The other morning I was a guest for breakfast at Congregation Shalom in Fox Point. There was no special occasion; rather, it was simply the informal monthly breakfast for religious leaders from the greater metropolitan Milwaukee area.
Muslims and Christians enjoyed a delicious kosher meal hosted by the associate rabbi of that synagogue, Canadian-born Rabbi Noah Chertkoff.
The prior month’s gathering had been hosted by Archbishop Listecki at his residence, and before that, December’s meeting had been at the office of Episcopal Bishop Steven Miller. The group is composed of bishops and various judicatory heads. I come along to provide a bit of historical background.
The group’s spirit, as well as its agenda, is very casual; its purpose is simply an opportunity to speak about any mutual concerns which might affect the people we serve and the larger community within which we live.
Sometimes concrete projects are developed as we break bread together or more tentative proposals explored that deal with questions of justice or basic human needs.
Public education, racism, religious freedom, the needs of our youth, and decent housing have all been topics of conversation at one time or other. Anything related to faith is fair game. Occasionally, the discussion may even be simply one of special support for someone experiencing difficulties at the moment.
I’ve been privileged to have been a part of the group for about 25 years. Over that time I have been greatly blessed by a sequence of truly fine individuals whose friendship I have enjoyed and whose pastoral wisdom has been a source of counsel and mutual inspiration.
There have been times, as I indicated above, when fraternal (and sisterly) support is offered to a member community under duress … because the rest of the folks around the table know only too well the pressures of religious leadership.
No matter what the problem, everyone at the table understands.
The relationships began back in the early ’60s when Archbishop Cousins found common cause with the Episcopal bishop and a very prominent local rabbi. The positive experience of the Second Vatican Council provided further encouragement and the painful local issues of racism and open housing so explosive in that era clearly showed the needs of the day.
The subsequent formation of the newly merged Evangelical Lutheran Church in America brought another face to the table. Gradually, new voices were added. Our Muslim friends are the most recent and much welcomed additions.
These days it is someone from the Jewish community who coordinates our monthly schedule and makes sure we have a sequence of hosts and hostesses. There is plenty to talk about, and some fascinating projects to explore.
Ecumenical and interreligious cooperation brings blessings to any community on countless levels. I still find it hard to imagine what life in Milwaukee would have been like without the mutual support of such outstanding religious membership.
Back some 20 years ago, when we celebrated the sesquicentennial of the Archdiocese, each of the 277 Catholic parishes of southeastern Wisconsin were visited by Archbishop Weakland and myself. It took a few years. We placed ourselves at the disposition of each weekend’s hosting congregation for the schedule of that visit. It was interesting to discover on any number of occasions that the pastoral visit included an opportunity to visit with neighboring Protestant clergy from the town or village.
Because such a group met regularly for the discussion of the community’s challenges as well as for mutual support, the Catholic pastor wanted us to meet his partners and to have a clearer sense of the vibrancy of faith in the area as well as the specific issues they addressed.
I decided to write this column while still in the shadow, as it were, of our recent Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. We have recently been reminded by St. James in our weekday Eucharistic liturgy that faith without good works is dead (Jas 2:17).
The regular gathering of a community’s religious leaders is precisely one such “good work.” I lift it up this month by way of a personal witness to the blessings of regular meetings of local ecumenical and interreligious leaders.
These gatherings are also invaluable resources for the civic life of any local area. They are occasions for mutual cooperation and witness to the power of the Gospel at work in our still far too divided and deeply polarized world. God always has a better idea.