Congregation Mishkan Israel, Hamden, CT
Annual Service in Tribute to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Jan. 18, 2008
“Seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you, and pray to the Lord in its behalf, for in it’s shalom, you will find your shalom.” –Jeremiah 29:7
As the National Director of the Shalom Initiative at Drew University, I come to offer a Methodist interpretation of Jeremiah 29:1-12 in light of Dr. King’s vision of the “beloved community” as an inclusive, integrated, interdependent, kinship of love, joy, peace, liberty and justice for all.
I want thank Rabbi Brockman for the invitation to be here, and John Lang for his friendship and facilitation. Indeed, it is a joy to participate in your Shabbat service in honor of MLK. Rabbi Brockman, as I have come to know, is an adjunct professor at Yale Divinity School from where I graduated, and is active in interfaith education and justice work at Hartford Seminary.
Mishkan Israel, I’ve learned, is 167 years old, the oldest continuous congregation in New England. A progressive congregation in the Reform movement, you are socially active in the community with a number of wonderful projects. Rabbi Goldberg in the 1960s was a friend of MLK, spent jail time with him, and led Mishkan Israel in support of the civil rights movement.
And Dr. Martin Luther King came here to speak from this very pulpit on October 20, 1961. I wonder what he said?
I. “The American Dream” and the Vision of the Beloved Community
I looked up King’s sermons and speeches from 1961 in my king-size book entitled: A Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings of MLK, and noted a now famous speech from that year called “The American Dream” which he gave at the University of Penn in June. So maybe he gave the same speech at Yale and here at Mishkan Israel in October 1961.
The American dream, he said, is amazingly universal. Even though he did not use inclusive language at the time, the social issues he addressed were about equality and justice:
“It does not say some men, but it says all men. It does not say all white men, but it says all men, which includes black men. It does not say all Gentiles, but it says all men, which includes Jews. It does not say all Protestants, but it says all men, which includes Catholics.”
Before the age of quantum physics, King had the insight to say:
“…all of life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. As long as there is poverty in the world, no one can be totally rich…Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way the world is made. I didn’t make it that way, but this is the interrelated structure of reality.”
In his speech on the American Dream (perhaps given from this very pulpit), King quotes the prophet Amos, “who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, “Let justice run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
In appealing to the “American Dream”, King envisioned a new community of peace, love, and justice for all. Central to his thinking was the concept of the “Beloved Community.” The theme can be traced through all his speeches and writings, from the earliest to the last.
In one of his first published articles he stated that the purpose of the Montgomery bus boycott was “reconciliation, . . . redemption, the creation of the beloved community.”
In 1957, writing in the newsletter of the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he said the ultimate aim of the organization was to foster and create the ‘beloved community’ in America where brotherhood could become a reality. . . .
His speech on the American Dream concludes with the now familiar words of freedom and justice: “That will be the day when all of God’s children, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, [you can say it with me] “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!”
The dream died with the idealism of the 1960’s, but the theme of the beloved community continues to inspire many, and informs my work with Communities of Shalom ministry in the United Methodist Church and Drew University.
II. My work with Communities of Shalom:
Communities of Shalom is a grass-roots, faith-inspired, community development network initiated by the United Methodist Church in 1992. There are now more than 100 shalom sites (sometimes called “shalom zones”) in USA and Africa, coordinated and equipped by the Theological School of Drew University.
This is the end of my third week as the New National Director of this network, responsible for training and certification of individual sites, and I’m slowly finding my way.
I’ve taught and directed the Doctor of Ministry program at Drew University since 1996. I have a background in community development work prior to coming to Drew, so I jumped at the chance (after 12 years in the classroom and administration) to direct a new training institute at Drew and to provide specialized training and support in the field for these sites.
As Director I hope to help move it beyond Methodism more into the interfaith arena, and beyond a strictly social community development model into one that is ecologically sustainable as well. And I need help to sort out the organizational name, vision, values, mission, network, history, goals, principles, strategies and sites that I’ve inherited.
The Name: Shalom, of course, is a Hebrew word, but the concept, I trust is not proprietary or if it is, I hope you’ll share it. Shalom is a scriptural word without a single English word translation. SHALOM, as you know, refers to a quality of life characterized by peace, prosperity, justice, harmony, health and wholeness for all God’s people.
Vision: Jer. 29:1-12 In the cross-cultural and oppressive context of Babylonian exile, the prophet urges God’s people to pray for peace in the city, and to seek not just their own health and welfare but the shalom of the whole city where they have been sent for a long season (70 years, a whole generation in exile).
Mission: The mission of Communities of Shalom is to create economically and ecologically sustainable communities of good will in which God’s people experience shalom in all its fullness, and to work together for the common good. The mission of the Shalom Resource Center at Drew is to engage and equip congregations and communities to work together for shalom in order to manifest the “beloved community” of God.
History: The Communities of Shalom initiative began as a United Methodist Church response to the conditions and social unrest in Los Angeles following the non-guilty verdict for police in the Rodney King trial in 1992. The first “shalom zones” were created in neighborhoods where rioting occurred in south central Los Angeles. The model has been replicated in the United States and around the world.
