired professor of Claremont School of Theology and a member of Rakestraw's board of directors.

The 17-by-92-foot mural on an outside wall titled "A Beacon of Hope," with wording in Spanish and English shines as the symbol of Shalom's success.

The Sepulveda Shalom Zone sits in a densely populated, drug- and gang-infested area known as North Hills, northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The Rev. Jim Hamilton works with police to keep children and youth in his neighborhood safe. A basketball tournament, tae kwon do, a weight room and free play night in the gym are all part of this effort. Shalom summer camps provide kids opportunities for field trips and offer instruction in conflict resolution.

Karen Rodriguez works with adults on housing and immigration problems, legal rights, licenses for sidewalk vendors and shelter for the homeless. Three Head Start sessions a day accommodate 180 children, and their parents attend English-as-a-second-language classes (45 in the morning, 30 at night).

The Soledad Enrichment Association staffs computer classes using new computers donated by the Lauback literacy program. And tutors from Penny Lane, a continuing education school, help students with homework. An 84-year-old woman and her helpers serve breakfast to homeless people three days a week.

Yet another Shalom community, the Wilmore Urban Agency of Long beach, shines as the city's gem. "A Movable Feast" is the name of its catering business, which trains single mothers - some recovering addicts - and pays them for their labor. Profits from the business underwrite a five-days-a-week tutoring program.

Long Beach is "a big convention town," according to the Rev. Paula Ferris, pastor of First United Methodist Church. Thanks to word-of-mouth, the catering service gets business from corporations and individuals - enough to keep three full-time and 24 part-time employees busy.

"4 elements Teen Leadership" draws 60 to 200 young people to the Wilmore center every Friday night for a teen-run program featuring music, dance, art and the spoken word. The program offers an alternative to the pervasive drug and violence culture, Ferris says.

Since 1992, the Shalom program has trained more than 5,000 people representing more than 500 sites, Byrd says. About half work for systemic change in their communities, and others provide services such as food or clothes pantries and after-school programs. More than 1,500 churches inside and outside the denomination are doing Shalom work.

When the program began, officials learned through experience that a top-down ministry wouldn't work, Byrd recalls. "We put funding in and we identified where we wanted to be in ministry, but we didn't enlist the commitment and ownership of the people that we were seeking to be in ministry with." As a result, some of the initial Los Angeles sites and all of those in Miami folded.

Now, Byrd says, the Shalom program meets with annual conference leaders and interested churches before doing any training. It also ensures the presence of an annual conference coordinator who provides assistance to the sites.

The program exceeded its goal of having 300 sites by the year 2000, but Byrd says she's more concerned about quality than quantity. "My sense is that where a Shalom site is very strong, it begins to mentor other ministries." She emphasizes the importance of the program not becoming institutionalized at the general church level. "Shalom belongs to the community. That's been a real challenge to us as the church, to give it its wings."

Bishop Felton Edwin May, leader of the denomination's Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, served as the first chairman of the National Shalom Committee, and encouraged the program's spread to Zimbabwe. "The beauty of the Shalom concept was the eagerness of local congregations to coalesce with social service and government agencies in their communities to meet human needs," he says.

By Pauline J.
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