InterFaith Conference Looks Backward and Forward
"You want to go to Old Greenbelt?" said the taxi-driver in the turban. "Okay." He leaned forward and turned up the audio tape of Indian music, then drove away from the subway station in suburban Maryland.
The increasing ethnic diversity of Washington, D.C., and its suburbs has been remarked upon by observers in recent years; PBS's Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly devoted part of its premiere program in 1997 to a highway in suburban Maryland where Christian churches and Jewish synagogues jostle for space next to Islamic mosques and Hindu temples.
Thirty years ago, diversity was also on Washingtonians' mind, but in those years the diversity was leading to fear and desperation.
The D.C. riots of 1968 that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., left the race-divided city bewildered and concerned. Determined to find a way to fight against social and economic injustice and to demonstrate that diversity need not lead to destruction, Washington's Protestants and Catholics joined together. "That was a big thing in those days," remarks Tilden Edwards, formerly of the Metropolitan Ecumenical Training Institute.
The Christians were later joined by D.C.'s Jewish community; according to Mr. Edwards, the training center held a Jewish-Christian dialogue, sponsored a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and conducted a race institute with fifty trainers to assist churches in handling racial conflicts.
Yet the continued tension in Washington became apparent to everyone in 1977 when an Islamic gunman held hostages at the B'nai B'rith Building and the Islamic Center. Due to that incident, the training center was succeeded by the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington (IFC), innovative in its time because it included Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic communities.
Today, the IFC's original diversity seems parochial. Eight faith communities now belong to the IFC – Baha'i, Hindu and Jain, Islamic, Jewish, Latter-day Saints, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Sikh – and local Buddhists have applied for admission.
All of which made for a crowded schedule at the IFC's twentieth anniversary service and dinner on May 16.
One of the IFC's ongoing missions is to showcase the diversity of religions in the Washington area. The participants at the anniversary service, standing under the Gothic Revival arch of St. Alban's Episcopal Church in northwest D.C., took turns reading from their holy scriptures. The service began with Sikh music and ended with a Christian hymn, "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee" (with the words "Christ our brother" discreetly dropped). As Anthony Franchina of the IFC read out prayers, people of diverse ethnic groups joined in to offer their own prayers.
"I ask for your prayers for God's people throughout the world."
"To establish the oneness of mankind."
"For peace throughout the world."
"I ask for your prayers for our community."
"To establish the oneness of religion."
"For the homeless and the sick."
"For the children of this community, that they may grow in love and laughter."
"I ask for your prayers for the work of the InterFaith Conference."
"To establish the oneness of God."
"May we remain together in peace and love."
"May we learn to listen."
Planning such a service, said the Rev. Clark Lobenstine afterwards, is done "with joy and with care."
Rev. Lobenstine, executive director of the IFC for twenty years, is no newcomer to faith diversity; he explained at the anniversary service that he lived in five countries before he was ten. Today, he works as parish associate of Silver Spring Presbyterian Church in Maryland while devoting much of his time to the IFC's many projects, such as the development of guidelines for communities that wish to hold interfaith services.
The seal of Rev. Lobenstine's work was revealed clearly in an anecdote recounted by the Right Rev. Jane Dixon, suffragan bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. Standing in the pulpit of St. Alban's, she recalled how, many years ago, she was stymied by the process of leading an ecumenical service. Someone told her, "Call Clark Lobenstine, and he will teach you how to do that."
The after-dinner speeches, held in the dining hall of St. Alban's School for Boys, also revealed the extent of Rev. Lobenstine's work. An audience of 170 listened as speaker after speaker described his debt to the IFC – and to Rev. Lobenstine.
"When someone comes into the room [at the IFC], we can't help saying, 'Ah, he's one of ours' or 'Ah, he's one of theirs," said the Rev. Lincoln Dring on Silver Spring Presbyterian Church. "When Clark walks into the room, everyone says, 'He's one of ours.'"
