Rev. Adam Russell Taylor, president of Sojourners, delivers a keynote presentation at Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s Shalom Academy on Tuesday evening. Photos: EMU/Macson McGuigan.

Faith leaders from across country flock to Shalom Academy at Eastern Mennonite Seminary

At a time of deepening political polarization in the country, said Rev. Adam Russell Taylor, many churches have embraced one of two extremes.

The first extreme, he told the crowd of about 40 assembled on Tuesday evening, is to become increasingly politicized and partisanized, “where our Christian faith becomes subservient to our political identity.”

“Put another way, our political loyalty and identity becomes a proxy for what Christian faithfulness should look like,” he said. “I believe that this is a fundamental form of idolatry.”

The other extreme, he explained, is to become apolitical and to “believe that our politics are so polarized and broken and corrupted that the solution is to withdraw entirely.”

“Our democracy, as flawed as it may be — our decision not to engage with politics is often an endorsement of the status quo,” Taylor said. “Our decision not to vote, not to engage, not to participate, then becomes a way to prop up what is currently so often wrong or unjust. … We cannot advance shalom without being engaged in politics.”

Although there is no “magic bullet” to cure the toxic polarization in our communities, he admitted, it is imperative that Americans share a baseline understanding of “how we’ve gotten to where we are.”

“Tied to that, we will be a house divided against itself if we don’t have a shared moral vision about where we want to go,” he said.

Taylor, one of two keynote speakers at Shalom Academy 2024, is the president of Sojourners and the author of A More Perfect Union: A New Vision for Building the Beloved Community (2021). His address, titled “Where Do We Go From Here: Toxic Polarization or the Beloved Community?” pointed to some of the causes fueling the stark political divide in the country and urged faith leaders to work toward building a “beloved community.”      

“My most succinct definition of what beloved community is all about is to build a society, to build a nation, where neither punishment nor privilege is tied to race, to ethnicity, to gender, to sexual orientation, to ableness,” he said. “It is to create a society and a nation where our diversity truly is embraced as a strength and not a weakness. It is to create a society and a nation where everyone is respected and everyone is enabled to thrive.”

Above, below: Shalom Academy participants join in worship music on Monday evening.

Shalom Academy 2024, held at Eastern Mennonite Seminary from Monday, Jan. 8, to Wednesday, Jan. 10, drew 80 pastors, ministers and laity to campus for its workshops, seminars, worship and fellowship opportunities. Participants traveled from 10 states for the event, from as far away as California and Manitoba, Canada.

The theme of the three-day conference, “Pursuing Community in a Divisive World,” offered a place to learn and reflect on the practices that move congregations past divisiveness and toward peace, both within their walls and in their larger communities.

This was the first year that Shalom Academy, formerly known as the School for Leadership Training (SLT), used its new name. For 54 years, SLT has equipped pastors with tools needed for deepening the effectiveness of their ministries.

Courtney Joyner, director of the seminary’s Lilly Foundation “Thriving in Ministry” grant funding the event, called Shalom Academy 2024 a great success:

“Everyone who contributed brought their best selves to the task, giving us a thoughtful and engaging conference. I am so grateful to each one for the gifts that they so freely gave to us this week.”

“The conversations I had with participants during the breaks confirmed what I sensed — that they were getting skills and ideas that would be put to immediate use in their ministries. Several expressed how the speakers and leaders motivated them to be courageous faith leaders in this time of deep polarization in our society.”

Rev. Melissa Florer-Bixler, an author and pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church in North Carolina, speaks about the upcoming election year on Monday evening.

If you have any of the following people in your church, Rev. Melissa Florer-Bixler told the crowd during her keynote presentation, their lives will be impacted by outcomes from the 2024 presidential election.

Those people include: “Migrants, refugees, anyone on Medicaid, anyone on Medicare, disabled people, LGBTQ people, children, women, people who want to live in homes, people who want to drink water, people who plan to live for 20 more years, and anyone who cares about anyone on that list.”

