“Unforced Rhythms of Grace” invites rest, accompaniment and lament at APCE’s annual event

“God has been weaving the thread.”

Jami Haswell-Vandock and Mary-Todd Peters are the longest-reigning annual event co-chairs in APCE history — at least, that’s the ongoing joke.

The pair originally agreed to co-chair the 2022 conference in the early weeks of January 2020, when COVID outbreaks were located across oceans and in small numbers in large cities. Fast forward three years and a lot of administrative maneuvering, and the conference they’ve designed alongside 16 other members of the annual events team is finally coming to fruition.

Next week from Jan. 25-28, more than 600 people will attend the annual gathering of the Association of Partners in Christian Education (APCE) in Birmingham, Alabama, with over 500 of those attendees in person and the rest attending the conference online, which will be offered in Spanish as well as English.

Jami Haswell-Vandock and Mary-Todd Peters are co-chairs of the 2023 APCE Annual Event.

The theme of the conference this year is “Unforced Rhythms of Grace,” the roots of which were largely inspired by Eugene Peterson’s translation of Matthew 11:28-30: “Are you tired, worn out, burned out on religion? Come to me, get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest, walk with me and work with me. Watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (The Message).

One essential “unforced rhythm of grace” that the conference will invite attendees to explore is rest.

“We were feeling like professional and volunteer educators and pastors needed a place where they could go and have some pastoral care for themselves,” said Peters, who is the director of Christian education at New Hope Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

To encourage rest, the annual events team designed the conference with intentional wiggle room in the schedule. Attendees do not have to take a certain number of workshops. They can choose to spend their time connecting with people, sitting quietly in the spirituality center, and “even taking a nap if they need to,” said Peters.

This type of freedom may feel unnatural to attendees, who feel a responsibility to make the most out of every continuing education opportunity since budgets, especially at small churches, are tight, but Haswell-Vandock and Peters want attendees to see that the right to rest is essential.

As Peters put it, “You cannot minister to others if you are not fully rested.”

While the events team was exploring the biblical invitation to rest, they landed on a location – Birmingham, Alabama – and more “Unforced Rhythms of Grace” were revealed: accompaniment and lament.

A plaque near the entrance of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Photo by Ciku Theuri, posted on WBUR’s Here & Now website.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four known members of the Ku Klux Klan used dynamite to kill four girls – Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14), and Carol Denise McNair (11) – and injure a couple dozen more people. The violent act, which Martin Luther King Jr. called “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,” is seen as a turning point in the civil rights movement and contributed to support for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Peters and Haswell-Vandock noted how they felt there was a strong connection between the questions and themes they were designing for the conference to explore as well as the questions that Birmingham as a city and the United States as a country would be prompted to explore during this anniversary.

“How do we hold space for the traumas that we’ve dealt with and experienced in the past while also trying to carve out a path forward that is hopefully looking towards what might be a better future?” elaborated Haswell-Vandock, who serves as the director of faith formation at Raleigh Moravian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The Civil Rights Institute is located in Birmingham, Alabama, close to the conference center hosting APCE this year. Photo originally published by the Civil Rights Trail.

There is a temptation as church staff, Haswell-Vandock noted, to rush in and fix a problem. “What would it look like to come alongside and listen?”

And so, in addition to inviting conference attendees to rest, the 2023 APCE conference will invite attendees to be still, to listen, to lament. This invitation will take many shapes and sizes, including:

  • Multiple scheduled visits to the Civil Rights Institute, which is less than a mile from the conference center and across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church.
  • A daylong pilgrimage will be taking place to Montgomery, Alabama, to visit the Equal Justice initiative.
  • There will be a panel of Freedom Riders, which will be a workshop option on Thursday for both in-person and online attendees.
  • Thanks to a grant from First Presbyterian Church in Dunedin, Florida, there will be a free performance by the Red Mountain Theater of the play “Memorial” on Thursday evening. The play, written by Birmingham native Quinton Cockrell, tells the stories of the 29 recorded individuals who were lynched from 1883 to 1940 in Jefferson County, where Birmingham is located. The performance will be streamed live for online attendees and will be followed by conversation circles.
  • Several of the speakers, including Michael W. Waters, will explore the themes of lament and accompaniment in their talks. Waters is the founder and lead pastor of the Abundant Life African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas, and works as an author, activist and social commentator.

The goal, it seems, was to offer a conference layered with meaning, ripe with opportunities for further exploration.

Between the invitations to rest and accompany and lament, “Unforced Rhythms of Grace” seems to promise a layered experience for all those who attend in-person or online. For Peters and Haswell-Vandock, this was both their goal and where the Spirit was leading them.

“Our leadership team stretches every corner of the continental United States, and it was amazing how every time we got together to share our individual work, it’s come together so nicely,” Haswell-Vandock said. “There’s a real connection between the Scripture and location and speakers and opportunities.”

“God has been weaving the thread,” she said.

Those interested in attending the conference online can register here. Registration for the online conference will not close.