by Martin Davis
Good Friday is a busy time in metropolitan Detroit, a community in which half the population is aligned with the Catholic Church. In 2010, the Holy Day was busier than most.
Terry Jones, the Florida-based leader of the Dove World Outreach Center, was coming to near-by Dearborn to lead an anti-Islam protest that would culminate in the burning of a Quran outside the Islamic Center of America. As media-savvy as he is bombastic, Jones saw a great opportunity in Dearborn. Not only is this city the largest concentration of Muslims in North America, but Good Friday meant that the largest religious group in Michigan—the Roman Catholic Church—would be too busy with Good Friday services to level a significant protest.
Behind the scenes, however, a group of powerbrokers from the faith community were working to find a way to protect the Islamic Center of America and defuse the attention that Jones manages to attract every time he organizes a high-profile event. They not only intended to defuse the potentially volatile nature of his visit, but to transform his visit into a positive event that would make news “above the fold.”
Bob Bruttell, who both runs a roofing business and teaches religious studies at the University of Detroit Mercy, Victor Ghaleb Begg, former chairman and now Senior Advisor to the Michigan Muslim Community Council (formerly the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan), and Terry Gallagher, a media and public relations director working with Bruttell and Begg, went to work.
One of their first calls was to Michael Hovey, coordinator of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations for the Archdiocese of Detroit, to see if he couldn’t get Archbishop Allen Vigneron, who was supportive of interfaith approaches to civic issues and held in high esteem by the Muslim community, to attend a rally and speak on the day of Jones’ meeting.
It wasn’t possible, Hovey told Congregations, owing to the archbishop’s other duties that day. However, he made room in his schedule on the Thursday before Jones’ arrival and promised to be there. Bruttell and Begg jumped at the offer, and together organized a media event that brought together a range of the faithful and faith leaders, about 1,500 in fact, from across Detroit —Sikh, Hindu, Protestant, Catholic, Unity, Mormon, and Baptist, to name just a few—with the archbishop.
At the center of it all was the Islamic Center of America’s executive director Kassem Allie, who coordinated with Begg, Bruttell, and Gallagher to make the event a reality. The press showed, and Jones’ thunder was stolen. On Good Friday, the court denied Jones’ permit, so his rally never came off. No one cared—a group of strong-willed leaders had defused the controversy 24 hours earlier. A year later, when Jones tried again, hardly anyone noticed, says Allie.
The ability to pull together high profile religious leaders on short notice isn’t fortune or serendipity. All the key players are longtime interfaith advocates who have worked over the years in a variety of organizations to bring together Detroit’s radically diverse religious communities. In 2009, Bruttell, Begg, Hovey, and Allie—among more than a dozen others—formed the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit(www.detroitinterfaithcouncil.com). Theirs is a long story of growth and trust-building that has the IFLC on the verge of becoming among the most visible and imaginative interfaith groups in America.
The growth and respect have come slowly. What drives IFLC are neither programs nor personalities—though both certainly exist. Rather, it’s a dedicated focus to finding the similarities the different faith traditions share as opposed to the things that set them apart. The similarities searched for are not ones other interfaith groups have tried, such as they all believe in god, or they all believe in sacred scripture. Though valid and worthwhile, these similarities boil the complexities of faith traditions to a least-common denominator. Bruttell says that IFLC organizes groups around their “sharedhigher [emphasis added] values”—respect for all people, the right to live free of violence, the right to basic living conditions, etc. Such values allow groups to work together while drawing on the richness of their individual traditions.
Hovey puts it another way. IFLC people “are committed to … celebrat[ing] human dignity and what Martin Luther King Jr. called the ‘Beloved community,’ [which allows us to say that] ‘that is a big enough value to me that I’m willing to expend effort with others who share that value, and set the other things aside in order to focus on that with people of like mind.’”
The people of “like mind” that Hovey alludes to are almost uniformly the leaders of Detroit’s faith community who have hammered out their “higher values” over many years. The Terry Jones affair raised IFLC’s profile among the Detroit public and established it as the go-to organization in Detroit on any issue that touches interfaith work—and in a place as religiously diverse as the Motor City, few issues don’t touch it—but this issue alone neither brought the religious community together nor launched this group. Rather, it legitimated IFLC as a leader.
