The Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee

On February 17, 1970, members of the Greater Milwaukee Council of Churches and the Greater Milwaukee Conference on Religion and Race founded the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, realizing “that when one religious leader spoke, the voice could be ignored, but when [it was] a whole group of major leaders speaking, that it got listened to.”[1] The two organizations, established in 1911 and 1963 respectively, hoped the Interfaith Conference—formed amid protests of discriminatory housing and employment laws and in the aftermath of race riots that shook Milwaukee during the 1960s—would respond to the pressing environmental and urban issues of the day. Organizers also aimed to create awareness of and advocacy between different faith communities. Today, based on the geographic reach of its member judicatories, the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee is thought to be the largest organization in Southeastern Wisconsin to promote interfaith understanding and tolerance as part of its mission.[2] Furthermore, in addition to its own programming and advocacy work, the Conference consistently offers guidance and support to many of the city’s nascent interfaith initiatives, past and present.

The Interfaith Conference of Milwaukee began as a partnership between Christian denominations and a few Jewish groups, including the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. Early on, the Conference was comprised of several task forces, some of which have become inactive, like the bi-monthly radio and television program began by the Communication Task Force in 1971 to share and promote information about community engagement around urban issues. During the 1980s the Interfaith Congregational Action Network (I-CAN) sought to involve congregations in advocacy work on behalf of low-income families. Although somewhat inactive at present, I-CAN’s curriculum for congregations, “From Charity to Justice” remains an online resource. Other initiatives have blossomed to become their own organizations and programs. One task force, which began in the 1970s to promote employment opportunities and services to older adults and seniors throughout Milwaukee, became an independent organization, the Interfaith Older Adult Programs.

Currently, in addition to task forces and committees on interfaith understanding, international and peace issues, and restorative justice, the Interfaith Conference runs the Interfaith Earth Network and its Beyond Racism Initiative has published several editions of “Alike and Different,” a resource for educators on multicultural education, empowerment, and connection. The Interfaith Conference also has hosted programs like Interfaith Day at Miller Park, where families gather together to watch to the Brewers play; the Amazing Faiths Dinner Dialogues, a program that began in Houston, TX and piloted in Milwaukee in 2011; and Faith Connections, an annual fundraising celebration.

Today the Interfaith Conference is led by Executive Director Tom Heinen and a cabinet comprised of thirty-nine representatives of fifteen member judicatories. Throughout the 1980s-90s, the Interfaith Conference fostered relationships with broader “judicatory” representatives. In 1991, Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders used the Interfaith Conference as a platform for speaking out together on the Desert Storm Invasion of Iraq. The Islamic Society of Milwaukee, the single Muslim judicatory, officially joined the Conference in 2003. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Milwaukee North and South Stakes) are the newest member judicatories, joining Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, and Unitarian Universalist members.

Conversations are ongoing regarding official membership status for other faiths and denominations, including the local Sikh community. While Sikhs had been represented in the Committee for Interfaith Understanding prior to the shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in August 2012, the Sikh community’s involvement in—and awareness of—the Conference increased dramatically since. Other smaller groups also participate in the Conference while not joining as judicatory members. This is true of the Bahá’ís of Milwaukee who are involved in the Committee for Interfaith Understanding and members of the Zoroastrian community who participate in the Amazing Faiths Dinner Dialogues.

Each year the Interfaith Conference recognizes the leaders in Milwaukee who excel in ministry and service related to interfaith relations and urban issues by hosting an annual luncheon and award ceremony. The award is named in honor of a former mayor of Milwaukee, Frank Zeidler, one of the early visionaries of the Conference. Zeidler led the committee that worked with the Milwaukee Labor Council to deal with issues of union busting and discriminatory housing laws. His involvement in helping the city move through segregation and race issues encapsulates some of the core principles the Conference continues to promote: “to uphold the dignity of every person and the solidarity of the human community.”

On September 11, 2001, fear ran high across the nation and Milwaukee was no different.  In addition to fear generated by the terrorist attack, many within Milwaukee’s Muslim community feared misplaced retribution in its aftermath, so much so that the school of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee let out early. Near the Islamic Center, a man banged a flagpole on the roof of a Muslim woman’s car-hood and a Sikh man wearing a turban was attacked at the gas station.

Yet, Heinen remembers there were also those who came to show solidarity with the Muslim community, reaffirming their long-time connections. On September 12, 2001, the Interfaith Conference and its Milwaukee Association for Interfaith Relations (now the Committee for Interfaith Understanding) organized an interfaith prayer service to honor the victims of 9/11 and to show solidarity among different faith communities in Milwaukee. On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the Milwaukee Bel Canto Chorus and the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra performed Mozart’s Requiem on a stage in Cathedral Square Park, an event broadcast live on Milwaukee Public Television. Interfaith Conference coordinated statements from different faiths in Milwaukee to be included in the program, with representation from the Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Sikh, Unitarian Universalist, and various Christian communities. “I think we were able to interject a real note of interfaith tolerance and hope into that program,” Heinen said.[3] The Peace and International Issues Committee staffed tables and cut swaths of colorful cloth so they could invite people to write a prayer, thought, or comment on the flags, which were then hung in Cathedral Square. The Interfaith Conference also invited local high students from Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Hindu backgrounds to address over 800 of their peers during an assembly at Pius XI High School. The presenters were asked to reflect on the meaning of 9/11 in the lives of those who were very young at the time of the attacks.[4]

In the aftermath of the fatal shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin on August 5th, 2012, the Interfaith Conference of Milwaukee connected with the community in a number of ways. In addition to participating in a number of prayer vigils, the Conference hosted a “know your neighbor” event in Oak Creek during which priests of the Sikh Temple played the harmonium and chanted from the Guru Granth Sahib. The music was followed by presentations about the Sikh faith and the history of Sikhs in the Milwaukee area, in addition to short presentations on Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Heinen recounts that during the annual Interfaith Conference luncheon that year, the Sikh community was honored for “their tremendous example of peaceful, faithful, loving response to violence,” a commendation that ended with a standing ovation. The following spring, the Peace and International Issues Committee’s annual luncheon series focused on “Why We Fear the Other: Theological Reflections on Racism, Immigration and Roots of Prejudice.” It was sold out. At the invitation of the Sikh community, the Interfaith Conference also hosted an “interfaith tent” at the second Chardhi Kala 6K Memorial Run & Walk in August 2014.

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke in Milwaukee in 1995 in honor of the Interfaith Conference’s 25th anniversary, the title of his speech was apt. “Interfaith Collaboration: A Model for Building Community” encapsulates both the mission and the educational and advocacy work of the Interfaith Conference of Milwaukee. The organization’s longevity is notable and its history of engagement and partnership is striking. As an organization born out of a concern for justice and a desire to “improve the quality of life for everyone,” the Interfaith Conference of Milwaukee is no stranger to the challenges and the successes of both.


[1] Tom Heinen. Interview with author. Milwaukee, WI. June 2014.

[2] Tom Heinen. Email exchange with the Pluralism Project. December 2014.

[3] Tom Heinen. Interview with author. Milwaukee, WI. June 2014.

[4] “9-11 Alters Life for U.S. Muslims.” The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. www.jsonline.com/news/religion/129504863.html. Accessed February 2015.