Interfaith Groups Work for Social Justice and Tolerance

Article excerpt

A few oak trees in the middle of a desert get noticed. Surrounded by a forest, individual trees are nearly invisible.

St. Louis 2004, the dynamic and well-heeled community- based planning organization, has invested major resources and time in a effort to give religion a place of honor in the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 1904 World's Fair.

That so much energy would be devoted to convening diverse and sometimes conflicting religious denominations is an indication of just how far interf aith relations and the struggle for social justice in St. Louis have come in the past 30 years. In those days, Cardinal Joseph E. Ritter, the Rev. O. Walter Wagner and Rabbi Ferdinand M. Issermann were often lonely voices for understanding and compassion, crying out in a wilderness of bigotry and bias. I believe those giants of interfaith cooperation would be proud of their spiritual descendants. Fifty years ago the pursuit of interfaith dialogue was the nearly exclusive province of a few liberal clergy. The laity went largely unmoved and untouched. Understanding among these oak trees in the wilderness did not translate immediately into a change of heart for the average worshiper in the pew. It would take years before the seeds they planted would grow to maturity. That was then. This is now. The single most dramatic change in interfaith relations is its transformation from a clergy-only pursuit to a lay commitment and passion. Recently more than 400 women from a dozen different faith traditions ga thered in the sanctuary at Temple Israel for the annual Women of Faith Conference. For more than a decade, Women of Faith has brought interfaith understanding and dialogue to St. Louis. It has served as a meeting ground for female clergy and laity. It has touched the mind and the heart. There are so many interfaith alliances that they seem to be in competition with one another. The National Conference (formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews), Interfaith React, The Interfaith Alliance and the Interfaith Partnership of Metropolitan St. Louis are all committed to developing understanding and growth. The Interfaith Partnership, to cite but one as an example, comprises 23 denominations of clergy and laity. Its activities include: Abraham's Children, an initiative bringing wellness to our most disadvantaged population. …