The Interfaith Leadership Council seeks to create connections, conciliation, and education
BY WEAM NAMOU
On September 12, 2001, clergy and community leaders met in the aftermath of 9/11 to plan a joint prayer service at Detroit’s Fort Street Presbyterian Church. The group continued to meet monthly, moderated by Reverend Daniel Krichbaum, who was then the executive director of the Detroit Office of the National Conference for Community Justice, which later became the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion.
The group, made up of independent leaders of many faiths, soon decided to take their interfaith effort to congregations instead of limiting their work to dialogue among individuals. As their work continued to expand, in 2010 they officially established the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit (IFLC). They’ve since created a number of educational programs, community initiatives, service and book projects and conflict resolution services.
“IFLC has served as a hub for uniting people of faith in a common purpose,” said Raman Singh, president of the organization. “Our focus areas are connections, conciliation, and education.”
Singh, a graduate of Wayne State University with a master’s in Mechanical Engineering and owner of Kumon Math and Reading Center in Plymouth, has been involved with the Interfaith Leadership Council for more than a decade. She was elected president two years ago, a position previously held by her father.
A leader in the Sikh community, Singh believes that understanding the great traditions and practice of other religions not only reduces social differences, but expands our collective consciousness of the possibilities of faith. That through interfaith engagement we can harness the resources and good intentions of people to impact some of the challenges facing our region.
“We consider ourselves a network of networks, and have therefore collaborated with many other organizations, school districts, and houses of worship,” she said.
IFLC gained significant attention in 2010 when they brought together nearly 1,500 faith leaders from across Detroit to support the Islamic Center of America and defuse the attention brought by Terry Jones’ anti-Islam protest. In 2014, they hosted the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) Connect Conference on the campus of Wayne State University, which attracted more than 150 registered guests internationally, from 26 states and provinces, and 48 different religious groups. In 2016, IFLC joined other organizations in offering drinking water to residents of Flint, Michigan during that city’s water crisis.
But their ongoing thriving program has been Religious Diversity Journeys, where seventh grade students from different school districts participate in five school-day field trips (one daily) to visit five different houses of worship: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu. The students also perform a summation at either the Holocaust Center or the Detroit Institute of Arts. Students are provided with the unique opportunity to ask questions, tour the houses of worship, and share a meal with those of different faith traditions.
“This program helps break barriers and allows people to see our commonly shared values,” said Singh. “Sometimes learning about other faiths broadens your knowledge and deepens your appreciation for your own faith.”
Exploring our Religious Landscapes is another program which is quickly growing. Through classes, adults have the opportunity to explore and discuss the sacred texts and rituals of four different faiths. This program consists of lectures, immersive worship experiences, dinners, and discussions at four different houses of worship per cycle.
“It’s really helpful and important to learn about other peoples’ faiths, especially during a period when so many are distrustful of other traditions,” Singh said. “Some people have never been in a mosque or a church and this process helps to take away the fear.”
Not surprisingly, following the recent presidential election, the organization had an increase in interest from people wanting to learn more about Islam.
“We’re happy to see that we’re making a difference,” she said, “but we realize there’s still a lot of fear out there and we feel we have more work to do.”
With an annual budget of $200,000, Singh attributes the organization’s financial success to two main strategies: the board is comprised of volunteers, with two paid staff (one part-time, another full-time), and they don’t chase funding.
“The board is here because they believe in the work and they stay true to their mission,” she said. “If we don’t have the money, we don’t do it.”
She pointed out that this isn’t the case for all organizations. Some will change their mission to fit the funds they’re chasing. Interfaith Leadership Council, on the other hand, finds like-minded foundations that want to support their efforts because they are already aligned with the core mission. Their finances come from a variety of sources including the board trustees, participants in the program, their annual awards dinner and fundraiser, as well as grants from some corporate and community foundations. In her view, other important components to a successful organization include discipline and staying clear and true to the purpose.
“Anything that makes society feel divided, that’s where our space is,” Singh said. “Metro Detroit is an incredibly diverse area. We don’t realize how lucky we are. We live together quite well. That’s not the case in many areas. But we still don’t know each other well enough.”
Weam Namou is an award-winning author of 12 books, a journalist, the vice president of Detroit Working Writers, and ambassador at Arab America. Learn more at weamnamou.com.