A glance back: Reliving an electrifying 2024 Space for Grace & Spiritual Caregivers Conference

VALLEY FORGE, PA (04/26/2024)—Inspired by Colossians 3:16, the theme of the 2024 Space for Grace & Spiritual Caregivers Conference, ABHMS’ signature national gathering, was “Engaging Intergenerational Faith: Listen. Learn. Live.” This biennial event, which convened in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and also streamed live, offered multiple plenary sessions, a wide selection of learning experiences across two tracks, celebratory luncheons, and ample networking opportunities to hundreds of engaged conferencegoers over three days beginning April 9.

“Space for Grace is always wonderful, it always has vision, a lot of dynamic speakers and leadership, and just a lot of high, holy spiritual energy,” said the Rev. Ivan Marable from First Baptist Church of Rochester, New York, who attended on site. “But at this particular conference, there’s a kind of shift, a particular vision, serious reality-checking going on. It’s the Holy Spirit moving like that, I’ve never seen that happen before.”

The conference was energetic and stimulating throughout. Attendees praised the speakers and presenters, were enraptured by the rousing music, and enjoyed true fellowship with one another as they worshiped, learned, lunched and relaxed together. Ballrooms and hallways buzzed with conversations, connections old and new, and a Spirit-filled commitment to honoring the Body of Christ.

Honoring its theme, the conference bridged the past and future in many ways. It emphasized the importance of continuing to serve in the love of Christ and being radical in that love, yet with a particular focus on partnering with people of younger generations. There was a “sense of urgency to invite emerging generations of Christians to share leadership in casting the vision for the Beloved Community, shaping its cultural, moral and spiritual contours,” said Dr. Jeffrey Haggray, ABHMS executive director, in his opening remarks.

This commitment threaded through all the plenary sessions and learning experiences.

On the first day of the conference, the opening plenary featured the Rev. Dr. Michael Koppel, Howard Chandler Robbins professor of pastoral theology and congregational care at Wesley Theological Seminary. His keynote presentation insightfully showed the connections between our bodies and faith formation throughout life. He also talked about the havoc that toxic narratives about the body can wreak on our lives.

That evening, keynote speaker the Rev. Abner Cotto-Bonilla, ABHMS national coordinator for Latino Ministries, cited Mark 10:13-16, in which Christ said, “Let the little children come to me,” and rebuked the disciples who wished to keep the children away from Him. Reflected Cotto-Bonilla, “We can learn about faith from any generation.”

The second day began with the Rev. Dr. Sarah Drummond, founding dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School, addressing attendees of the morning plenary. “We have to assume that even those with foundations of faith have unlearning to do,” she said in her keynote.

In the evening plenary session, the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, president and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund, expounded on the importance of subverting the negative image of Black masculinity in the West. “What if we understood that the cries of the boys, of children, are the words of God?” asked Wilson. “What if we understood that children have authority and understood their tears as a call from God to do something about what’s going on in the world?” Wilson’s potent message elicited tears from many witnesses and garnered a standing ovation.

The conference concluded with renowned academics and scholars the Rev. Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim and the Rev. Dr. Theresa Thames taking the stage as plenary speakers. Kim, professor of theology at Earlham School of Religion, awakened her morning audience with an inspiring presentation. Thames, associate dean of religious life and of the chapel at Princeton University, closed the event with a stirring address that brought conferees to their feet.

The 2024 Space for Grace & Spiritual Caregivers Conference also featured celebratory luncheons.

Judson Press commemorated its 200th anniversary at a special noontime jubilee honoring ABHMS’ storied publishing ministry. The Rev. Dr. G. Travis Norvell, a Judson Press author, and Judson Press Publisher the Rev. Dr. Cheryl Price opened the celebration, and the Rev. Dr. Leslie Copeland, chief operating officer at the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, gave the luncheon address.

Preceded by the joyous sounds of party horns and applause, Copeland powerfully announced “this is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it. … As we look at Judson Press’s 200 years, what will it take for the next 200 years for us to pass the faith on to the next generation? … We’ve got the power and the authority to do exactly as God has called us to do.”

The luncheon on day two spotlighted chaplains and spiritual caregivers, with special recognition being given to the recipients of ABHMS’ national Chaplaincy and Spiritual Caregivers Merit Awards. The Rev. Dr. Patricia Murphy, ecclesiastical endorser for ABHMS and American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA), described it as “one of our signature moments when we acknowledge some of our ministry professionals.”

The award winners were Ch (Capt) Richard Blanchette, U.S. Air Force (The Lorraine K. Potter Military Chaplaincy Merit Award); the Rev. Carol Ramsey-Lucas, BCC (The Paul Strickland Institutional Chaplaincy Merit Award); the Rev. Dr. John Simon, BCC (The American Baptist National Network of Chaplains, Pastoral Counselors, and Specialized Ministers Merit Award); and the Rev. Kristina R. Gutierrez (The Carolyn M. Piper Pastoral Counseling Merit Award).

In her luncheon keynote, ABCUSA General Secretary the Rev. Dr. Gina Jacobs-Strain implored her listeners to remain steadfast. “We need a stubborn hope in Jesus, one that is immovable and dogged, a hope in Jesus. God’s compassion and generosity towards us does not run out!” she exclaimed.

The last luncheon of the conference was a celebration of “changemakers.” These included noontime speakers Calvin Lee and Marisa Prince, co-founders of [GOSPEL] and leaders of an initiative to compel one million Christians to disarm; the Rev. Dr. Lauren Ng, ABHMS director of Leadership Empowerment and a motivating force behind ABHMS’ Co-Creators Incubator program; and Dr. Tony A. McNeill, the inaugural recipient of ABHMS’ National Treasure Award for his lifelong leadership as a music and worship educator, liturgist, music minister and conference musician.

Learning experiences over the three days were divided into two tracks, one “Space for Grace” and the other “Spiritual Caregivers Conference.” Presentations and workshops in the former included “Being Church Across Generations,” “Teens These Days,” “Intergenerational Ministry, Disability, and Inclusion,” and “Young Adult Perspectives on Faith Formation.” Conferees following the latter track attended “Spiritual Care in Secular Contexts,” “Trauma, Families & Transformational Faith” and “We Are Each Other’s Medicine: Intergenerational Impact of Depressions,” among others.

In addition to the learning experiences available in the two tracks, conferees eager to learn more about writing to broaden or strengthen their skills were able to attend “Communicating the Gospel Message Through a Ministry of Writing” and “Writing for Justice: A Conversation with Judson Press Authors.”

Special activities rounded out the conference schedule. Conferees addressed their physical well-being by hiking through Valley Forge National Park with the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Malone, founder of nonprofit Wilderness Journeys, and engaging in fitness sessions under the watchful eye of professional trainer Franklin Onwubuariri. Those seeking solace to reflect and re-energize visited the Oasis Project, while others wishing to express themselves creatively contributed to the community art project, “Wings of Grace.”

ABHMS is already planning for the 2026 Space for Grace & Spiritual Caregivers Conference. Stay tuned for further details!