"Shalom" Zones Give New
Spirit to Urban Renewal

By Marianne Comfort
American News Service

In April of 1992, Los Angeles exploded in riots and looting when white police officers were acquitted in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King. On the other side of the country, religious leaders gathered for a national meeting and bowed their heads.

The riots triggered some deep soul-searching at the United Methodist Church's general conference in Louisville, Ky. Upon hearing the news, the 1,000 delegates prayed for an answer to urban despair and violence.

More than 150 "shalom communities", a biblical vision of spiritual, physical and emotional well-being dot the United States. Many of them involve churches that have long been active in social services and economic development.

The solution they arrived at they called "shalom communities" -- a biblical vision of spiritual, physical and emotional well-being. The Methodists decided to focus on small geographic areas, often only a few city blocks, with the goal of combining spiritual, social and economic renewal.

Now, five years later, more than 150 shalom zones dot the United States -- many of them involving churches that had long been active in social services and economic development.

What's new, participants say, is that these churches are now consciously focusing on building relationships of trust among disparate racial, ethnic and economic groups -- in addition to tackling concrete neighborhood improvement projects.

Underlying layers of mistrust, for instance, were part of what caused the Los Angeles riots, said John R. Schol, until recently the urban ministry director of the 8.5-million-member denomination. "It was much deeper than the beatings and the Rodney King verdict. It was the result of a lot of years of oppression and racism."

Yet he added that racial, ethnic and cultural suspicions and fears are difficult to address on their own.

"Our strategy is, don't deal with them in a vacuum," Schol said. "Deal with them around vacant houses, deal with them around developing businesses."

After one and a half years of building on the shalom concept, conflict in his Los Angeles community is easing, said the Rev. Jim Hamilton, a Methodist minister whose church is at the heart of a 10-block shalom area increasingly populated by Latin American immigrants.

Tenant-landlord disputes that once ended in frustration and occasional violence are now mediated by a church worker familiar with the community. Police citations against street vendors and health department raids on home-based food businesses -- which reinforced residents' distrust of authorities -- are now worked out through dialogue that deliberately attempts to bridge cultural differences.

Hamilton credits the change to the shalom strategy that is now operating in 50 cities.

Training for the shalom approach begins with fostering relationships. Teams of eight to 25 people of different classes, races and experiences meet to assess a community's strengths and needs, Schol said. "Many times it's the first time these people have come together."

They learn that they have the same dream for their neighborhood, he said, and then they talk about how they can work together.

The turning point in Hamilton's Los Angeles neighborhood came when he and his shalom director, Evilio Franco, stared down drug dealers who were passing crack cocaine to elementary school students. "It was a major breakthrough for us in getting respect from the mothers (in the neighborhood) that we're trying to create a shalom community here," Hamilton said.

At the same time, he said he had to educate members of his church -- a predominantly elderly white congregation in a community increasingly home to new immigrants. "As the makeup of the neighborhood changed," he said, "they dug a foxhole and put fences around the church."

Helping them become more active in the community has put "a face on what seems to be a foreigner, the immigrant," he said.

Over the past few months, the church has opened its gymnasium to gang members interested in playing basketball and recruited neighborhood youths for two soccer teams, Hamilton said. This keeps them off the streets and away from drug dealing, he said.

Franco, meanwhile, has begun mediating landlord-tenant disputes and conflicts between Latino residents and non-Latino city authorities, Hamilton said.

In a recent breakthrough, the two men helped calm a crowd of more than 50 people angered by a raid by the police and health department on women selling roasted corn from their apartments. They also convinced the police to stop handing out tickets to poor residents trying to earn money selling snacks on the streets, Hamilton said.

"These (residents) are scared to death of any uniformed people" because in their native countries they have faced the threat of arrest, torture and even death by officials in uniform, Hamilton said. He and Franco try to serve as intermediaries by explaining regulations to residents and explaining the residents' fear to the police.

Now, Hamilton said, in his neighborhood, "there's a sense of calm more than there's ever been."
Posted June 16, 1997

Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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