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Shalom sites address diverse needs


NOTE: Photographs are available with this story.

WASHINGTON (UMNS) - What do a church for the deaf, a sprawling after-school program, an urban neighborhood revitalization initiative, and a health and wholeness ministry have in common?

Each is a United Methodist community of shalom in the Baltimore-Washington Conference (region). The 290 participants in the denomination's Shalom Summit VI, held Dec. 12-15, each had the opportunity for in-depth visits at two of the sites.

Shalom ministries began as the church's response to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which erupted after four white police officers were acquitted in the beating of black motorist Rodney King. The Communities of Shalom program was built on the concept of urban enterprise zones that would bring about change by pulling together neighborhood religious and civic organizations, along with individuals and businesses. It has spread to include more than 500 communities, with more than a dozen in Africa.

In Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf in Baltimore, the community of shalom is a non-traditional agency of deaf and hearing people working together to serve the area's deaf community.

Much of the ministry touches one person or family at a time. The community of shalom has become a place of advocacy and empowerment of deaf people in service of other deaf people.

The church has about 125 deaf members and 10 hearing members, according to the Rev. Peggy A. Johnson. The shalom ministry serves whoever needs it. Johnson pointed out that those who are culturally deaf, were deaf at birth or became deaf in early childhood, communicate in American Sign Language, which is not the same as English with signs. They are often isolated and rarely read English well, if at all, so they do not benefit from captioned television, newspapers or magazines, she explained.

"I thank God that I am deaf," testified church member Catherine Vaccarino. She directs the choir, whose signing performances are almost like liturgical dance. Vaccarino and others at the Deaf Shalom Zone were explaining to their hearing visitors how much the church community means to them.

Her assistant director, LaSander Saunders, told the visitors how lonely and isolated she felt when she became deaf during her school years. Then she discovered sign language and eventually the church for the deaf.

"I love music here in the deaf church," she declared. And her involvement in the church has resulted in four trips to Africa for mission work. Members of the church have worked in Zimbabwe to help the deaf form a community there, and they plan to return next year.

The community of shalom has a social services case manager, Susan Wrightson, working with deaf people and their families. One man brought in a trash bag full of mail that he had been unable to read. Wrightson found letters threatening jail for bounced checks, but the man said he never had a checking account, although he had a savings account at that bank. She did extensive work with the bank and others over the next two years to resolve the problem. It turned out that the man's identity had been stolen by another resident of the group home where he lived.

In another situation, a Hispanic woman needed the help of both a volunteer case manager and a Spanish interpreter to get proper medical treatment and schooling for her deaf son, who has multiple disabilities.

The church also made 35 calls to set up an appointment for a man who needed to apply for food stamps with the help of an interpreter, which the law requires government agencies to provide.

In some cases, the case manager contacts a person whom the shalom zone has aided to get help for another person.

"It's getting people involved in being in mission," said Carol Stevens, a missionary and site coordinator. An opportunity to help other people is empowering, she explained. "It's that whole asset-based community development thing," a basic premise of the shalom program. She enthused that using the gifts and strengths of the people who want to be involved is central to the program and works wonderfully.

Ministry through community

Partners like the Good Shepherd Baptist Church Deaf Ministry and several community agencies have helped provide new shalom opportunities. The first-ever deaf parenting classes taught by deaf teachers with deaf role models were sponsored with a grant from the Baltimore-Washington Conference Board of Child Care. Deaf-blind services, including a camp, have been enhanced with the help of a grant from another organization. The state of Maryland provided a grant enabling the funding of an interpreter for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

Ministry through community characterizes the diverse shalom sites. Four hundred children take part in the vibrant Shalom School for the Arts Inc., also known simply as the Shalom School. The school is an outreach program of First United Methodist Church of Hyattsville, Md.

The school offers classes throughout the academic year, using professionals to teach liturgical dance, hip-hop, jazz, tap, African dance and ballet; steel drums; Afro/Cuban/Latin drumming; musical instruments; drawing and other visual arts, including cartooning; computer skills; creative writing and other enrichment classes; and martial arts. All students are required to attend the homework lab daily.

Adult classes include English as a second language, yoga and computer training. Pre-school art and music are also offered, and academic tutoring is available by arrangement. Sponsorship through partner organizations or individuals is available for all but private instruction and tutoring. The school is designed as a multifaceted program for an inclusive and multicultural student body. Sharon Starling, the director, started the Shalom School mainly with music classes six years ago.

Josephina, a parent of 10 children, has three kids in the after-school program. It has helped her be a better parent, she said. "I love everybody here. This is my new family."

Joshua I. Smith, president of the Shalom School board of directors, said the school sees itself as a partner to the church and plans to be self-sufficient in three years, while continuing to use partners and sponsors so that no child is turned away.

Some participants in the shalom summit visited Emory Beacon of Light Inc., a community of shalom at Emory United Methodist Church in Washington, where several religious and legal aid entities collaborate to assist low-income families - mainly African-Americans and immigrants from Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean.

Mount Winans-Westport Shalom Zone at the United Methodist church of the same name in Baltimore works in a predominantly African-American community to revitalize the area. The community has created youth activities and substance abuse intervention and recovery programs. It is working to convert an abandoned school into a community center.

Guiding principles

Lynda Byrd, director of shalom ministries since 1997, said each community of shalom is different because it designs itself according to its own strengths and resources. Shalom ministry "has to be bottom up, not top down," she asserted.

"This is hard ministry," she said. "It's a ministry of invitation," not a check-writing ministry. "It's about people, not stuff."

Part of the value of the summit networking and site visits is that people see "they are not in it alone." They find resources in one another, Byrd said.

The denomination's National Shalom Committee hired a consultant to evaluate the program's first 10 years, she said. The question now is how to best serve in the future.

"Shalom was never intended to become an institution," she said. That would go against the spirit of the program, she explained. At the last three summits, 50 percent to 60 percent of the trainers were successful participants in a shalom community rather than experts from other areas of experience. The idea that "what we need is what we have" is central to the philosophy.

The shalom program has four principles: asset-based community development, a collaborative approach, systemic change and mission evangelism, she said. The program works to strengthen multicultural relations and encourages spiritual development or growth.

"God has given us what we need. Let's use what God has given us," said Bishop Max Whitfield, chairman of the National Shalom Committee, at the beginning of the summit.

"Christ is in you," said Bishop Felton Edwin May, the banquet speaker and the committee's first chairman. "You are the shalom of God. Tell the story of Jesus Christ and no other."

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*Purdue is United Methodist News Service's Washington news director.

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