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

.           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, visitcommunitiesofshalom.org