Florer-Bixler, author of How to Have an Enemy: Righteous Anger and the Work of Peace (2021) and the pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church in North Carolina, offered guidance on what to expect in the presidential campaign season and how to navigate the challenging waters ahead. Her address, titled “Ministry During the Election Cycle: Politics Without Despair,” pulled from stories in the Gospel of Matthew as well as from her own experiences leading a church.

She called on faith leaders to offer sanctuary to the most vulnerable in their congregations. During presidential election years, she said, communities experience a spike in hate crimes, often directed against Black people, Jews, Muslims and LGBTQ people.

She also encouraged them to cultivate joy by telling better stories, including those in Scripture of hope, subversion and abundance.

“We have a genealogy of joy that extends through the lives of people who have lived at times much like ours,” Florer-Bixler said. “People who have also lived at the end of the world, who have lived in disaster, who found their way to collectively and persistently proclaim ‘Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.’ And they have also given us what we need in order to witness to the risen Jesus Christ in our lives.”

Justin Poole commands the stage as German dissident and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Bonhoeffer: Cell 92 on Tuesday.

EMU professors Justin Poole and Jerry Holsopple revived their multimedia production of Bonhoeffer: Cell 92 for Shalom Academy participants. The one-man play, which incorporates powerful film footage and a haunting cello score, breathes life into the struggles and friendships of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A Christian theologian, anti-Nazi dissident and spy, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for his opposition to Hitler and the Nazi regime in World War II. He spent one and a half years in prison before being hanged in April 1945, just weeks before the end of the war.

The play debuted at EMU in January 2022 and was performed in Vienna, Austria, that spring.

There’s one last chance to watch the play before its final curtain call.

Bonhoeffer: Cell 92 returns to the MainStage Theater
on Friday, Jan. 12, at 7 p.m.

Tickets for the show are $9 for general admission and $5 for students.

Above, below: Shalom Academy participants engage in conversation circles at the Eastern Mennonite Seminary on Tuesday morning.

Small groups gathered in conversation circles on Tuesday and Wednesday, where they discussed topics such as “Climate Justice in a Divisive World,” “Reading Scripture as a Community” and “What is God Like?”

Lana Miller, a member of Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, led a conversation circle on “Incorporating Economic Justice in Ministry Settings.”

As a stewardship consultant for Everence Federal Credit Union, she said her job is to help people think about how their faith impacts what they do with their money. “I love these kinds of conversation spaces because I want to keep helping people grapple with the fact that having money and what we choose to do with the money we have makes a difference in the world we live in,” she said in an interview after the discussion. “Leading that conversation circle is part of my work and it’s what I’m passionate about.”

Join the Discussion on “Faith leaders from across country flock to Shalom Academy at Eastern Mennonite Seminary

  1. This is such important work; thank you for helping to lead in this way. Might the effort be better represented by an inclusive name such as The Salaam Shalom Academy? As Christians, our historic roots through Jesus’ heritage are strong and valuable but the enduring, tragic conflicts speak to our need for sensitivity to unintended messages as we attempt the work of peace-making. A suggestion offered peacefully.

    1. Amen, sister! With the increased hatred and bloodshed in the world, I would love to see at least dozens of words in other languages and English transliterations for the word peace be included in the name of the Academy, and less of the Judeo-Christian influence that has dominated our culture. We definitely can do better.

  2. Looks like a good time was had by all, and that there was some wonderful learning and unity being built. I’m pleased to see that white, married, heterosexual, Christian, naturally-born conservative males finally didn’t make the list of those who will be impacted by the upcoming election. There’s no way they will ever be impacted. They’ve only ever stood in the way of authentic shalom for far too long. I’m pleased that we all can finally move on. I hope to make it to a Shalom Academy in the near future. It’s only upwards from here!! God bless everyone!!

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