From January 13 through 17, 2009, at Arch Street Meetinghouse in Philadelphia, nearly 400 people from 48 Christian denominations and organizations, along with Jewish and Muslim participant-observers, met to participate in Heeding God’s Call: A Gathering on Peace. The gathering was hosted by the "Historic Peace Churches" (Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren) but strove to be widely ecumenical on all levels and was designed to deepen our understanding of the Christian gospel of justice and peace and to broaden and strengthen our voices and actions in response to God’s call for a peaceful world.
Participants gathered every morning inside the meetinghouse for programmed worship in song and prayer and for teaching through Scripture and sermons. Preachers through the week were Rev. James Forbes (UCC), Colin Saxton (EFI Northwest Yearly Meeting), Rev. Matthew Johnson (Baptist), and Bishop Gayle Harris (Episcopalian). Director of music for worship, and throughout the Gathering, was Rev. Elaine Kirkland (UCC).
Panel discussions followed worship each morning, highlighting specific aspects of peacemaking, exploring the faith basis of peace witness, and featuring representatives of faith-based advocacy groups in Washington, D.C. Panelists spoke of their struggles with the complexities of witnessing to a government that ostensibly works towards similar ends, but is separated from God and more than willing to compromise moral principles for practical, contemporary values. On Friday morning we heard reflections from the Muslim and Jewish participant-observers and a teaching from Rabbi Arthur Waskow on his participation the day before in a vigil at the Israeli Embassy, praying and speaking for peace amidst the violence exploding in Gaza.
In the afternoons, at several churches and other gathering points around Old City Philadelphia, there were workshops, small group discussions, and focus groups that formed to discuss a wide variety of national and global issues as well as methods of justice and peacebuilding.
Lunches and dinners were always an interesting affair, filled with conversation and fellowship. The Holiday Inn across the street hosted several workshops, many meals, and a Gathering bookstore. There were displays and information from a number of organizations from counter-recruitment to pro-life in the East Room of the meetinghouse where there was a steady stream of snacks, hot drinks, and conversation. These enhancements to the gathering nourished and entertained those who needed a break from one part of the gathering or another, feeling uncentered, restless, or perhaps simply unable to sit one more minute on the Arch Street benches!
The plenary speakers, Ched Myers, Alexie Torres-Fleming, and Vincent Harding, each provided witness to the power of faith in action. Ched spoke of the radical nonviolent message of Jesus, highlighting similarities between Jesus’ story and that of Martin Luther King Jr. He encouraged us to see the theological narrative of peace-building within the matrix of violence and the power of Empire. Alexie brought this narrative to life, speaking of her experience growing up and working in South Bronx, rebuilding a church after it was destroyed in retaliation for a public witness against the drug culture that was terrorizing the neighborhood.
In the final evening session of the gathering, Vincent Harding spoke of building radical relationships at every level and working against a mentality of "trickle down peace." He was a friend and colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., and primary speechwriter for his famous "Riverside Sermon." Vincent Harding accompanied us throughout the week by offering brief reflections and encouragements at the end of each morning, holding participants in the Light and acting as a wisdom guide and elder to the gathering.
Also woven throughout the week was an ongoing public witness to raise visibility of gun shops that walk tight to the line of legality while profiting knowingly and substantially from the illegal gun trade. In support of a weeks-long effort by Philadelphia religious leaders to convince the owner of Colosimo’s Gun Center (a leading supplier of crime guns) to adopt a Code of Conduct that would reduce the flow of illegal guns to the street, a campaign of public witness and civil disobedience was begun. On Wednesday afternoon, January 14th, activists from the Heeding God’s Call planning group entered the gun store and again asked the owner to sign the Code of Conduct. When the owner refused to sign, the five refused to leave the premises and were consequently arrested.
Twelve were arrested by the end of the week, with a constant afternoon presence outside the gun shop, building up to a full day of witness and community activity on Saturday, January 17th. Events on Saturday began with programs held simultaneously at nine different locations around the cities of Philadelphia and Chester. Forty-one local Partner Faith Communities joined together to plan and offer these morning programs of prayer, education, and action with speakers from local community organizations, city and state governments, hospitals, schools, police departments, and more. The day culminated in a plenary worship service, march, and rally in front of Colosimo’s gun shop by nearly 1,000 participants from local faith communities as well as Peace Gathering participants.
The gathering, which had been in planning for nearly two years, was designed to be not-your-usual conference. It was intentionally named a "gathering" and envisioned as a place where participants would worship and work together, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to develop new bonds, new ideas, and new energy for the work of building peace in themselves, their cities, the nation, and the world. All indications are that gathering participants were exercised, stretched, opened, and filled by the Spirit as they labored together to hear and heed God’s call.
Most importantly, participants continue to report stories of personal change, convincement, hearing the Gospel with new ears, and rekindling of passion of Christian justice and peacemaking.