Interview with the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, President of the Interfaith Alliance (2004)

Mission Statement

“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.

Religions for Peace, formerly the World Council on Religions for Peace, is a good example of an action-oriented interfaith organization, as is the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ). Interfaith meetings and groups need to be focused locally. These groups ought to convene at first, not to examine each others’ beliefs, but to explore areas of community life that are of concern for all involved. For people in a community setting, it’s far more important to identify what’s going on in the local synagogue or mosque than it is to know the big picture, i.e. what’s going on at the national or international level of interfaith work. The focus of these groups should not be on the basic doctrines or scriptures of a particular tradition. If a group can come to agreement on community issues that are priorities for all or most of the group, conversations about and cooperative actions related to these issues will yield insights into the values and beliefs of the individuals involved, the kind of insights people never get from only discussing doctrinal statements. Plus, you will also find that the interfaith group grows more intimate because the members of the group see that they are getting something done together.”

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.

“The emphasis is not on whether you’re smart enough to engage in interfaith dialogue, i.e. ‘Can I talk lucidly enough about my faith to be part of that group?’ or ‘Am I steeped well enough in the doctrinal traditions of my faith to not embarrass my faith by participating in that group?’ Those aren’t the important questions. Rather, ‘Can you cooperate with people of other faiths who want to establish a homeless shelter?’ Now you are dealing with a real issue, and in the process of addressing a common concern, you learn about each other and you grow. We have been living with a stereotypical model of interfaith work. I can’t address as to how broadly it has been embraced, but it goes something like this: ‘I will tell you what I believe, you will tell me what you believe, and then we will have a discussion.’ This model functions primarily at the level of the intellectual and the spiritual. But when the dialogue is over, so what? We are not necessarily any closer together. The component of cooperative action is important.”

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.

“This is not the commonly held view of interfaith work. When most people think of interfaith work, they think of the traditional model in which the central question is, ‘Are you interested in getting to know people of other faiths?’ As for the more action-oriented model of interfaith work, most people don’t usually label it as such. They simply call it social justice work. Yet, the interfaith work is part of the social change, and social change is part of interfaith work.”

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.”