by Karen Young
“I’m excited!” We heard these two words frequently from delegates and presenters in anticipation of the ONE Conference.
What was fueling the excitement? Perhaps it was the venue with its open design, bright lighting and pleasant, green landscape. Maybe it was the smiles and the friendliness of those welcoming delegates at registration. Whatever the reason, “I’m excited!” was a wonderful way to begin the conference. It suggested we were open to listening and learning, to meeting and interacting with new people, and open to the Spirit of God and to what He would do.
Dr. Michael Emerson, provost and professor at North Park University in Chicago, opened the conference with the message “God’s People Undivided: An Urgent Call for Humility, Justice and Courage.” He shared sobering data from recent research: “We live in a deeply polarized society…The less human contact we have, the less humane we are. This results in stereotypes, marginalized people and vilifying those who don’t think like us.” He challenged delegates to pursue the path of humility, justice and courage.
What is it like to enter into a culture other than one’s own and make it home? Soldier Jan Kelley shared her sojourn to the Cold Spring, Wis., Corps, a multilingual and multicultural corps. Speaking about the impact of language and cultural differences, she said, “Language doesn’t need to be a barrier; communication is bigger than the words we speak. Our worship of Jesus Christ is the binder, transforming everything.” Jan shared her experience with encountering differences as a child, the value of having children make friends with those who are different, and how these relationships have the potential to eliminate the fear of differences.
What a great start to our time together. Pastor Alexis Twito and Inspector Jutiki Jackson shared how The Salvation Army and the Milwaukee Police Department collaborated to respond to crisis which resulted in the chaplaincy program and mercy ministries in communities assaulted by violence and death. The program currently has more than 60 trained volunteer chaplains from more than 19 denominations and represents diversity of age, race, language and background.
Dr. Rolando Cuellar and the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra followed with biblical reflection and stories that helped to facilitate an understanding of the current state and the complexity of the immigration system.
“We need to develop a theology of immigration, reading the Bible with those who live on the margins, who experience adversity and oppression,” said Dr. Cuellar. “One of my biggest take-aways from the conference was the presentation by Reverend Alexia Salvatierra,” said Captain Ketsia Diaz, territorial intercultural ministries secretary. “She gave a beautiful example of how we can become insensitive to others’ pain….As believers, we cannot allow ourselves to be insensitive to those who come from different backgrounds and have different ways of life. We have to rely on the Holy Spirit to constantly remind us to love and support each other.”
A timely Q&A provided an opportunity for further discussion and interaction with the audience. Throughout the presentations, guests showed their passion and deep compassion for hurting individuals, families and communities. Each suggested a practical ministry approach. Reverend Alexia challenged delegates to have Jesus as their “first lens” and to feel, accompany and advocate as a biblical response.
Following the morning sessions, delegates attended workshops on six focus areas including cultural intelligence, community outreach, biblical foundations, cross-cultural leadership, sacred conversations, and Spanish.
“Having diverse speakers from other traditions sharing their views on what it means to be intercultural brought a different perspective on these issues and yet showed how we all still face the same challenges,” said Scott Holmlund, human resource manager and volunteer coordinator for the South Bend, Ind., Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center. “In our workshop Captain Nesan Kistan shared a powerful story on apartheid in South Africa and the effects of unconscious bias. His story and our discussion in small groups demonstrated how powerful these thoughts can affect even our hiring practices…I am challenged not to make assumptions on the basis of a resume but to allow myself to be open and listen to their stories without judgment.”
Joy Caro, soldier at the Aurora, Ill., Corps, added, “The One Conference was a great opportunity to learn from people that were different from myself. It was a chance get a different perspective on how even small actions can make a big difference in how someone will perceive me.”
On Saturday evening, through the story of Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 9:1-10), the Rev. Dr. Oliver Phillips testified that God’s grace is powerful and personal: #Grace. Highlights of that meeting’s worship included a dance presentation, solos by singing artist Nikki Lerner, a steel drum band, the Bill Booth Theater Company and the territorial praise band, the Singing Company, which also led worship throughout the weekend and taught the conference theme song, “Undivided,” written by Captain Patrick Holness.
“I especially liked participating in the combined steel drum orchestra because the mixture of instruments, musicians and music which I think is symbolic of beauty that can be created by interculturalism,” said Kristen Holness, the captain’s daughter and soldier at the St. Louis Euclid, Mo., Corps. “All of the main speakers mentioned they were ‘preaching to the choir,’ but even a great choir sometimes needs the help of a pitch pipe. To me, that is what the One Conference was.”
Imagine worship opening to scenes of chaos and destruction set to a cacophony of languages. These combined to be a powerful reflection on the conference scripture theme: “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25, NIV)
In a powerful presentation, Tito Rapley spoke of divisions outside of ourselves and those inflicted upon us that become a part of our identity. Prayers of confession followed for the role the church has played in maintaining the divisions. Then came the words of Ephesians 4:4-6 in different languages: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
“You get it!” exclaimed Commissioner Heidi Bailey as she encouraged delegates to live with intentionality to bring unity, acknowledging we are all imperfect people but love guides us. She continued, “There is so much more that unites us than divides us.”
Territorial Commander Commissioner Brad Bailey’s message, “A Journey into Undivided” based on Acts 10 focused on the challenges of becoming an inclusive body as demonstrated by Peter’s struggle in sharing the gospel with Cornelius and, by extension, to the Gentiles. He cited the account of the early Church’s historical awakening to the gospel’s absolute inclusion and said if we fully understood what this portion initiated within the church, we would applaud and scream just as much as when watching the video of Kenyan marathoner Eliud Kipchoge who recently ran the 26.2-mile distance in under two hours.
Shouldn’t the advance of God’s inclusive Kingdom work result in greater acclamations of praise? The Intercultural priority of the territory’s Mission Imperative encourages us to be fully engaged within our communities; celebrating the uniqueness and reflecting the diversity of our local neighborhoods—a visible testimony that all are “created in the image of God.” We are to be an Army marked by: active awareness, mutual openness, consistent grace, unconditional love, and practical equity.
At the ONE Conference Salvationists in the Central Territory lived this out, and their enthusiasm will echo across the territory as we pursue together, with hearts and hands, a ministry that fully reflects the Body of Christ.