Cultivating Interfaith Harmony and Collaboration in a Metropolitan Area: An Interview with Rev. Dr. Clark Lobenstine
Rev. Dr. Clark Lobenstine
You’ve been Executive Director of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, DC, for 33-plus years. Can you provide a brief, historical overview of the membership?
When it was founded in late 1978, the InterFaith Conference was the first organization in the world to bring together the Islamic, Jewish, Protestant and Roman Catholic faith communities, both to deepen understanding and to build a just community in a metropolitan area. Since then the Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Latter-day Saints, Sikh and Zoroastrian faith communities in this region have joined to advance justice, build community and nurture understanding in metropolitan Washington.
What evolutions have you seen in general terms, for better or for worse, in relations among the different faith communities?
There have been lots of changes, with lots more interfaith/inter-religious activity than when I began in 1979. Some faith communities, denominational bodies, or organizations in this region have specific people or committees focused on interfaith/inter-religious relations (I use those two terms synonymously).
One of the things that has marked the life of the Interfaith Conference is an annual interfaith concert. What kind of feedback do you get from this event? What contribution to the overall work do you see it making?
The annual Interfaith Concert is a great celebration of our unity and diversity through song, dance and chant. We begin and end each concert with a combined choir to emphasize our unity. During the concert 5 or 6 faith communities share from the heart of their tradition which is a natural way of sharing the diversity among us. As someone said of our very first concert: "You are so fortunate to have found something that is a program and a fund-raiser and isn't another dinner in Washington!" There have been many positive comments from others over the years. One of the most frequent comments I've heard is that "This year's concert was better than last year's. How do you do that?
The annual InterFaith Concert is our most important fundraiser of the year and therefore supports our year-round work to advance justice, build community (through dialogue) and nurture understanding (among youth, young adults and their teachers). But we also seek to make it widely available, and offer free tickets each year to organizations serving those who otherwise couldn't come. We also haven't raised prices for quite a few years. Our general admission tickets are just $15 each with discounts if you buy 10 or more.
Almost four years ago, the Board decided that our annual concert would be just 90 minutes long (it had become 2 1/4 hours long) with only half of our faith communities participating each year.
Also, some years ago, we added musical interludes in the "dead" spaces between participating groups taking their leave from and entering on to the stage. That made the concert seem shorter, even though it really wasn't. One learning from this is that the interludes need to be improvised and able to be stopped when the next group is ready to go.
The Conference is also involved in the region's only interreligious prayer service, held annually on Martin Luther King Day in January.
What approach is taken: multi-religious prayer where each of the communities present prays in their own way, or integrative prayer where an effort is made to find ways to actually pray together? What kind of attendance does the service draw?
This annual service is the region's only multi-religious service celebrating the birthday of Dr. King. We include scriptures from 6 to 8 different traditions. Our guidelines for interfaith prayer services, such as this one, indicate that the content of the prayers that are offered needs to be such that all persons present can say “Amen” to them. The service draws from 200 to 1,000 persons, with 400-600 being an average. Also, we hold the service a week before the Federal holiday weekend, when there are many less competing services or programs.
What are some of the ways your own faith has been enriched by your interfaith ministry?
There are so many ways. I love the inquiry of a Scandinavian Lutheran bishop, now deceased, who asked: "What are the holy envies that you have?" I am presently writing a whole book of reflections on how the unique opportunities I have had over these 33+ years as the Executive Director of an interfaith organization have been both the occasion for the discovery and the fulfilling of various “holy envies”. Hope you'll let your readers know about it when it's published in a couple of years.
As you look back over your years in this ministry, are there a few "summit moments" that come to mind, events or experiences that have stayed in your heart and continued to motivate you in the day-to-day work?
The thrill of the combined choir finale at the Interfaith Concert is one of those summit moments for me. Someone told me today that occasionally in the concerts she really experienced that we are one. Another is the clear sense of reliance on God, on my partnership with Jesus. When I accepted the call to this work it was out of a sense that, because I knew I couldn't do it alone, I could say yes.
For more information about the upcoming InterFaith Concert on December 6, 7:30pm, click here.
Rev. Dr. Clark Lobenstine serves as a Parish Associate of the Silver Spring Presbyterian Church although his primary work is as the Executive Director of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington (IFC).