For nearly three decades the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy (“the Center”) has grounded its work on the belief that “the interfaith community can be very impactful if they engage and understand how much power they really have.” Today the Center is known throughout the city of Richmond for fighting “systematic poverty issues,” issues such as childhood obesity, “pay day” lending, and homelessness, according to the Reverend Douglas Smith, the organization’s former president and CEO. The Virginia Interfaith Center’s strong ties to religious communities throughout city allows the organization to coalesce energy and galvanize the resources and willpower of the faith-based communities who seek to address practical and relevant issues within the city.
The Center, in contrast to other interfaith advocacy organizations and models, does not conceive of itself as the face or the voice of faith communities. Rather, Smith says “we like to think of ourselves as the volume – we’re the people that turn the faith community on…to those key contemporary issues of the day.” At the basis of this approach is an understanding of interfaith advocates as a constituency to be mobilized and of the Center as a leveraging tool, even a megaphone. Using a methodology known as “affinity organizing,” the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy conducts an annual poll of its members, inviting the faith communities to set the organization’s agenda by identifying the issues they want to address, instead of the other way around. “We want to meet them where they are and how they are, and make sure what we’re working on is relevant to them,” explains Smith.
In addition to engaging members in setting the organization’s agenda, the Center seeks to invest members in the challenges and opportunities that arise in a multi-religious society. Smith explains, “some of the most innovative things we have done in the past few years [result from our] understanding that the experience is what really gives people the hooks on which they are able to engage and become mobilized in public policy.” The Center’s environmental policy program, Virginia Interfaith Power and Light, is an example of this approach in action. In the beginning, Smith and VICPP found it difficult to mobilize people publicly around an issue that did not invest them personally. Through the Virginia Interfaith Power and Light program, the Center developed a three-step approach: encourage members to weatherize their communal worship space, then invite them to do the same to their homes, and then provide venues for members to collaborate with residents of low-income neighborhoods to do the same. By the time individuals and faith communities are helping others implement change, they realize “they need to become really incredible advocates for the earth and for God’s creation.”
According to Smith and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, “interfaith” is more than an abstract, intellectual term. Interfaith is action that takes place every day, action that inspires transformative change in the lives of individuals, faith communities, and the entire community. Smith considers the Center to be the step after dialogue, a “movement.” The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy is a unique blend of personal and public, action and relationship, institution and mission, making it an indispensible presence in Richmond, both on the interfaith scene and in the community as a whole. As Smith reflects, “I think public policy is a vehicle to do community building, and maybe the most important thing that we’ve learned is that the voice of the faith community is needed.”