National Seminar: Mission Reconciliation
More than 200 women from across the United States gathered for training and action for justice at United Methodist Women’s “Mission: Reconciliation” National Seminar in Birmingham, Ala., Aug. 13-17. The city’s historic civil rights legacy served as the backdrop for equipping participants to work for reconciliation and the rebuilding of community — whether through advocacy, service or hospitality.
National Seminar is a quadrennial justice ministries leadership development event where United Methodist Women members renew their commitment to know God and to put that faith into action by working for justice. Throughout the event, participants engaged in Bible study, workshops, worship, field trips and actions to develop a critical analysis of the national and global issues that affect women, children and youth.
The training event equipped participants with critical analysis skills and provided an opportunity for them to share their understanding of justice realities in their communities. In a joint open letter to participants, Women’s Division Deputy General Secretary Harriett Jane Olson and President Inelda González called National Seminar “a time to name the places where we see God acting to bring justice to our world and to contribute to shaping a vision for the future.”
The theme of reconciliation arose out of a concern for the culture and rhetoric of hate that has intensified in the political sphere since the global economic crisis. The scriptural basis of the training came from 2 Corinthians 5:18-20:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, to be reconciled to God.
Working from this theme and practice of reconciliation, National Seminar participants focused on four justice issues:
- Climate change
- Domestic violence
- Human trafficking
Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Ph.D., a pioneer of mujerista, Latina feminist theology, led daily morning Bible studies that reflected on those issues and provided a theological context for justice work at National Seminar. Her Bible studies were titled “The Reconciling Practices of Jesus and of His Disciples Throughout the Ages.”
“The kin-dom of God is embodied in the reconciling practices of Jesus, those of his original disciples, and the reconciling practices of Jesus’ disciples throughout the ages,” she said.
Ms. Isasi-Diaz said justice emerges from reconciliation. She challenged participants to reflect on the question, “Are you a disciple of Jesus or an admirer of Jesus?” This distinction, she said, shaped the interpretation of how Jesus used reconciliation in his time and how we should view justice as a reconciliatory practice in our time. (See page 45.)
Interspersed with Bible study during plenary time was worship focusing on the brokenness that takes place before reconciliation, symbolized by a ritual of breaking plates and tiles participants brought from home. The women pieced their individual chards together in small reflection groups, which was also a venue to process the day’s workshops and experiences.
“I am blessed to end the day in reflection and prayer with these women,” blogged participant Sophia Agtarap. “We’ve laughed, cried and shared how the site visits and conversations have recalled experiences in our own lives that need reconciliation.”
At the end of the event, a local artist used the broken plates and tiles to create larger mosaics to symbolize healing and the repairing of the world, or tikkun olam. Participants chanted and sang this Hebrew phrase in opening and closing worship.
Moments of discovery
Reconciliation was a core component of the “ah-hah process” used during National Seminar group sessions led by Leah Wise of Southeast Regional Economic Justice Network and Pam Sparr, an economist and Women’s Division consultant on climate change. The two women helped participants discover relationships between the personal, institutional and cultural influences of the event’s four focus issues by drawing key elements of plenary discussions on a large board. The illustrations made connections between personal and systemic structures more apparent.
A lot of the “ah-hah” discoveries took place in smaller issue groups meeting separately on immigration, climate change, domestic violence and human trafficking. Participants analyzed how reconciliatory practice related to their group’s issue and strategized plans for local action around their issue.
Among the workshops offered was “Using Social Media for Social Justice,” a training on how to use Facebook, Twitter and UMWOnline as strategic tools for engagement, relationship building and organizing. Workshops on dancing, quilting, singing, storytelling and writing were also offered.
Birmingham’s special civil rights history was an important factor throughout National Seminar that helped contextualize the work of social justice in light of brokenness, reconciliation and community building.
At the Civil Rights Institute in downtown Birmingham, participants had a chance to learn and reflect on the city’s past and struggles for equality. Across the street from the institute was Kelly Ingram Park, which commemorated those who faced fire hoses and dogs during nonviolent civil disobedience against the lawful segregation of blacks and whites in the 1950s and 1960s.
Adjacent to the institute and the park is the 16th Street Baptist Church, a local headquarters for civil rights organizing in the early 1960s and site of the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing that killed four girls attending Sunday school and injured several others. Participants visited these and other community sites in and around Birmingham that related to the four issue groups, providing a local context for social justice organizing and action. Participants met with local activists to learn about their firsthand analysis and experience of the realities in Birmingham around each focus issue.
Site visits related to climate change began with a bus tour of Pratt City, Ala., a town severely damaged by the spring tornadoes and an impoverished community of color in Birmingham. Participants saw how a natural disaster could also become an economic disaster when impoverished communities get less or substandard infrastructure to sustain floods, tornadoes and storms. They also learned a name for this practice: environmental racism. “Damaged homes were often occupied by black and Hispanic single parent homes,” said the Rev. Eric Hall, a local Baptist minister who led the bus tour.
At McCoy Adult Day Care Center, participants stopped for lunch to hear from Alabama State Representative Juandalynn Givan, whose district includes Pratt City, and other local advocates for more mass transit in Birmingham. “We will recover from this storm because the people of Pratt City are resilient,” Ms. Givan said.
Birmingham transportation advocate Marva Douglas told participants the city needs mass transit.“The core of urban problems are transit problems,” she said. “The lack of mass transit affects health, education, jobs, family life and local communities.”
Ms. Douglas said lack of transportation prevents some people from finding work. “We make criminals when we don’t have mass transit,”she said.
National Seminar participants also had an opportunity to join local groups for public actions in support of immigrant and civil rights, victims of domestic violence and environmental justice over the course of an afternoon. A coalition of organizations rallied in Linn Park for drinkable water, breathable air and real transit solutions in Birmingham in the SOS, Save Our State, initiative.
Esmeralda Brown, coordinator of Women’s Division environmental justice work, said United Methodist Women members support sustainable communities and clean water and air. “We must have stewardship of the earth and hold ourselves responsible that Mother Earth be healthy again,” she said. “We are here to join the voices with the community to say yes, we’re here with you, and we are making calls to elected officials.”
The women also participated in a prayer vigil and witness for immigrant rights. Participants peacefully marched and held an interfaith vigil with other community and faith leaders to challenge Alabama’s immigration bill HB56. The law adopted June 1, 2011, went into effect Sept. 1, 2011, and is being challenged in the courts. United Methodist Bishop William H. Willimon of Alabama Conference joined two Catholic bishops in filing a lawsuit against the bill. Ten leaders from various faith communities called for welcoming all of God’s people, including immigrants.
One purpose of National Seminar is for participants to put their new knowledge into action back home. Technology, especially social media, helped make that possible.
At Connection Café, participants updated conference mission teams and local units on the day’s events. Women’s Division streamed several of the plenaries live on United Methodist Women’s website. Participants did “live Tweeting” via the microblogging site Twitter, enabling National Seminar to reach more people. Morning Bible studies were streamed daily at united?methodistwomen.org. There were enough “Tweeters” at National Seminar to convene an ad hoc “Tweetup,” where tweeting participants networked and shared how they use social ?media as United Methodist Women members.
Leigh Rogers is web content and public relations associate for the Women’s Division.