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NCC Honors Oakland Religious Leaders
As Examples of 'Light' in the Community

Announces Grants to Four Doctoral Students
Who Excel in Biblical Scholarship

November 15, 2001, OAKLAND, CALIF.—The National Council of Churches (NCC) recognized outstanding achievements among the religious community in Oakland, Calif.—where the NCC General Assembly is meeting Nov. 13-15—with awards to the Rev. Ken Chambers, Sr., a West Oakland community organizer, and the Oakland-based Northern California Interreligious Conference (NCIC).

Honored at a November 14 dinner, Chambers and NCIC representatives received Waterford crystal candlesticks, symbols that they "are the light in our communities," as NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar put it. "They are models of reconciliation, understanding, justice and peace," he said.

Ambassador Andrew Young, NCC president for 2000-01, presented the President’s Award to the Rev. Chambers for his leadership in faith-based economic development projects in the highly stressed community of West Oakland. Chambers and his 150-member West Side Missionary Baptist Church have "become the hub of a community-wide effort at locally controlled development," Young said.

Chambers and his wife, Michelle Miles Chambers, founded the West Side Economic Development Corporation to bring jobs and economic stability to the area. Among the successes of the corporation and its many partners, was the opening of the Gateway Foods grocery store in January 2000. The store brings fresh, affordable food to consumers in an area that for the past decade has been abandoned by large grocery stores. Gateway Foods also created 60 jobs that pay living wages.

A predominantly African American community that was once prosperous, West Oakland suffered disproportionate job losses and other pressures when the post-World War II economic boom faded. It did not participate fully in Oakland’s recovery and faces a new challenge from gentrification.

"The question now is: Will West Oakland become a bedroom community for wealthy commuters or can it maintain the strength of its ethnic minority community, its churches and its community organizations?" Young said. "Ken Chambers is at work daily to answer that question in a way that favors development for the benefit of local residents."

Among other projects, West Side Economic Development Corporation owns the shopping plaza now anchored by Gateway Foods and has leveraged $7 million in public funds to renovate the entire complex.

The corporation also founded a community capacity-building organization, BEDROC (Building Equity, Discipline and Respect for Our Community), which Chambers serves as president and CEO. BEDROC’s core program links high-risk youth with mentors in congregations and provides them with pre-employment training and with job opportunities.

Chambers included members of the General Assembly in his remarks when he accepted the award. After September 11, he said, "the work ahead of us all is awesome. Let it be said that the religious community put their differences aside and worked arm in arm, hand in hand."

"We are all repairers of the breach," he said, referring to the Bible passage, Isaiah 58:12.

NCIC Tackles Issues Important to the State and to the World

The Northern California Interreligious Conference received the NCC General Secretary’s Award for its "leadership role on social justice issues central to California’s development." NCIC has acted on issues of energy use, welfare reform, and racism and other forms of discrimination, and it has fostered dialogue on the issue of same-gender marriage.

Jointly presenting the award were Dr. Bob Edgar and the Rev. John McCullough, executive director of Church World Service, the humanitarian assistance arm of the NCC. McCullough noted that during the ‘70s and ‘80s, at a time when Northern California received a huge influx of refugees and other immigrants, NCIC "worked closely with Church World Service to resettle newcomers from Central America, Southeast Asia and other areas of the world."

Founded in 1914, NCIC has evolved from a Christian organization into an interreligious group. It currently includes Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, and actively seeks relationships with people of other faiths, in what is a very religiously diverse area of the country. NCIC’s interreligious nature "is more important than ever," Edgar said, and the organization "has redoubled efforts to involve Muslims in educational events for the public" following September 11.

Accepting the award on behalf of NCIC was the Rev. Phil Lawson, the group’s president, pastor of Easter Hill United Methodist Church in Richmond, Calif., and a prominent area religious leader.

Lawson urged members of the General Assembly to go beyond working for Christian unity and to "look at all of humanity as one people." Lawson said, "Religions are only about 10,000 years old, but spirituality, religious feelings, go back three or four hundred thousand years. ... We need to include a role for the spiritual movement that is not religiously confined—that goes beyond Baptists and Buddhists.

"We have felt that here in Northern California," he said. "We are one people—in all the world. We are now bombing our sisters and brothers, our aunts and uncles, in Afghanistan," Lawson concluded, urging the General Assembly to use this moment to "expand our vision."

BTU Bible Scholars Announced

At the awards dinner, the NCC’s incoming president, Elenie Huszagh, Esq., announced the NCC’s Bible Translation and Utilization (BTU) Committee scholars for the 2001-2002 academic year. Each has received a $10,000 scholarship funded by royalties from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible and its predecessor, the Revised Standard Version, to which the NCC holds the copyrights.

Each year the NCC awards several grants to women and persons of color who are pursuing graduate degrees in biblical scholarship—in part to increase the diversity of the pool of scholars from which future Bible translators may be drawn. The scholarships are administered by the Fund for Theological Education in Atlanta, which shares this goal as part of its work toward excellence and diversity in Christian ministry and teaching.

Brief sketches of this year’s BTU Committee scholars follow:

Mitz J. Smith of the African Methodist Episcopal Church is receiving the Bishop Melvin G. Talbert Scholarship, the only BTU scholarship that is named. It honors Bishop Talbert, a retired United Methodist bishop and a former NCC president. Ms. Smith is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, where she studies New Testament and Early Christianity, with an emphasis on the books of Luke and Acts. An African American, she has an interest in biblical interpretation from African American perspectives. Her article "Roman Slavery in Antiquity" appeared in the African American Jubilee Bible.

Eun Suk Cho, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is pursuing a doctoral degree in Old Testament at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. A student whose mentors expect him to make "original and significant contributions" to biblical scholarship, he is at work on a dissertation that looks at how the dynamics of national separation and hopes for reunification played out in the ancient neighboring countries of Israel and Judah. A Korean American, he will compare these ancient societies with the Korea of today.

A doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., where he received the prestigious Presidential Scholarship, Uriah Yong-Hwan Kim has specialized in Hebrew Bible. His recent paper "Uriah the Hittite: A (Con) Text of Struggle for Identity" has been accepted for publication in Semeia, a journal of the national Society of Biblical Literature. His dissertation will continue to explore the construction of Israelite religious and ethnic identity. A member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Mr. Kim plans to work in the church and in his community and to teach in a seminary.

Love L. Sechrest, an African American student and a member of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, is enrolled in a doctoral program at Duke University in Durham, N.C., where she is engaged in New Testament studies. She has served as a teaching assistant at Duke, receiving high marks both from faculty and students, who project that she will make "an excellent teacher and scholar." In future work, she hopes to make a close examination of the theme of church unity, particularly as unfolded in the New Testament books, Galatians, Romans and Ephesians.

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