South Memphis Shalom Zone barbecue contest encourages residents to seek peace

The fourth annual South Memphis barbecue cook-off brings churches and residents together intentionally to foster a safer, vibrant community.

The distinct, familiar smell of Memphis barbecue wafted across Soulsville, USA.

The smoky smell drew across the field near Greater White Stone Missionary Baptist Church on the corner of Walker Street and Wicks Avenue. The South Memphis Shalom Zone BBQ Cookoff greets you before you even arrive.  

The South Memphis Shalom Zone is one of five Shalom Zones around the city, all of which are initiatives by the Center for Transforming Communities, a nonprofit organization that seeks to revitalize struggling neighborhoods and communities in Memphis and surrounding areas through spiritual means.

“We learn what the neighbors of South Memphis are looking for,” said Ashley Black, the CTC’s South Memphis Neighborhood Connector and principal organizer of the South Memphis Shalom Zone.

“We need to know what will keep people here, what will bring people back, and what will give them energy to make positive things in South Memphis.”

The positivity of the South Memphis Shalom Zone BBQ Cookoff was tremendous.

Barbara Taylor serves up boxes with pulled pork, baked beans, and chicken wings to South Memphians.

People pulsed with the energy and spirit of 12 family cook outs all occurring simultaneously. They sang and danced, children flew kites, old men played dominoes and everybody knew everybody. The emanating joy was immediately felt.

The Soulsville Foundation provided the competition with a DJ, who had all the correct jams for the occasion such as Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Al Green and The Staple Sisters. There was a food tent directly in the center of the field where plates of food were being served to a line that never seemed to get any shorter.

The barbecue was completely free. Anyone could enter the event, and anyone could get a meal.

“It’s just simple things like getting the churches to know about each other to share resources and to have opportunities to collaborate,” said Kenny Latta, the head of special projects with the CTC.

All of the teams participating in the barbecue competition represented a church in the Shalom Zone program, but anyone could have entered regardless of church affiliation as long as they paid the entry cost. There were three categories for best ribs, best pulled pork and best chicken.

The winners take home a trophy and bragging rights for a year.

“The BBQ Cookoff has been going on for four years,” Black said. “It built community relationships through the churches first and that happened to bring people out of the four walls.”

Black nodded to the tendency of certain church pastors and churchgoers to neglect interaction with the community outside of church on Sunday mornings. Black believes that collaborative events like the BBQ cook-off persuades people to go beyond the four walls.

“This brings them out in the community and helps them build a stronger bond,” she said.

This year’s South Memphis Shalom Zone Cookoff was almost canceled due to the devastating straight-line wind damage that Memphis suffered in May. Originally to be held by Christ Quest Community Church at the corner of Arnold Place and Walker Avenue, the damage done to that area was too great.

Fortunately, the Shalom Zone network of churches came together for a quick and simple solution. The cook-off was held at Greater White Stone right down the street.

Even though Christ Quest Community Church no longer had the home field advantage, that didn’t stop home team members William and Geraldine Downey from bringing the heat. Both are members of Christ Quest and both shared pit master duties.

The Cookoff judges Randy Holder, Regina Guy and Tim Webster (L to R)

William Downey, a 64-year-old Memphis native, was so committed to the the smoker that he was reluctant to participate in an interview, saying “You burn my meat up, It’s gonna be trouble,” with a demeanor treading the line between joking and threatening.

This was his fourth year participating in the South Memphis Shalom Zone Cookoff, but he’s been with the South Memphis Shalom Zone since its formation in 2010. He went through six months of community organizing training at the Center for Transforming Communities and received his Shalom Badge, a certificate of completing the program.

“We worked on dealing with people, revitalization of the neighborhood, lots of different things,” Downey said.

He helped organize the South MEMFix initiative for the Soulsville area in 2013. Although Downey expressed disappointment in the results of the event, he’s determined to make revitalization of the area a priority.

“We need to know what will keep people here, what will bring people back, and what will give them energy to make positive things in South Memphis.”

“It didn’t go to far, but we’re not quitting. We’re going to keep on going and keep on trying,” he said.

Five South Memphis churches make up the Shalom Zone including the Baptist churches of Evening Star, Greater New Salem and Greater White Stone. Other Shalom Zone members include Centenary, a United Methodist church, and non-denominational Christ Quest. These churches collaborate with schools, libraries and other institutions in the community the to create the rich and vibrant neighborhood that the community deserves.

The Communities of Shalom were started in 1992 during the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Los Angeles as a response to the violence that ensued during the LA riots.  The riots sprung out of events of racially-charged violence beating that occurred that year including the Los Angeles Police Department beating Rodney King and a Los Angeles shop owner shooting Latasha Harlins.

The very first Shalom Zone was established in South Central Los Angeles shortly after the riots. From there, Methodist churches around the country adopted the Shalom Zone movement.

A majority-Christian organization using the world shalom may puzzle some, but Latta had an answer that draws on the Old Testament.

Greater White Stone's All-Star Pit Masters accepting their trophy next to their pastor Roger Brown, pictured left.

“We get that question a lot,” he says with a laugh. While the word shalom is Hebrew and most recognized as a greeting or meaning peace, the word has a special significance to the Communities of Shalom movement, as it appears in a Christian Old Testament passage about finding inner peace through your city’s peace.

The word translated into English just means peace, just the absence of violence. But in Hebrew, it’s usage is much more complex than that,” Latta elaborated.

“It means, wholeness, completeness, God’s vision for the world. So, we get to have that conversation every time someone asks about shalom.”

Around 1 p.m., three hours after the Cookoff opened to the public, the award ceremony commenced. In what was apparently an upset, the Downeys and Christ Quest didn’t take home a single trophy.

“They win every year,” Black exclaimed.

The award for both best chicken and best ribs went to the All-Star Pit Masters, a team from Greater White Stone led by Robert Jackson, a native Memphian who’s been cooking barbecue for 65 years.

His plans after winning?

“Well, in two weeks they got a big barbeque festival down in Coldwater. We’re going down there to take their trophy too.”

Read more articles by Wesley Morgan Paraham.

Wesley Morgan Paraham is a Memphis native and huge fan of the 901. He enjoys writing about music and art especially from local artists. He has freelanced as a graphic designer and videographer. He is currently attending the University of Memphis and seeking a degree in Public Relations. One day, he'll actually manage to find it.