Interfaith issues and practice have a long history in Detroit. Hovey points back to the civil unrest of 1967 as a turning point in how faith communities thought about working together. And Kassem Allie is quick to note that the Islamic Center of America has been involved with interfaith work from the beginning. “We just celebrated our 50th anniversary,” he says, “and we’ve had contacts with the interfaith community in Detroit throughout the life of our organization.”
The relationships have waxed and waned over the years, coming together in “times of stress and crisis,” according to several of the people interviewed. But of late, the stresses that have served as the catalyst for interfaith work are giving way to dealing with the day-to-day issues that face Detroit.
“Since the Terry Jones affair,” says Allie, “the primary focus has been on keeping the lines of communication open and establishing a mechanism” to respond to need.
That requires a new level of working with people and of organizing. To borrow the words of Jim Collins, IFLC is facing the challenge of moving from “good to great.”
When Robert Cohen arrived in Michigan seven years ago to become the executive director at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metropolitan Detroit, he realized both the strength of leadership the IFLC enjoyed, and the inherent problem that this created.
“When I arrived here,” he told Congregations, “I was surprised by what I felt was the absence of an umbrella interfaith organization.” Living previously in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Cohen had the benefit of seeing two strongly organized and broadly engaged interfaith communities in action—Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry and the local chapter of Interfaith Alliance.
In the IFLC, he believes he sees Detroit’s future umbrella interfaith organization. The most concrete step in this direction, he believes, is IFLC’s becoming “the staff arm of the Religious Leader’s Forum, which is a gathering of the top denominational leaders of all the religious groups in Southeast Michigan.” Formerly staffed by Cohen’s agency, IFLC has taken it to a new level. “It was basically a collegial gathering,” Cohen recalls, “but never went beyond that.” The IFLC stepped in to get the forum moving after it had stalled and staffed the project. They also focused the work, bringing religious leaders together around the issues of literacy and home heating. Both programs have received small grants recently to support these efforts.
“They have assets they can bring to bear on these issues that other organizations don’t have,” Cohen says. Interfaith groups “raise awareness [of issues] through their congregational networks, bring a moral authority that others cannot bring, [and leverage] their denominations professional staff, buildings, and programs to address issues.”
Recently this effective organizing capability and moral authority was in evidence when the IFLC provided the staff for the Religious Leaders Forum to jointly ask Michigan’s governor to veto gun legislation that would have permitted concealed weapons in churches. Collectively, the Forum viewed the legislation as an incursion on separation of church and state as well as being an unfortunate symbol. These regional faith leaders who cross political lines were able to tell the governor that as the moral leadership of the faith community they felt compelled to say that the answer to gun violence cannot simply be more guns. The governor vetoed the legislation.
More Than the Sum of the Faithful
In fact, the IFLC’s assets extend far beyond the traditional power that Cohen rightly outlines above. IFLC can genuinely talk about how it has already moved the organization from an inward facing group focused on serious social issues and defending the rights of all religious groups to live and thrive in Detroit, to one that has thrown the entire debate about religion into the public square in profoundly useful ways.
Most recently, IFLC coupled with the Detroit Institute of Art to aid in its presentation of Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus. Swarupa Anila was the person responsible for handling the interpretive part of the show.
The challenge, she quickly realized, was “How do we honor the fact that there are going to be a lot of Christian faithful coming to the exhibit to see works about Jesus Christ, but at the same time construct it so that everyone can find meaning in the exhibit?”
She turned to IFLC for help. One of several groups the museum brought in to review the exhibit in advance and raise questions about it, IFLC created an opportunity not just for viewers to find meaning in the exhibit, but to raise crucial questions about the divisive question of Jesus in Detroit.
Bob Bruttell, Victor Begg, and Gail Katz, who sits on IFLC’s board and is former president of Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in Metro Detroit, launched a series of popular discussions among Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders. These in turn led to more congregations becoming aware of the exhibit and turning out not only for the art, but for a chance to engage their neighbors in competing Abrahamic traditions.
The result? The museum expected 80,000—it wound up attracting over 117,000.
Anila—who was raised Hindu and is married to a Buddhist priest—credits IFLC for a significant portion of the success. While all the groups were helpful, she notes, IFLC was especially “conscious of reflecting the diversity of the region, and active in nurturing a respectful dialogue.”