Mattie Robinson, a member of Shiloh Baptist Church, was even more pointed. Two turning points had occurred in her life, she said; the first came when a visiting preacher spoke at her Baptist church, and the second came when she met Clark Lobenstine. Reflecting on the two events, Ms Robinson added, "I just want to say what it meant to meet a man who is as dedicated as Martin Luther King."
If Clark Lobenstine has made its mark on the IFC, the IFC has made its mark on Washington. The speakers also recounted the local projects that have grown out of the IFC: the annual spring dialogue on issues of concern to faith communities, the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Interfaith Service, the annual Interfaith Concert . . .
"We had a puny interfaith service in those years," said Mr. Edwards. "Three hundred people."
Today, the IFC reports that the concert – "a dialogue in song," Rev. Lobenstine calls it – attracts about two thousand people each year. Although many changes have occurred over the years, the IFC's goals remain the same. The first is to "increase understanding, dialogue and a sense of community among peoples of diverse faiths from different races and cultures." The second is to "address issues of social and economic justice in defense of human dignity."
Speakers told how the Capitol Area Community Food Bank is one of the products of the IFC, as is The Emergency Food and Shelter Directory; the IFC has also spoken out to the government on issues of social justice. Congresswoman Eleanor Homes Norton, D.C.'s delegates to the U.S. House of Representatives, told the audience, "When it comes to doing this sort of work over religious and racial and ethnic lines, there are more dropouts than people like yourselves. . . . But the IFC has kept steady at the wheel."
Congresswoman Norton believes that the problem twenty years after the IFC's founding is no longer racial integration but "racial and ethnic isolation." Siva Subramanian, a local Hindu who serves as vice-president of the IFC, recounted how the IFC succeeded even in bringing a single faith community into closer unity.
"We [Hindus] are mainly immigrants who come here, each of us founding temples and doing our own things," said Dr. Subramanian. Then one day a phone call came from Clark Lobenstine; would Dr. Subramanian's temple like to join the IFC? Musing on the matter, Dr. Subramanian began contacting the other temples. Today, eleven Hindu temples and one Jain temple belong to the United Hindu and Jain Temple Association of Metropolitan Washington. According to Dr. Subramanian, the organization holds an annual Diwali (Festival of Lights) celebration that attracts 15,000 to 18,000 people.
"This was something that allowed us to get together and dialogue amongst ourselves," says Dr. Subramanian. "This was possible because of a call from Clark."
Rev. Dring agreed. "A deepening respect for others' positions results in a deepening respect for one's own positions."
Adds the Rev. Charlie Parker, "In a time when so much of the violence in the world stems from religious intolerance, the IFC provides a wonderful model for an alternative way of working."
Yet an organization like the IFC requires continual momentum to carry on its work. Jack Serber, chairperson of the IFC's board of directors, touched on this point when he said at the end of the anniversary dinner, "We've spoken about twenty years of hard work and dedication. We really haven't talked about how that represents a foundation."
To continue its work, the IFC must attract a new generation. This fact is clear to Jessica Lipps, a local high school student.
Ms. Lipps, who participates in United Synagogue Youth, first learned of IFC through Rev. Lobenstine's aunt.
"It's been a wonderful experience, and I've been learning a lot about other religions," she said following the anniversary service. She is especially encouraged by the development of a youth group for the IFC. At the time she joined the IFC, she was one of about a dozen youth; a conference sponsored by the IFC earlier this year attracted eighty youth.
"It's up to us as youth to empower our peers," she says. "The youth provide fresh ideas to the IFC. We have to continue passing on the ideals."
Washington: InterFaith Conference Takes a Look at New Beginnings. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. In 1977, Islamic extremists broke into the B'nai B'rith Building and the Islamic Center, holding hostages at both locations for nearly eighteen hours. Out of that tragedy was born the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington (IFC), one of the United States's most prominent interreligious organization. (February 1998)
Looking Back: Hostages Held at B'nai B'rith (June 1, 1997)
© 1999 Heather Elizabeth Peterson