Thursday, January 29, 2009

Heeding God’s Call brings peace churches together for common effort.

"Heeding God’s Call: A Gathering on Peace" sponsored by the three Historic Peace Churches--Church of the Brethren, Quakers, and Mennonites--in Philadelphia on Jan. 13-17 has brought together people of faith for a common peacemaking effort. The gathering saw the launch of a new faith-based initiative against gun violence in America’s cities (see stories below), and produced a joint "epistle" as well as more than 20 focus statements for future cooperation.

The event was held alongside a series held by the peace churches on different continents, this time in the United States. Previous peace church gatherings have been held in Europe, Africa, and Asia. In 2010 a meeting of the peace churches in the Americas will be held. The peace churches also will be represented at a World Council of Churches meeting signaling the close of the Decade to Overcome Violence, in Jamaica in 2011.

"The significance of the event has been for the American peace churches to participate in the global effort to hold consultations on issues of peacemaking in the 21st century," said Stan Noffsinger, general secretary of the Church of the Brethren. "During this time when the US has been seen as such an aggressor by the rest of the world, it was most important for us to bring the Historic Peace Churches together with others who believe there is another way of living."

Set in the historic district of Philadelphia, Heeding God’s Call gathered within blocks of Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and other famous sites from the revolutionary period of American history.

The gathering met at Arch Street Meeting House, a historic Quaker meeting house, for daily worship and plenaries. The group included delegations from the peace churches along with invited participants from other Christian traditions and church-related nonprofits, as well as observers from the Jewish and Muslim faiths. It was reported that a total of 23 faith traditions were represented among the 380 participants.

On the "facing bench" in the Quaker style of worship were leaders from the three convening groups: Thomas Swain, presiding clerk of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends; Susan Mark Landis, peace advocate for the Mennonite Church USA; and Noffsinger as general secretary of the Church of the Brethren.

Other meetings brought participants to Philadelphia’s Constitution Center and Visitors’ Center. On one evening, a "World Café"--rounds of small group discussions to develop focus areas for the gathering--was held on the upper floor of the Constitution Center while cool jazz was played by the Anderson Cooper Project, and desserts were served.

Many different speakers and preachers led in addressing the theme, "Strengthening our witness and work for peace in the world by inspiring hope, raising voices, taking action." At the opening plenary, speakers included National Council of Churches (NCC) general secretary Michael Kinnamon, who brought greetings from the wider ecumenical movement, and James A. Forbes Jr., senior minister emeritus of Riverside Church in New York who gave the opening address.

Vincent Harding, chair of the "Veterans of Hope Project: A Center for the Study of Religion and Democratic Renewal" at Iliff School of Theology and a noted Civil Rights activist and author, gave daily reflections. Plenary speakers included Ched Myers, a biblical scholar and director of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries, who offered a biblical analysis of Jesus Christ as a nonviolent activist; and Alexie Torres Fleming, founder of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice in the South Bronx, N.Y., who told her story of becoming involved in neighborhood organizing against drug-related violence.

Preachers included Colin Saxton, superintendent of the Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends Church, based in Newberg, Ore.; Matthew V. Johnson Sr., national executive director of Every Church a Peace Church and pastor of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Atlanta, Ga.; Gayle Harris, suffragan bishop of the Episcopal Church Diocese of Massachusetts; and Donna Jones, who works with inner-city youth at Cookman United Methodist Church in Philadelphia.

A panel on the "Faith Basis of Our Peace Testimonies" featured speakers from the three Historic Peace Churches. Brethren speakers were Belita Mitchell, a past moderator of Annual Conference and pastor of First Church of the Brethren in Harrisburg, Pa.; Mimi Copp, a Church of the Brethren member living in an intentional Christian community in Philadelphia; and Jordan Blevins, assistant director of the Eco-Justice Program of the NCC. A second panel discussion on "Speaking Truth to Power" was given by church and nonprofit staff who work in Washington, D.C., including Phil Jones, director of the Brethren Witness/Washington Office.

In addition to worship and plenary sessions, participants met in small groups for discussion, ate meals together, and were invited to support and take part in daily witnesses against gun violence.

The gathering closed Jan. 17 with a day of worship, education, and action in sanctuaries and meeting houses across the city, focused on the gun violence that has been causing hundreds of deaths a year in Philadelphia. Participants traveled to one of nine host faith communities--seven churches, a synagogue, and a student center--where morning programs were planned and led by several congregations jointly in each sanctuary. A total of 40 partner faith communities from Philadelphia took part, including Christian, Muslim, and Jewish congregations.

That afternoon, an interfaith service was held at Holy Ghost Church, prior to a march to Colosimo’s Gun Center. Organizers said the day’s events were planned "to confront the avoidable tragedy of gun violence in our communities," and that the store was identified as a focus for the campaign as "a leading supplier of crime guns." The march included hundreds of people according to the Brethren Witness/Washington Office, and marked the end of the gathering.

An "epistle" or letter written from the gathering issued an invitation to "all people everywhere" to heed the call to peacemaking. The epistle committee included James Beckwith, pastor of Annville (Pa.) Church of the Brethren and a former moderator of Annual Conference. "We believe this is indeed a time when peace can happen," the letter said in part. "Awaken with us to this new opportunity to act as the united Body of Christ, along with friends of peace everywhere, in a world desperately in need of justice and peace." (Go to for the full text.)

Also created were more than 20 focus statements identifying priorities for ongoing work. Topics ranged from becoming a Living Peace Church, to building community that supports radical Christian living, to recognizing and overcoming racism, to working on disagreements about human sexuality. Some focus groups highlighted current political situations including the violence in Gaza, the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, immigration concerns, and the issue of torture.

Church of the Brethren representatives who helped plan and organize the gathering included Stan Noffsinger, Church of the Brethren general secretary, and Bob Gross, executive director of On Earth Peace, who served on the advisory committee. The steering committee included Phil Jones, director of the Brethren Witness/Washington Office, and On Earth Peace board members Don Mitchell and Jordan Blevins.

"We are not alone," Noffsinger said, reflecting after the meeting on what the peace churches have learned from the gathering. "We may approach the ways to make peace through different expressions...but we are not alone. We shouldn’t hesitate to seek peace and pursue it."

A photo journal of Heeding God’s Call will soon be available at (click on "News" to find the link for photo journals). Go to for audio recordings of the major presentations. For more information contact Phil Jones, director of the Brethren Witness/Washington Office, at

Source: 1/28/2009 Newsline Special

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