The Reverend Tom Duke

The Reverend Tom Duke seeks to “provide a visible center and point of contact” for organizing interfaith programming in the Twin Cities. Duke founded the Saint Paul Interfaith Network (SPIN) to do just that. Prior to his current role as Convener of SPIN, Duke served as the Executive Director of the Saint Paul Area Council of Churches (SPACC) for over fifteen years. The ongoing legacy of Duke’s leadership within the Twin Cities’ interfaith infrastructure is evidence that he himself has become a “visible center and point of contact” within the interfaith movement.

Duke’s leadership with SPACC came with significant responsibility. Founded in 1906, SPACC today represents and organizes hundreds of local congregations and religious communities. SPACC’s venerable ecumenical and interfaith programs coordinate emergency services, encourage youth leadership and educational success, and combat social issues such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, diabetes, and more. During Duke’s tenure as executive director, he constantly struggled to balance SPACC’s commitment to justice with its dedication to community relationships. As a result, Duke often found himself pulled more toward SPACC’s service and justice oriented programming, and frequently felt unable to focus the needed effort on community dialogue across religious traditions.

Upon his retirement, Duke became a Fellow at the Wesley Center for Spirituality, Service, and Social Justice, a program of nearby Hamline University, affiliated with the United Methodist tradition. In the vocational exploration aspect of that fellowship, Duke experienced an eye-opening moment of personal understanding: he realized he needed to dedicate his time more fully to interfaith and community relationship building. To mobilize this realization, in 2005 he and other members of SPACC’s Interfaith Task Force collectively founded the Saint Paul Interfaith Network (SPIN), moving to create an organization that would enhance and strengthen a culture of interfaith dialogue and understanding. By 2006, the young organization held their first public interfaith dialogue event. Five years later, SPIN now hosts a very popular Fall Dialogue Series, an annual set of public interfaith panels and dialogues addressing divisive social issues. SPIN has also begun Interfaith Conversation Cafes, monthly gatherings of small, mixed-faith groups to discuss challenging interfaith topics. The simplicity and consistency of these programs secure their place as well-attended flagship events of the Twin Cities interfaith calendar. In addition to these efforts, SPIN conducts projects to improve interreligious understanding and sensitivity within and among local religious communities. These long-term projects, an area of personal interest and passion for Duke, aim to dismantle institutional tendencies toward a sense of religious supremacy and isolation, and to institutionalize practices of mutual respect and understanding.

Two major components of Duke’s leadership is his lasting engagement with the Saint Paul Area Council of Churches and his commitment to the vibrancy of future interfaith work in the Twin Cities. Even after Duke’s retirement, SPACC and SPIN have established a relationship that suits both organizations well. While SPACC hosts and supports SPIN with certain space and financial requirements, SPIN enjoys total independence in its leadership and direction. While SPACC’s support ensures that SPIN remains viable, SPIN’s autonomy ensures that SPIN can freely assert a truly interfaith identity.

Roughly eighty percent of the labor of SPIN’s all-volunteer workforce is dedicated to popular and well-attended events like the Fall Dialogue Series, but Duke would like to guide an intentional movement toward deeper dialogue events, tackling tougher and more controversial topics in smaller, more longitudinal groups. He would also like to remodel SPIN’s own leadership structure to reach communities that often go untouched by local interfaith efforts – such as urban youth, working professionals, and certain religious and political groups. “I want to see us grow these other areas that are less well-developed,” says Duke. “We would also like to see that move from us doing it, into us helping congregations do it.”

Duke is part of a local interfaith infrastructure characterized by flexible, collaborative, and interactive interfaith leadership and civic engagement. Interfaith and civic leaders in the Twin Cities metropolitan area share leadership roles, spaces, audiences, and programming frequently. As a result, Duke has worked with such interfaith and civic leaders as Gail Anderson, director of Unity and Relations at the Minnesota Council of Churches, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first female rabbi ordained in the Conservative tradition; and Zafar Siddiqui, the Chairman of the Board of Al-Amal School and director of the Islamic Resource Group, to form the Twin Cities Interfaith Network (TCIN). TCIN is open to representatives of groups doing interfaith education, dialogue and relationship building, and does not do programming in the community under its name. It is a table for people from organizations that do programming to come together to consider collaborative programming among some of the represented groups, to share peer consultation about methods and programs and to explore what topics and needs should be addressed, either together or by individual programs.

According to Reverend Duke, “Interfaith is more than temporary, occasional interreligious dialogue. Instead, a culture of interfaith dialogue encapsulates the deeper spectrum of relationships between and among individuals, understanding within and inside religious traditions, and daily contact and sharing in diverse communities.” Says Duke, “It is a dialogue of a life.”