Not that long ago, I sat in a diner sipping the morning’s coffee with a pastor, a politician, a police officer, some concerned community members, and a theology student. This informal gathering was one of the first that I attended as a part of a Sacred Service-Learning placement at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), where I study. We were gathered to discuss how a well-organized faith community could come together to serve the needs of Lower Price Hill, a struggling neighborhood of Cincinnati. The other student was Judie Kuhlman, in the Graduate program at Xavier University. The two of us were at the table in the diner not because of any particular position of authority or specialized expertise we had. Rather, we were there as students to observe, learn, reflect, and process what we experienced. It was an unusual classroom to say the least.
We went to a lot of meetings like this over the course of the academic year. Some involved a small handful of faith and community leaders, some included scores of participants discussing city-wide strategy and policy. All of them involved people of different faith communities coming together to address real-world challenges, backed by the force of their shared values. Over that time, our role gradually shifted from observers to participants. We realized that our unique perspective as students afforded us a particular way to make a real and lasting difference.
We began to see patterns emerge. Many of the smaller groups we met with were dealing with similar problems. Many had members or their communities who were underserved because they struggled with lack of education, food insecurity, or availability of services like public transportation. Several faith groups faced challenges meeting the particular needs of immigrant communities. What’s more, we discovered that although these various interfaith efforts often faced similar challenges, they had almost no way to communicate with one another about their struggles and successes. Many of them did not even realize that there were other, similar groups struggling with the same challenges in other parts of the city.
Moreover, there were leaders with very different challenges from one another, that nonetheless were complimentary. In one small meeting of faith and community leaders, we saw an amazing and serendipitous solution to two problems unfold before our eyes. One church had purchased a building that had previously been in legal limbo between a tenant and landlord, and so sat vacant, troubling the surrounding community. The church needed a reliable tenant to occupy the building. Another faith group was looking to establish a food pantry to serve the same part of town. They had the funding and volunteers to handle the interior carpentry, refrigeration, and so forth, but had trouble finding a location with a landlord they could work with. You can imagine how the conversation played out. There were a lot of tricky details to work through, but the match was made in heaven.
Judie and I began to wonder how many other situations like this existed all over Cincinnati. How many people were working independently to address the same type of problems? How many people had complimentary needs that could be solved together like the vacant building and the pantry? The more we looked, the more we found. A community looking for teenage volunteers, and a community struggling to help their teens earn service hours in preparation for college; a generous retiree with a small fleet of vehicles to offer and unmet transportation needs across the city. Judie and I were not in a position to arrange meeting between these people, or negotiate any formal deals. We also couldn’t stand idly, knowing what we knew. With the support of our supervisor, Dr. James Buchannan of the Brueggeman Center for Dialogue at Xavier University, we set out to make a plan.
What the communities and organizations needed most was a resource to connect with one another. As students, we could use our knowledge and skills to create such a resource. It would be based on our objective assessment of what we saw in the community, and it would allow nonprofit service organizations, interfaith dialogue groups, and community leaders to connect with one another. A website – and a continuing student effort behind it – can be that resource. We came up with a plan to empower all of the amazing people we met to share their struggles and best practices, to coordinate resources, to combine efforts and to increase the capacity of their organizations. We created InterfaithCincy.org to empower people doing good things all over the city to do great things. I know that it is possible because I have seen it happen in front of my eyes.
In this unique classroom, I have learned more about the way organizations work (and work together) than I ever could have in a traditional classroom, or working in the field. As a student, I have been given unprecedented access and insight into the inner working of organizations. I have interviewed people in organizations who have shared some of their deepest insights and struggles that they might not ever share so openly with someone from competing organization or a funder. The personal insights that I have gained are invaluable.
I believe that there is even more to learn from what I have seen. My research has focused on the interfaith world, but I believe that the lessons I learned can be applied to the intrafaith world as well. That is to say, when I reflect on the Jewish organizational world that I live in from day to day, I see some of the same patterns. There are multiple Jewish organizations who face the same challenges and see the same opportunities. For various reasons, they often do not share their best practices. They do not reflect openly about their vulnerabilities, or their failings. Some repeatable mistakes are repeated again and again in different organizations because no one knew any better. Some great ideas start and stop inside the walls of a single synagogue rather that becoming common practice.
It is not only a challenge of communication that stymies this potential for growth, improved use of resources, and increased capacity. There is often a competitive element that keeps us from working together to creatively solve shared challenges. This is even in a world where it is now well understood that the strongest and most innovative Jewish cities are those who demonstrate the greatest cooperation.
How does this work in the interfaith world? Organizations certainly find themselves competing for some of the same resources. What allows the type of cooperation despite a healthy completive inclination is one simple thing; interfaith organizations and coalitions recognize their underlying shared values. Whether it is pronounced “rahmah” in Arabic, “rachamim” in Hebrew, or “mercy” in English, every faith group shares a desire to help people who are less fortunate. Among Jewish organizations, the shared values are even deeper. We may not agree on ritual practice or political policy, but we share the same underlying values. We believe in tzedakah, human dignity, feeding the hungry, celebrating simchas, and education.
When we identify partners who share our values and priorities, we can serve the Jewish community better through cooperation. We can put our resources to more efficient use by eliminating redundancies, enjoying economies of scale, and sharing the lessons we have learned. Our communities will grow in capacity and compassion beyond what we could have imagined working separately. Just like the beginnings of my work in interfaith, it all begins with sitting down at a table together. Coffee is optional (but much preferred).