The Shalom Model has four distinctive elements:
1. Faith-based community organizing (leading past agitation to transformation)
2. Asset-based community development (identifying resources and strengths before assessing needs)
3. Interfaith, multicultural collaboration–congregations and communities working together for
4. Systemic Change, more than direct services and social relief.
Spiritual Values: Rooted in the prophetic tradition and a practical theological interpretation of Jeremiah 29:1-12, the Shalom Initiative promotes four spiritual values:
1. Spiritual Growth–As members of congregations and communities become effective in linking faith and action, the Spirit of God is revealed in their midst and they grow in their spiritual life. Spiritually inspired and motivated by faith, Shalom teams are able to “seek the welfare of the community” (Jer. 29:7) and work together for peace and wholeness, growing into God’s shalom.
2. Multicultural Harmony–Shalom does not succeed when one’s own cultural group or faith tradition sets out independently to offer community services. Rather, shalom teams succeed when representatives from many cultures and families of faith, as well as a diversity of community residents, organizations, institutions and businesses, and including those who could be considered ‘Babylonian oppressors’ (Jer. 29:1) come together to envision and build what Martin Luther King Jr, called the “beloved community.”
3. Economic Prosperity–Recognizing that collective economic stability is essential for community wholeness, shalom teams seek to empower people to “build homes and live in them….Marry and have children” (Jer. 29:5). Shalom communities intentionally promote affordable housing, small business development, and shared economic growth. As individuals are supported in finding and keeping jobs, providing for their families, accessing education, and economic prosperity can be shared.
4. Health, Healing and Wholeness–Communities of Shalom promote positive mental health, improve community healthcare, facilitate the healing of persons, and seek wholeness for the community and the environment. Part of what it means to seek shalom is to “plant gardens and eat what they produce.” (Jer. 29:5) Saving and sustaining the environment, no less than working for social-economic well-being, is valued and promoted in the shalom model of community development. Thus, some teams create health clinics, other healing ministries; some coordinate social services, while others advocate for justice and systemic change. Some plant community gardens and feed the hungry, while others work ecologically for a ‘greener’ community. All work for wholeness in oneself, the community and in the whole creation. For in seeking the shalom of the city of God, “…you will find your shalom.” (Jer. 29:7)
When these four values are translated into principles and strategies, the real work of shalom begins.
A Shalom Moment:
Since November, I’ve visited shalom sites in Dallas, Los Angles, Baltimore, Richmond, and Newark. Shalom site coordinators share with me particular “shalom moments’ in which a spirit of peace, healing or wholeness was experienced in their midst.
For example, on Wednesday of this week, I was in Richmond, VA, with Rev. Marilyn Heckstall, an African American leader in her community and one of our site coordinators. Her shalom team joined forces with a reconciliation ministry [called “Boaz and Ruth” (remember the interracial couple in the Bible? Ruth was the Moabite or Jordanian woman who married Boaz, an Israelite, her people’s enemy).
The ‘Boaz and Ruth’ shalom team organized and hosted a series of movie and discussion nights in the church on the theme of racial healing and reconciliation. They were bold in showing hard-hitting, emotionally-charged, films and documentaries on historic racism in America. Films like “Mississippi Burning” and documentaries like the “Rosewood Massacre” which evoked passions and debate. In Rosewood, Florida, in 1923, an attack on a white woman–allegedly by a black man–led to destruction of a whole community. See http://www.listeningbetweenthelines.org/html/history.html
But instead of confrontational dynamics, open dialogue was fostered, and honest sharing encouraged in a circle of safety.
“I had no idea” was the common response of Whites upon learning that an entire community was burned out by a public mob in search of a black man who was falsely accused of the crime, while the sheriff’s men refused to intervene.
The African Americans and European Americans that came to the series opened up and shared some hard times in their own lives when they felt rejected, in danger, marginalized, victimized or oppressed. Genuinely surprised and emotionally moved, Marylyn described how the European Americans asked African Americans for forgiveness in behalf of their race. Black women and White women openly wept and embraced each other, and steps were taken from all sides toward racial reconciliation and healing. Its hard work, requiring small steps, in the long and necessary process of seeking the shalom of the city.
Michael Lerner advocates for racial reconciliation and solidarity, not just between Black and White, but between Muslims, Christians and Jews. “In speaking truth to both the powerful in Israel and the powerless in Palestine,” he says, “we plant the absolutely essential seeds of shalom. In the final analysis, no political settlement will work without a huge amount of compassion, open-heartedness, generosity of spirit, and ability to recognize the Other as equally precious in God’s eyes. This is the special contribution that we in the religious community must make.”
This is what MLK was trying to say about his vision of the beloved community:
“Our ultimate goal is genuine intergroup and interpersonal living — integration.”
“Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation . . .”
“We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality…”
“Whether we realize it or not, each of us lives eternally ‘in the red.’ ”
The “I” cannot attain fulfillment without the “Thou,” invoking Martin Buber.
Peace, commonality, well-being, healing, harmony, wholeness, Shalom.
Today, let us celebrate the many nuances, facets and interpretations of this inspiring biblical vision of community wholeness in Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. And let us apply the term and the work of peace to the difficult issues of our day.
“May the Lord bless you and keep you, may the Lord lift up his face and cause his sun to shine upon you, and be gracious to you, and give you peace!”
Shalom, Salaam, Right on, Amen!