Chicago IL – The international board of directors and staff of the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR) traveled to Chicago on February 26 – March 3 to hold its 2018 spring board meeting. Chicago’s South Side, an area long troubled by gun violence, is developing innovative ways for the church to engage diverse and changing communities. GCORR was there to listen, learn, and understand how crucial urban ministry is for the mission of the church in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
General Secretary Erin Hawkins opened the meeting with scripture from Isaiah 43:19, “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you know? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
Hawkins noted that the passage is sometimes used for magnanimous proclamations in the church. Yet, as she led the board through the priorities and competencies of the agency and posed questions around what people in the church actually need to reach their communities, it became abundantly clear that the Isaiah text applied most especially to this season of Religion & Race as the agency marks its 50th Anniversary in 2018.
Hawkins shared, “We are imagining the church that has not yet come into being but is showing signs of emergence. We are also listening to people who are ready to do or are already doing the next thing that God is calling them to do as they engage the diverse neighborhoods of their community. As we listen, we hear that people want to convene in dynamic grassroots networks, share the challenges and the blessings of bridging differences, and create an authentic community.”
As a part of that listening and learning, the board and staff engaged with faith and civic leaders of Chicago’s South Side in an immersion experience at Wesley United Methodist Church. Wesley’s lead pastor Rev. Biekman and Bishop of Chicago Episcopal Area, Bishop Sally Dyck welcomed the group.
“Opportunities for general agencies of the church to connect, learn and be in conversation with urban ministry practitioners enriches the Body of Christ,” shared Rev. Biekman.
“The diversity represented by the board and staff of GCORR made a distinct impression on the non-United Methodist Chicago immersion team leaders who have become accustom to a monochromatic and monotheistic church,” Biekman continued. “Most times those closest to the problem have the solutions. Restorative Justice practices facilitate partnerships like the Chicago Alternative to Incarceration (ATI) Collaborative that bring faith/community and system stakeholders together to effectively address and implement community-based solutions.”
The group engaged in a morning of presentations, peace circles and panel discussions that included members of the Northern Illinois Conference Chicago Urban Strategy (NIC). NIC is an initiative born out of the Urban Summit of 2013 organized by Bishop Dyck that is increasing the capacity of urban congregations through relationship building (collaborating with community and system stakeholders), community engagement, effective community organizing, and leadership development.
Board President Bishop Earl Bledsoe said, “As this nation experiences tragedy after tragedy as a result of gun violence, we felt it was important to be with the people of Chicago’s South Side who are working every day to alleviate the root causes and resulting harm experienced by neighbors in this area affected by systemic poverty and inequity. As United Methodists and Christians, we are called to live out the mandates of the Social Principles with regard to this issue.”
Chicago’s South Side was GCORR’s third immersion experience designed to appreciate and understand cultural differences this quadrennium. The first was a border crossing at Tijuana/ San Diego in February of 2017, and the second was a cultural immersion with the Lumad tribes of the Philippines in August of 2017. Each of these immersion experiences is designed to give the board and staff a first-hand understanding of cultural differences and how to bridge these differences as we live out our call as Christians.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to go to the South Side of Chicago with the General Commission on Religion and Race,” shared board member and Chicago area pastor Rev. Alka Lyall. Lyall was a part of the panel discussion and helped facilitate a closing activity after the panel. “The experience helped me see the possibilities that are always right around us. The partnership with the police department and community organizations was impressive. I am most grateful for the experience of ‘peace circles,’ a simple yet powerful tool for respectful communication where each person is valued and seen.”