Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington

Article excerpt

Among the many interreligious groups now existing in the United States and abroad, the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington (I.F.C.) is believed to be the first staffed organization to have brought together the Islamic as well as the Jewish, Protestant, and Roman Catholic religious traditions for the dual purpose of promoting interreligious dialogue and fostering efforts to address critical issues in the local community.(1) Its pioneering influence has been felt far beyond the geographical area it serves. At a board meeting of the North American Interfaith Network several years ago, the I.F.C. was called "a lighthouse, a beacon for others," while the Religious Pluralism Project of Harvard University has described the Conference as "the flagship of U.S. interreligious organizations."(2) The I.F.C. is already in its nineteenth year, and, while this is not a particularly long period of time, these years have seen enough evolution in the organization to prompt the present study, not least because more recently founded organizations of the same general type (or even ones not yet formed) could well profit from the experience of the I.F.C. - from knowing of its successes as well as of challenges it has not yet fully met. With this practical end in view, I will examine the following aspects of the organization: an overview of the events that led to its founding, the structure of the I.F.C., the major activities in which it engages, and challenges that it still faces.

The Founding of the I.F.C.

Although no single person is regarded as the founder of the Interfaith Conference, the founding vision was largely that of the late Episcopal bishop John T. Walker. In March, 1978, he convened a number of local Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Orthodox Christian leaders at the Washington National Cathedral for a "summit meeting" to consider ways in which they and their congregations could work together toward common goals. When the group met again that May, it included immigrant and African-American Muslim leaders. This expansion resulted from the special challenge that had arisen that spring when a group of protesting Hanafi Muslims temporarily took over three buildings in the city: the District Building (the center of local government), the Jewish Anti-Defamation League's building, and the Islamic Center. A number of religious leaders happened to be meeting on the very day of the takeover. They wanted to be of help in resolving this crisis but realized that they were relatively powerless, inasmuch as they had so few contacts with the Muslim community in Washington. This realization, together with their awareness of the growing number of Muslims in the metropolitan area, persuaded Bishop Walker's group that the Islamic faith community should be part of the organization they hoped to found.

Another factor influencing the early history of the I.F.C. was the existence of an organization that was in some respects its predecessor, the Metropolitan Ecumenical Training Center. This group, in existence from 1968 to 1978, undertook a wide variety of projects in the Washington area on urban issues such as housing and hunger; they likewise sought to assist clergy entering new pastorates and to provide theological training for storefront pastors. There was, however, not much emphasis on interfaith dialogue in the M.E.T.C. Moreover, its issue-oriented work tended to involve activists who were usually persons not representing their particular judicatories, while the latter, in turn, did not have much sense of ownership in the recommendations or activities of the M.E.T.C. These were problems that Walker's group wanted to avoid.

In sum, it was the presence of Muslims within the organization (in addition to the more traditional presence of Christians and Jews) plus the dual emphasis on interreligious dialogue and joint action to improve the quality of life in the metropolitan area that made the I.F.C. unique at the time of its founding. …

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