The Reverend Vern Barnet

It seems that the Rev. Vern Barnet has thought of everything. Barnet’s extensive website, www.cres.org, provides innumerable multifaith resources and articles documenting over twenty years of interfaith activity in Greater Kansas City; it even includes his own draft memorial service.  Barnet writes, “One may not know the hour and the manner of one’s death. For decades I have encouraged others to provide their loved ones with their wishes for their obsequies in some detail. My doing so publicly may serve as a reminder, though perhaps not as a model since my own wishes are shaped by a fairly unusual interfaith career.”  “Unusual” is an appropriate word to describe Barnet’s career, as well as the man himself.  Some may see Barnet as quirky; others might see him as a visionary. Yet few would dispute that he has shaped interfaith relations in Kansas City through his tireless efforts.

In 1982, Barnet established the World’s Faiths Center for Religious Experience and Spirituality, known as CRES.  The organization’s vision statement extends to the larger community:  “CRES envisions the Greater Kansas City area as a model community honoring interfaith relationships.”  Barnet left parish ministry in 1984 in order to dedicate himself full-time to interfaith work.  He helped develop the first annual Thanksgiving Sunday Interfaith Family Ritual Meal and the first annual World Peace Meditation in the following year. In 1989, he founded the Kansas City Interfaith Council, bringing together members from thirteen faith traditions, “to recognize each distinctive faith tradition in Kansas City without regard to size.”  Over more than three decades of interfaith work – writing, speaking, teaching, and convening — he has received numerous awards for his efforts in the Kansas City community, including the first annual “Vern Barnet Interfaith Service Award” in 2010.  Today, Barnet is Minister Emeritus at CRES.

Trained as a Unitarian Universalist (UU) minister, Barnet’s doctoral work included study at the University of Chicago with Mircea Eliade.  He explains that his interfaith approach was deeply informed by Eliade, placing “the sacred” at the heart of interfaith work.  He writes:

…people often assume that interfaith work is about cooperation between faiths toward some socially significant goal, whether it is folks of several traditions joining to build a Habitat for Humanity house, ending racial discrimination, or pursuing world peace. 
 Such efforts deserve praise and support. But this parallels the anthropologists and theologians using their own lenses instead of asking of religions, “What can you teach us?”

Moreover, he continues, “… such specific intentions cannot replace the larger work of folks of different faiths being open to the sacred. The sacred cannot have any agenda placed on it; it is what creates the agenda. The sacred is not a delivery vehicle; it is the driver.”  While Barnet maintains his status as a UU minister and is active in a local clergy group, his own openness to the divine has led him to begin worshipping at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, where he is an “active Episcopalian layman.”

Over a prodigious career, one event offers an example of Barnet’s contributions to interfaith life in Kansas City. In October 2001, Barnet chaired the “Gifts of Pluralism” conference: it was the first interfaith conference to be held in Kansas City.  The event, planned long before the events of 9/11, provided an opportunity to address the backlash experienced by the local Muslim community; it built upon the firm foundation of relationships and connections forged over many years.  With contributions from civic, religious, and community leaders, the conference brought together more than 250 people from 15 faith traditions.  The conference concluded with a declaration that described the need for interfaith relations as “clear and commanding.” The statement affirmed: “We do hereby declare our resolve to work towards making Kansas City, which we often call the Heart of America, a model community – one that opens its heart to the world. Here interfaith relationships shall be honored as a way of deepening one’s own tradition and spirituality, and the wisdom of many religions shall help to successfully address the environmental, personal, and social crises of our often fragmented world.”

In the concluding ceremony, water from the sacred rivers of the world were merged together with water from area fountains, from Olathe, Kansas to Independence, Missouri.

Like many of Barnet’s projects, the conference created the context for further engagement, encouraging others to make their own distinctive contributions to the interfaith movement.  The “Interfaith Passport,” which encourages residents to visit other faith communities, and the play, “The Hindu and the Cowboy,” (profiled here) were inspired by the conference.  A few years after the conference, in 2005, with the blessings of Barnet, the Interfaith Council became an independent 501(c)(3) organization of CRES, with a new name and governance structure: the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council (GKCIC).  Although Barnet no longer plays a leadership role, his original vision continues to be realized through the GKCIC’s varied programs.

Barnet’s interfaith colleague, Rev. David Nelson writes, “Almost every person who is involved in appreciation of the rich diversity of religion and spirituality has a ‘Vern Barnet Story’ to tell.” Lama Chuck Stanford, leader of Kansas City’s Rime Buddhist Center, certainly agrees.  As Stanford describes his own rich interfaith involvements in Kansas City over more than twenty years, each story seemed to return to Barnet.  Barnet invited Stanford into the Kansas City Interfaith Council in 1989, as Buddhism was among the member faiths.  This strategy diversified the leadership and participation of the organization from the beginning, and enabled minority religious leaders to play a more integral role in Kansas City’s interfaith life. Lama Chuck Stanford now serves as Treasurer for the GKCIC.

Since 1994, Barnet has written a weekly “Faith & Beliefs” column for the Kansas City Star.  The columns, often topical and local in perspective, enable him to reach well beyond traditional interfaith circles.  He extends this conversation on the CRES website, posting detailed responses to reader comments.  Some of his articles cover contentious issues, such as celebrating then-Mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, Kay Barnes, for her decision to skip the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast when the planning committee refused to affirm inclusiveness. His progressive positions are not always popular in the “Red States” of Kansas and Missouri, but he doesn’t fail to post the negative comments as well as the positive.  At times, reader response has been “overwhelming,” such as the deluge of mail – and even an assault on his then 24 year-old-son – following his criticism of the film “The Passion of the Christ” for anti-Semitic themes. Yet Barnet continues on in his own, unusual way:  recently, in recognition of his 900th week of columns, he interviewed himself.

Now almost 70, Barnet continues to write, speak, preach, officiate, and consult on interfaith issues, as well as regularly archiving new materials on the CRES website. However, Barnet has chosen to withdraw from the many boards and committees on which he once served, and does not plan to initiate new CRES programs.  While Barnet’s “twilight years” will not be idle, neither will they be easy.  After many years working on a volunteer basis, he candidly describes living “well below the poverty line.”  Barnet states that he has no regrets:  his draft memorial service includes a note that donations may be made in his memory, in order to further interfaith work in Kansas City.