Building the beloved community: Shannon Beck assumes position as reconciliation catalyst

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has long been involved with the work of reconciliation in big ways and small. Over the past year, the denomination’s leadership has begun giving a new, more intentional focus to that work — hiring a “reconciliation catalyst” last spring as part of World Mission’s focus on three critical global issues of poverty, evangelism and reconciliation.

So what exactly does a “reconciliation catalyst” do?

SbeckThat’s a question that Shannon Beck, 51, still is figuring out in her first year on the job. She’s guided by the certainty that for the PC(USA)’s global partners and mission co-workers, issues involving reconciliation and non-violence are “central to what they are working with,” be it efforts to address inter-ethnic conflict in Sudan, assisting the victims of political violence in Honduras, or providing shelter for refugees in the Middle East. “They’re face-to-face with people in trauma,” Beck said.

With no staff at her disposal, “we’re connectors,” Beck said, helping congregations and presbyteries already involved with nonviolence work to build relationships with others who share that passion; to discover resources and best practices; and to understand better the needs that mission coworkers and regional coordinators find are of deep concern to the church partners in the places around the world where they serve.

Two early points of focus have emerged: violence in the home and human trafficking, two complex problems with implications for ministry both in the United States and overseas.

The World Health Organization estimates that 35 percent of women around the world at some point in their lives have faced abuse either from intimate partners or someone else they know, Beck said. And the agency estimates that 7 percent have had a violent encounter with someone they don’t know.

“All across the globe, the issue of women’s empowerment is huge,” Beck said. Part of her responsibility is to recognize that partner churches may have a distinct vision of their priorities, while the U.S. churches may have their own sense of call — and to seek ways and places where those pulls to ministry will intersect. She encourages Presbyterians to think holistically — to look at the big picture, not just their particular projects — and to educate themselves about the economic and political forces that underlie the human needs they are trying to address in ministry.

One example: the intersection between human trafficking and immigration.

“The trafficking of internationals into the United States is huge, particularly in port towns,” Beck said. Before taking this job, she worked in Seattle, where immigrants are “shipped in under other guises,” sometimes arriving on cargo ships or being promised jobs and better lives. What happens instead is that immigrants find themselves essentially coerced into forced labor — isolated, stripped of freedom, sometimes sexually assaulted, working nonstop for little pay in restaurants, domestic work, agriculture, or sometimes in prostitution.

Last summer, for example, while speaking at the Synod of the Lakes and Prairies’ annual Synod School in Iowa, Beck met a man who was distraught because he knew a family in which the wife was being pressured to have sex with her factory supervisor. The supervisor threatened to report her to the immigration authorities if she didn’t have sex with him — and the woman needed the job to support her family. Beck has heard of similar problems among migrant farm workers — where many workers have left their homes and are living with other migrants and sending much of the money they earn back home to support their extended families.

When pressured for sex, “what wouldn’t you do to feed your family?” Beck asked. “They’re trapped. Trapped perhaps in a situation that’s preferable to being in a brothel,” but still abusive.

What is reconciliation?

What exactly does reconciliation mean? In different contexts, Presbyterians may define the word differently, but Beck said “I see it as being grounded in the gospel, in who Jesus is and who Jesus calls us to be.”

While working on justice issues, “at all times we have to have a sense of humility,” a sense that all are broken, and a recognition that “ultimately it’s the Spirit’s work.” She said of reconciliation: “You can’t force it. That’s against what peace is about.”

Some also struggle with the connection between justice work and political advocacy, but Beck sees a strong theological groundwork for involvement in exploring the forces that lead to violence and discrimination — recognizing, for example, that violence against women and children is of concern all around the world. “Our faith affects all of our lives,” she said. “We are called to be a part of all the world,” and to demonstrate this to the victims of trauma: “We care.”

Beloved community.

Before beginning her work as the PC(USA)’s reconciliation catalyst, Beck lived in Seattle and had pieced together a combination of jobs that drew on her strengths as a musician, poet and songwriter; a peace and justice advocate (she chaired Seattle Presbytery’s Peacemaking Committee); and her love for the church. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Christian Education from Seattle Pacific University and a Master of Arts in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary.

“I felt that God was calling me into something,” so she asked a group of about a dozen friends and colleagues from around the country to pray with her, discern with her and to listen for what might be next, which they did for many months. When she heard of the new position in World Mission, Beck said she had a sense immediately that it was the right place for her.

“It was so clear to me,” she said. “When I walked into the interview room, I felt like I was walking in with a dozen people — the whole cloud of witness.” Whatever the outcome of the interview, “I just felt so blessed.”

Now, she is working to build connections among Presbyterians who are committed to the difficult and painful work of reconciliation — to “the building of the beloved community,” as Martin Luther King Jr. described it.

“Let’s not think that nonviolence is for wimps,” Beck said. “It takes so much creativity and strategic thinking. Self-control. It’s not inactive, it’s active … There’s so much to learn.”

Beck grew up in eastern Washington, the daughter of a dryland wheat farmer in a “very traditional, conventional narrow world.” As a young woman, she began working with homeless women and children in Seattle and began to learn about life in other settings.

“People in transition, they’re so raw … They don’t have the energy and the time for the filters,” Beck said. She began spending nights as a volunteer at the homeless shelter, helping to lead Bible studies, and over time became friendly with a young mother — sometimes watching the woman’s toddler during the days so the mother could run errands.

One day, the woman went out and when she returned said, excitedly, “Shannon, I didn’t prostitute myself. I stole the diapers!”

At first, Beck was taken aback — she hadn’t known the woman was a prostitute. Then she realized the young mother was selling her body to buy diapers and clothing for her child — and that she had no idea what it was like to exist like that. She also understood that the woman was trying to learn to live and imagine a different way.

“If we live isolated lives, in the academic world, the church world … if we live only there and we have no contact except for at a distance from people on the margins, there becomes a veil between us and them,” Beck said. “We don’t see them anymore. We’ve trained ourselves not to see them. If nothing else, we are called to really see each other, and to let our tears flow with theirs.”

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