NCC Annual Gathering Marks New Ecumenical Focus on Interfaith Peacemaking, Mass Incarceration

The National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC) held its second annual Christian Unity Gathering on May 7-9 near Washington, D.C. The gathering focused on interfaith peacemaking and mass incarceration, and related topics including Christian responses to police brutality. Some 200 people attended, including leaders from a wide spectrum of Christian traditions.

Church of the Brethren staff at the gathering were Nathan Hosler, director of the Office of Public Witness, and Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director of News Services. Wendy McFadden, Brethren Press publisher, also attended a highlight event of the gathering–a commemoration of the Armenian Genocide at the Washington National Cathedral. The service commemorated 100 years since the Armenian Genocide began in 1915, and was attended by thousands of descendants of survivors of the genocide. Vice President Biden was among religious and political dignitaries who were there. See the Newsline report at .

Areas of ecumenical focus

Currently, the NCC is pursuing two main areas of ecumenical work: building interfaith relations with an emphasis on peacemaking, and ending mass incarceration. Both were addressed by keynote speakers and panelists at this 2015 gathering.

In advance of the gathering, the NCC sponsored a letter to the US Attorney General calling for full investigation into the situation in Baltimore, in support of Mayor Rawlings-Blaker’s request for a pattern and practice investigation into the Baltimore Police Department.

Following up on the gathering, the NCC Governing Board issued “A Call to Police Reform and Healing of Communities,” a statement calling on federal, state, and local governments to take positive action in response to incidents of police brutality and the killing of African Americans by police.

“The incidents of police brutality resulting in major injuries and death are taking place so often we can barely keep up with the reports,” the statement said, in part. “This is a national problem that calls for a federal, state, and local response.” See the full text of the NCC Governing Board statement below.

Interfaith and international speakers

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee of Liberia receives a standing ovation from the NCC Christian Unity Gathering

American Baptist leader Roy Medley, who chairs the NCC Governing Board, noted scriptural implications of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue when, on the first morning, he invited prayer for the gathering: “The work that we have come here to do is important work, for the ministry of reconciliation has been entrusted to us. And therefore we need to pray.”

Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee of Liberia keynoted the first morning session, but was just one of the outstanding speakers invited to present or be part of panel discussions. Also speaking at an evening banquet sponsored by the World Council of Churches (WCC) was Olav Fykse Tveit, WCC general secretary, who presented a wide-ranging discussion of the worldwide implications of Christian churches’ common work toward a just peace.

Interfaith panelists included Naeem Baig, president of the Islamic Circle of North America and moderator of Religions for Peace; Rabbi Gerald Serotta, executive director of the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington; Jared Feldman, vice president and Washington director of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs; and Sayyid M. Syeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America’s Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances.

One panel on the intersections between interfaith peacemaking and the problem of mass incarceration in the US included Gbowee, Feldman, and Syeed, with Walter Fortson, who holds a master’s in criminology and is an academic counselor at Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility in New Jersey, and Angelique Walker-Smith, national associate director for African-American and African church engagement at Bread for the World.

Photo by Wendy McFadden
The commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, held at the Washington National Cathedral, was co-sponsored by the National Council of Churches and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The panel noted the high percentage of Americans who are affected by or vulnerable to incarceration, in particular the African-American community, and the number of “motivations” for US society to continue to put large numbers of people into prison. Contributing factors are racism, poverty, failings in the nation’s education system, privatization of prisons, the militarization of police, and the fracturing of the criminal justice system into many different state and local systems, among others.

In the face of this many-faceted problem, speakers urged churches to work harder at engaging people who are affected personally by incarceration and those most vulnerable to incarceration. Walker-Smith called Christians from different traditions to “come together to create spaces before, during, and after incarceration.” She advised churches not to compartmentalize but to integrate ministries such as food pantries and student mentoring with prison ministries, in order to meet the needs of the most vulnerable and help prevent their incarceration.

Others called for an interfaith movement to address mass incarceration. “Now is the right time for the interfaith community to come together to put a framework on the issue of mass incarceration,” said Feldman. The faith community is the only one in the nation who can “inject the moral context” at a time when the political discourse about mass incarceration has been dominated by the issue of cost, he said.

“Dealing with the mass incarceration issue is necessary to build the kind of just society we’re working for,” Feldman told the gathering.

Convening tables

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
The NCC’s new “convening tables” are opportunities for church staff from across a variety of Christian traditions, along with other church volunteers and activists, to discuss possibilities and priorities for common work and joint advocacy efforts.

Four “convening tables” also held meetings during the gathering. Since the NCC has been restructured over the past few years, and is no longer a representative decision-making body, the convening table structure has been put in place alongside a Governing Board made up of heads of communion of member churches. The NCC’s restructuring and re-envisioning began in the fall of 2012 (see the Newsline report “Major US ecumenical organizations restructure” at ).