She is coming back to them in February for a discussion about an upcoming exhibit by an Iranian photographer.
Another community member who has come to value IFLC’s input is Rich Homberg, who head’s Detroit’s PBS station and previously led WWJ News Radio Station 950.
He sees Detroit’s PBS station as one well positioned to deal with issues of race, ethnicity, and culture. To do this, however, one has to work with people who aren’t looking to belittle you for each error you make, but work with you to grow understanding for yourself and the community.
IFLC, he says, “is relentless in understanding.” Regular participants in discussions about forthcoming programs, Homberg turns frequently to IFLC’s leadership to do a better job of addressing sensitive cultural issues to the Detroit community.
What matters most to him is what happens when he gets things wrong. “IFLC will do a reset with you when you get things wrong,” he notes. They bring books, arrange discussions, and appreciate the effort for trying to get things right.
Most important, he concludes, is the group’s openness to grow the debate. “The price of doing business with IFLC,” Homberg says, “is never exclusivity. The more you want to bring to the table, the happier they are.”
Bringing the Congregations Along
For the IFLC to continue to grow, congregations will need to become involved, too. Raman Singh, who sits on the board of trustees for her Sikh Temple and has a long involvement with interfaith work, knows how important getting congregations on board will be, and what it will take.
“IFLC reaches out to us often, and is highly engaged in educating Detroit about Sikhism and removing misunderstandings about our tradition. She notes that there has been vandalism against Sikh houses of worship (often by people who confuse Sikhism with Islam), but when there is, IFLC is there calling news conferences and putting a public face on the problem.
The support was most publicly visible on August 2, 2012, in the wake of the shootings at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. “IFLC organized the news media and turned out the people for the event.” The importance of this to Sikhs, and the value it brought to the citizens of Detroit in terms of improving their understanding of Sikhism, is not to be underestimated, she notes.
But getting the congregations to get on board with interfaith work is going to take more than these public efforts.
“Interfaith is an ‘added value’ to a faith community,” Singh notes, and too often the “added value is lost” on others. Singh believes that the faith leaders are the ones who are going to have to step up (and are stepping up) to teach these added values to their congregations.
“There’s some reverse education that needs to occur,” Singh says, “whereby leaders must nurture inter-community work to grow an appreciation for the value interfaith brings to personal spirituality.”
Kassem Allie notes that in Islam there are certainly differences of opinion between the conservative and liberal wings of Islam over interfaith work, but that Islam itself is pragmatically oriented and open to the work—so long as the leadership exists. Leaders are the ones who enable other Muslims to part from the differences they have with other traditions and bring the focus onto what they share in common.
“There are certainly some who are concerned about losing identity,” Allie says. But “we have so much more in common than we do differences.”
Interfaith work is hard—no matter the approach one chooses to take. Problems emerge in getting religious leaders to find common ground for conversing, motivating congregations to embrace the work, and holding the movement together. Fracturing can, and will, inevitably happen. Focusing on “higher values,” as opposed to social issues or theological issues alone, seems to be helping IFLC overcome the difficulties of this work. More than overcome, this approach is growing the organization in influence. The rigor with which IFLC applies this approach is also critical to its growing influence:
Practical: Getting down to brass tacks is a hallmark of the IFLC. Whether working with heating and literacy issues or rousing protests against those who would do harm to property, body, and soul of religious (indeed, any) people in Detroit, IFLC is keeping its nose on specific outcomes and projects. But …
Communal: The organization isn’t just focused on good works. It’s also focused on taking a serious discussion of faith and how it plays out in society to the airwaves, the streets, and cultural centers of Detroit. And …
Daring: Don’t look for IFLC to shy from the tough confrontations—they have not, and will not, cower.
Rather, IFLC blends and shapes the variety of religious life in ways that move everyone forward with integrity, and a commitment to respecting and listening to others.
It’s what the beloved community is all about.
1. As a leader, how do you balance the particulars of your faith teachings with the need for interfaith relationships?
2. What are the challenges of energizing congregants for interfaith work?
3. This article shows how important leadership is on this issue. How does the work you are involved with compare with what is happening in Detroit? What can you learn from, and what can you teach, them?
4. What are the barriers in your community to working with organizations outside the faith community? How can you lower those barriers?
2013 Issue 1, Number 1