InterAct Cleveland is one of the key supporters of interfaith dialogue in the city and a known advocate for diverse religious communities. Within Cleveland’s interfaith landscape, Sensei Dean Williams explains, “InterAct is not the sole voice,” but certainly “one of the main voices.” The Reverend Laury Larson, Co-Chair of InterAct’s Interreligious Steering Committee, acknowledges InterAct as “the organization with the broadest network of relationships,” known around Cleveland for being an effective catalyst for interreligious understanding.
InterAct is a “non-profit coalition of more than sixty Baha’i, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, Sikh, and Unitarian Universalist congregations, faith communities, campus groups, and community organizations.” As the only interfaith organization in Cleveland to include non-Abrahamic traditions, the organization’s mission is to promote “mutual understanding and appreciation of diverse religious beliefs and practices, as well as discovery of the values and beliefs shared by many faith traditions…” The coalition seeks to respond to the “challenges and opportunities facing Greater Cleveland, including religious diversity itself.” Located on the city’s West Side in the historic Ohio City neighborhood, the organization makes its home on the third floor of the Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
The seeds for InterAct Cleveland were planted in the mid-1950s, during an interfaith Thanksgiving community meal that took place at St. Agnes-Our Lady of Fatima Parish. By the 1970s this partnership of congregations organized as the Euclid University Cluster of Religious Institutions. Nine congregations comprised the original Cluster, including Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish communities who together provided hunger relief to the residents of the Hough, Fairfax, and University Circle neighborhoods. By 1991, the Cluster recognized the need to take their work beyond hunger programs. The result was East Side Interfaith Ministries and by the late 1990s, the organization expanded to become InterReligious Partners in Action of Greater Cleveland, or InterAct Cleveland.
InterAct promotes interfaith understanding using a two-pronged approach of dialogue and service. Dialogic components of the organization’s programming include moderated discussions; Sharing Thanks, a yearlong program pairing two congregations for shared experiences of dialogue and service; and the InterReligious Education Network committee that seeks to promote regional collaboration between religious leaders in higher education and professors of religious studies.
Interact Cleveland understands both service and dialogue to be important components for promoting interreligious understanding. Interact’s annual Homeless Stand Down is a well-established example of this approach in action. This “mid-winter retreat” offers people experiencing homeless the opportunity for “respite, renewal, and reconnection” by providing free of charge services such as haircuts, podiatry screenings, mini-check ups, lunch, hygiene kits, and clothing. Recognizing that fostering dignity and respect often requires going beyond the fulfillment of basic needs, live entertainment, including an open mic, a drum circle, and a portrait studio are also a part of the programming. In 2011, over 1,200 guests came to the three-day Homeless Stand Down.
Rabbi Edward Sukol, President of InterAct’s Board, explains that “[t]he most important part of the Homeless Stand Down is not how many meals we serve or how many boots we give away” but rather that the program serves as a “vehicle by which we try and get people to get to know one another.” Julia Shearson, the Executive Director of the Cleveland Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, notes that “[d]oing something together is important and harder than dialogue.” Sukol finds it inspirational to be alongside people not only of different faith traditions but also different ethnicities, cultures, and socioeconomic status while “sweating and schlepping and washing huge dirty pots for the sake of making this community a little bit better.” For him, doing this work of service together is a great equalizer and reminds him of each person’s shared humanity.
On December 16, 2011 InterAct Cleveland announced that it would be closing. In a letter to supporters, the Executive Committee wrote: “It is with great sadness and heavy hearts that we inform you that after 20 years of bringing together communities for interreligious dialogue, education, and service projects, InterAct Cleveland will be closing its doors as soon as it is practical to do so.” The letter described the financial challenges that “have made InterAct Cleveland’s continued existence untenable,” including a reduction in foundation support as funds have shifted to service organizations, and decreasing contributions from member organizations and individuals. After detailing the migration of key programs to other local groups, the letter concluded: “As our programs find new homes with other organizations or volunteer coalitions, we will be in touch to share that information and pray that you continue to support these vital efforts.” Although Interfaith Cleveland is no longer active, its leaders and supporters hope to build on the strong network of relationships forged over two decades, so that their programs—and their mission—will live on.