Interfaith Conference Celebrates Past, Envisions Future as it begins 41st year.
Having just completed our 40th anniversary year in 2010, the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee is facing fresh challenges as it continues to reshape and revitalize itself.
Wisconsin’s budget deficit is sparking major social-justice issues. Civility in national public discourse continues to deteriorate – from legislative debate and talk-show harangues to Internet exchanges. And what about the links between vitriolic rhetoric and violent action? There is distrust and fear of ethnic/religious minorities. And the Milwaukee-area is ranked as having some of the worst racial segregation and poverty in the nation.
Last year (2009) was a time of transition, challenge and opportunity for the Interfaith Conference as we prepared for a year of 40th anniversary events in 2010 while envisioning new, more effective ways of conducting interfaith dialogue and social-justice advocacy in a rapidly changing world.
Following the resignation of Executive Director Marcus White in 2008, we began planning for the future, cognizant that changing realities would require a new vision and an executive director who could embrace and give shape to that new vision. We were facing changes in religious demographics and denominational affiliation along with the growth of pluralism, a severe economic downturn and new trends in communication. They all combined to create the need to develop a vision and plan for the future that recognizes the need for change while honoring the Conference’s tradition of speaking as a voice of moral authority on poverty, racism and other issues that diminish human dignity in the metro-area community we serve.
New Executive Director – Judi Longdin, director of the Archdiocese’s Ecumenical and Interfaith Concerns Office, served commendably as the Conference’s interim, part-time executive director until former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter/editor Tom Heinen was hired as of September 1, 2009. She continues as a key advisor, a member of the Conference’s executive committee, and as treasurer.
Tom’s 30-plus year career in journalism included 11 years as religion reporter. His communication skills, fairness, personal relationships and knowledge of the community position him and our Cabinet to explore new paradigms for the 21st century. One of his first actions was to launch a Conference Facebook page to reach a broader, younger audience.
New office site – The Conference moved in mid-April 2010 from a large, second-floor office space at 1442 N. Farwell Ave. on Milwaukee’s east side – where the Conference had been based for many years – to a smaller, street-level storefront at 5409 W. Vliet Street on the city’s west side, in the same building where the Four Corners of the World fair trade shop is. The move has cut our monthly rental/utility bill by nearly two-thirds, allowing us to use our strained resources more effectively. It also is expected to enhance our outreach and our public visibility.
New visions – The Cabinet (board of directors) is holding a series of discussions in 2010, creatively examining our mission, structure, methods and priorities.
New plans/Activities – We sold 485 tickets for our first-ever Interfaith Day at Miller Park for a Brewers’ game on July 27, 2010 – complete with specially designed T-shirts and half-price tickets – to raise public awareness, energize our supporters and make a visual statement of interfaith cooperation. This was important for us. The general public knows relatively little about us and often confuses us with the Interfaith Program for Older Adults, which was founded through one of our task forces in the 1970s but is a separate, independent organization.
The event also had a social-service component. Our supporters who attended the game donated 400 pounds of food for the Hunger Task Force at the ballpark.
It was our 40th anniversary year and the Brewers’ 40th anniversary year in 2010. Episcopal Bishop Steven Miller, the current chairman of our Cabinet (our board) was permitted to throw out one of the game’s first pitches. Executive Director Tom Heinen was on the field with the bishop to capture the moment in video on a camcorder and later posted the video on YouTube, where it got 179 views. We reached thousands of people in the ballpark who knew little about the Conference. And the more than 370 people who bought T-shirts will continue to proclaim our existence as they wear the T-shirts in their private lives.
Our new vision included holding inaugural Amazing Faith Dinners this fall to help address the rising tide of religious intolerance and ignorance in the United States. Based on a widely successful program that started in Houston and has involved hundreds of homes across the nation, it brings groups of 8-to-10 people of different faiths together in a home to share a dinner and a facilitated dialogue about their faith. With religious extremism feeding international tensions, with racial/religious hate groups growing sharply in the United States (as documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center), and with the recently passed September 11th anniversary revealing a broad vein of fear and hatred toward Islam in the general public, it is critical that the Interfaith Conference pre-empt violence and intolerance by fostering understanding and friendship at a grass-roots level.
A new Pew poll scheduled to be released in late September 2010 will provided additional confirmation of what professor/author Steven Prothero detailed in his 2008 book, “Religious Literacy.” Although many Americans are fervent in the experiential practice of religion, they know little about other faiths and often do not know the basics of their own faith.