Convening tables are an opportunity for meetings and discussion among staff of denominations or communions, and church volunteers and activists doing work in the four areas. The convening tables talk together about possibilities and priorities for common work and common advocacy efforts. They also share information and resources.

The four convening tables are:
— Christian Education, Ecumenical Faith Formation, and Leadership Development
— Theological Dialogue and Matters of Faith and Order
— Interreligious Relations
— Joint Action and Advocacy for Justice and Peace.

Church of the Brethren staff Nate Hosler is part of the Joint Action and Advocacy for Justice and Peace convening table. General secretary Stanley J. Noffsinger has been part of the Governing Board, although he was unable to attend this year’s gathering.

James E. Winkler is NCC general secretary and president. He is a former general secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. In 2013 the NCC left its historic headquarters in New York, moving to offices in Washington, D.C.

New resources

Following up on a main topic of the Christian Unity Gathering, the NCC is offering two new resources on mass incarceration: a List of Resources on Mass Incarceration, and a Starter Kit put together by its Christian Education, Ecumenical Faith Formation, and Leadership Development Convening Table. Both are available on the Mass Incarceration priority page of the NCC website at .

The NCC also is extending an invitation to a WCC webinar on “Evangelism and Migrant Churches,” part of a series on Evangelism in the 21st Century organized by the WCC in cooperation with the NCC, and in consultation with the Canadian Council of Churches. The webinar also is supported by the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship. Register for the webinar at .

The full text of the NCC Governing Board statement on police reform follows:

A Call to Police Reform and Healing of Communities: A statement of the National Council of Churches Governing Board:

In their cry, “No justice, no peace,” protesters in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, and in other cities across the country are expressing the same sentiments of disappointment and frustration as the prophet Habakkuk when he proclaimed,

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
   and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
   and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
   and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
   strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
   and justice never prevails” (Habakkuk 1:2-4a).

The root of justice and peace is a moral belief in the intrinsic worth of all human life. The advancement of technology and use of social media have brought to light evidence of a disturbing truth–the lives of African Americans, particularly those in impoverished communities, are not valued as much as those of the wealthy and affluent. The misdirected “War on Drugs” and “get tough on crime” policies of the past decades have given birth to militarized police forces that do not best serve the people and communities they are mandated to keep safe.

The high-profile deaths of unarmed African Americans at the hand of police in Ferguson, Staten Island, North Charleston, and most recently Baltimore are not isolated incidents. The incidents of police brutality resulting in major injuries and death are taking place so often we can barely keep up with the reports. This is a national problem that calls for a federal, state, and local response.

According to the website Mapping Police Violence (, approximately 304 African Americans were killed by police in 2014. This documentation is a collaborative project of private researchers and activists because no public or federal database is kept of this information.

In times like these people can be heard asking, “Where is the faith community,” or, “Is the church relevant?” The answers can be found where the faith community is in the middle of the pain and the healing. Persons affiliated with the NCC through our member communions serve as prison and police chaplains; they are police and persons serving time, returning citizens and family members, victims and perpetrators, pastors and community leaders. In the midst of civil unrest breaking out in cities across the country, our faith leaders have been at the forefront of peaceful protest actions and providing pastoral care for the community.

We commend and support law enforcement agencies that model good community policing, and in the tradition of advocating for justice and peace and inspired by the prophet Isaiah to serve as “repairers of the breach” we call for an overhaul of the justice system that brings about reconciliation and restoration. To this end we recommend the following steps towards police reform:

— Incorporate conflict transformation training as part of police training and a standard alternative or additional option for addressing offenses and criminal infractions.

— Reward police departments and officers for effective community policing strategies rather than arrest and ticketing quotas.

— Make training mandatory and continue to update for all law enforcement on issues of cultural sensitivity, interaction with the mentally ill, and responding to sexual assaults.

— Implement nationwide mandatory use of body cameras and provide federal funding for communities that cannot afford them. We reject attempts by municipalities to hide behind FOIA laws and other restrictions.

— Discipline police officers who do not wear their badges or provide business card with name and badge number when requested.

— Address the militarization of the police department and the abusive manner in which military surplus equipment has been used.

— Address the underlying problem of over-criminalization and the indiscriminate application of laws implemented by local police departments and the impact it has on communities and families.

Issued by the National Council of Churches’ Governing Board upon the occasion of the Christian Unity Gathering, May 7-9, 2015.

— Since its founding in 1950, the NCC has been the leading force for shared ecumenical witness among Christians in the United States. The NCC’s 37 member communions from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African-American, and Living Peace churches, include 45 million people in more than 100,000 congregations across the nation. For more about the NCC go to .

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