“The mission of the Interfaith Alliance is to promote the positive and healing role of religion in public life through encouraging civic participation, facilitating community activism, and challenging religious political extremism.”
How did you become involved in interfaith work at the Interfaith Alliance?
“It was not by design. My educational work in graduate school was in the area of social ethics. As a result of that, I worked for a while with a denominational social ethics organization. My special focus was on the relationship between religion and government, Christianity and politics. When the executive position came open in the Interfaith Alliance in 1997, some of the people on the search committee knew something of my work in that prior position. They asked me if I wanted the Interfaith Alliance job. I told them, ‘No,’ but that I would discuss it with them. The end result was that, after many conversations, I took the job. I did not bring to this position a great deal of experience in interfaith work. I brought an attitude of openness, a conviction that people of all faiths and people with no faith have a place in this nation, and a concern that all of us need to learn to work together. My training for interfaith work has come on the job. I don’t think my experience should be normative, however. The truth is that only recently are educational institutions beginning to produce graduates that have the academic, experiential and career backgrounds needed to do interfaith work.”
What qualifications are important in a successful interfaith leader?
“Academics alone will not qualify a person, at least for a leadership position in the interfaith arena. An interfaith leader has to have a general knowledge and understanding related to religion, and some interest in knowing the substance of individual religions specifically. All of that is background. The test for leadership comes in how a person actually gets involved in interfaith cooperation, not just in interfaith discussions. I think that the real value in interfaith relationships is to be found in cooperative action, even more so than in interfaith dialogue.
How does the Interfaith Alliance operate?
“The Interfaith Alliance has many programs, some related to interfaith dialogue that leads to community action, and many more related to the role of religion as it intersects with the role of government. Our interfaith dialogue, through a congregational partnership initiative, focuses primarily on women and young people. Obviously, we don’t want to be stymied by male-dominated hierarchies in various religious traditions. Interfaith dialogue that leads to interfaith action is terribly important. At the recent meeting of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, I heard more than one leader observe that interfaith dialogue needs to move from being an elitist activity to part of what happens on a daily basis, at the community level. I could not agree more.
Can you give an example of action-oriented interfaith work?
“There is a chapter of the Interfaith Alliance in Wake County, NC, close to Raleigh. That group did not wish to be as overtly political as some of our other local chapters. Their interest was much more in ministry and social service. With people from a very good mix of religious traditions, they worked on establishing a shelter for the homeless close to downtown Raleigh. Interestingly, their service led to politics. They had to consider the accessibility of public toilets in the area, and the zoning laws related to establishing a shelter. They had to deal with confrontations with the mayor who opposed it. In other words, they ended up very much engaged in politics, as well as in social service and ministry. This interfaith effort to establish a shelter required conversation around common or core values. That group would not have said ‘We’re doing interfaith education together.’ They would have said, ‘We’re building a shelter for the homeless.’ Incidentally, that was one of our most active chapters after 9/11/01, in which Christian families telephoned Muslim families to offer their support and help. So, interfaith education took place, but it took place through action-oriented community involvement.
Any additional comments?
“Doing interfaith work is no longer a luxury. If we are going to address the issues that plague our communities, and bridge the socio-economic and political divides that fragment our communities and our nation, we simply have to do this work. It is no longer an intellectual exercise or a nice religious involvement. It is mandatory work for living in community.”