Other Events and Activities in 2010:
A 40th Anniversary Celebratory Dinner on December 9, 2010 that drew 265 people to honor several award recipients and hear Debra Mason, executive director of the national Religion Newswriters Association, issue a call for civility in a troubled world. Honorees included the nationally recognized Urban Ecology Center and congregations that have assisted the center in its highly effective outreach to urban children and youths; the Rev. Louis E. Sibley III, first vice president of the Wisconsin General Baptist State Convention and longtime MICHA president; two youth leaders from Dominican and Marquette University High Schools; Special Olympics; CROP Hunger Walk volunteers Dorothy and Ralph Babcock, and their church, Grace Presbyterian Church.
The 40th anniversary year opened with a luncheon on Feb. 4, 2010 that drew 320 people. They heard internationally known David Beckman, president of Bread for the World, give a rousing talk on U.S. and worldwide hunger. He was featured on both Milwaukee public radio stations. Award honorees included the Rev. Roy Alberswerth (UCC), a founder of the Conference; Ascension Lutheran Church; two youth leaders from Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God in Christ; and clinical nurse Susan Dillon Gold.
“Celebrate the Power of Bridging Faith & Ecology” on October 24, 2010, where more than a dozen congregations and faith groups displayed their successful efforts to become “green,” from solar panel installations and community gardens to prayer services. More than 200 adults and children came to the Urban Ecology Center to enjoy the displays, live music, free healthy food and an eco-puppet parade. It was organized by the Interfaith Earth Network, a collaboration of the Interfaith Conference and the Urban Ecology Center.
Milwaukee Bus Tour: Thursday, Oct. 14: Reviving a tradition that began with late Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler, a founder of the Interfaith Conference, we held a bus tour of Milwaukee led by historian John Gurda for Interfaith Conference leaders, other religious leaders and lay people. Slightly more than 50 people rode with John to hear fascinating background about the city’s secular and religious history, and to ride by some historic sites. The tour included stops at the Urban Ecology Center in Riverside Park, a tour of St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral and its exquisite interior mosaics, and lunch at Café el Sol in the United Community Center.
The 25th annual CROP Hunger Walk on Milwaukee’s lakefront. Organized by the Interfaith Conference, it drew about 1,000 people from 97 congregations and groups to McKinley Marina on October 10, 2010. They donated more than 11,000 pounds of food for the Hunger Task Force, listened to live Dixieland music and then walked 2-mile or 5-mile routes to symbolize how far people in developing countries walk for food and water. More than $60,000 was raised for international and U.S. hunger relief and development.
Interfaith Book Club: A pilot club started in the fall, gathering for three initial sessions.
Interfaith Celebration at Hindu Temple of Wisconsin on June 25, 2010 – The Conference’s Milwaukee Association for Interfaith Relations partnered with the Hindu Temple to hold this event, which drew nearly 250 enthusiastic people to the temple in Pewaukee to hear the Hindu chaplain from Harvard University speak and to hear representatives of nine other faiths share some basics of their faiths and their approaches to interfaith dialogue. There was a temple tour and a free Indian dinner.
Peace & International Issues Committee – Its thought-provoking luncheon/dinner lecture series on Tuesdays in March thrived in 2009 with an environmental theme of “Sustaining the World, Sustaining Our Souls” and in 2010 with a multi-issue, faith-based focus titled “The Times, They Are a’ Changing: Looking Beyond the Headlines.”
Anniversary Luncheons – An annual luncheon this February kicked off our 40th anniversary year. More than 300 people, the most in recent years, came to the Italian Community Center and heard internationally known David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, talk on U.S. and worldwide hunger. He was featured on both of Milwaukee’s public radio stations. The anniversary year ends with a luncheon December 9.
MAIR (Milwaukee Association for Interfaith Relations) – Members of our MAIR committee have been advising a small group of parishioners from St. Stephen Church who are working to create an interfaith chapel at Milwaukee’s Mitchell International Airport.
Interfaith Congregation Action Network – Our Cabinet (board) and CAN adopted positions, made endorsements and/or conducted advocacy on a range of issues in 2009 and 2010, such as transitional jobs, school nutrition, affordable housing, housing for homeless vets, immigrant rights and driver’s cards, and early release of prisoners. It is working on an advocacy manual for congregations.
Among our many other activities and programs, some done collaboratively with other groups, are:
Interfaith Youth Cafes, where high school students socialize as they discuss their values, experiences and faith in small groups under the guidance of adult moderators. This broadens their horizons, counters stereotypes and strengthens them in their own faiths.
A Restorative Justice Committee that brings together representatives of major institutions ranging from Marquette University and the district attorney’s office to the Milwaukee Public Schools, the Benedict Center and the Peace Learning Center.
An increasingly active Interfaith Earth Network that holds events, helps congregations lower their energy usage and costs, and promotes earth stewardship.