Why I Founded an Interfaith Council in My New Community

Inside Leadership

Why I Founded an Interfaith Council in My New Community

When I began my tenure as rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, I heard a great deal about what was and what used to be. When I started meeting with different faith leaders in the area, for example – something I do when I come to any community – they all told me that decades ago, the community had an interfaith council or coalition. When I asked what happened to it, no one could give me an answer except to say that, that at the time, the group had been powerful enough to end a labor strike in the 1980s.

Interfaith education and dialogue were a tenet of my rabbinic studies, and they’re a central passion of my rabbinate, so naturally I began to investigate – and I found that whatever used to exist had long been forgotten. The good news, then, was that there was an opportunity to begin anew, to start from scratch.

Through interfaith programming at my synagogue, I had already made a few connections with faith leaders around the island, including Muslim, B’hai, Buddhist, Hindu, and many Christian denominations. When I posed the idea of an interfaith council to them, most seemed interested but skeptical about the council’s success. “Here on the island,” they told me, “everyone kind of keeps to themselves.”      

Still, I persevered because there was a tremendous need for this kind of coalition in our community. St. Thomas, like many communities, is wrought with poverty, racial divides, corruption, gangs, drugs, deteriorating schools, and violence. It was time for the faith leaders to take a stand and start making a difference – together. It might be easy for a business or group to ignore one voice – one pastor, one congregation – but it would be quite difficult to stare down a dozen community leaders of all faiths, representing thousands of constituents, and tell them no. That is the power of an interfaith council: the power of a united voice.

In January of this year, in almost a spark of impulse, I founded the Interfaith Council of the Caribbean. By “founded,” I simply mean I decided there was going to be one. First, I created a Facebook page, a logo, a header, and a mission, then I went to work, sending personalized invitations to all the faith leaders I knew and inviting them to join.

Soon, there were two of us. Then three. Then six. We came from St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix – all throughout the Virgin Islands. The coalition gained the attention of prominent local businessmen, who reached out to the faith leaders they knew and connected them with me. One local lawyer even facilitated the first meeting, setting the time and the place, then telling me, “It’s your meeting. You set the agenda.”

In 2015, I was just the new rabbi on island – and then, suddenly, I was the founder and president of a potentially influential interfaith council that expanded throughout the entire Caribbean.

Now, we’re a strong coalition, growing in stature and slowly becoming a presence in the community. In early June, the council will have its first full in-person meeting, with an agenda that includes questions such as: What’s our vision? What are our goals? What are the challenges we can realistically take on? What are the partnership organizations that can help us achieve our mission?

I always tell people that an interfaith council fights against challenges any faith can get behind. After all, no religion is for poverty, or in support of gang violence. At our base, our moral compasses point us toward a common goal of tikkun olam, the healing of the world, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

It’s my hope and dream that the Interfaith Council of the Caribbean will be on the lips of local representatives and will be sought-after for help by other organizations and non-profits. But most of all, it is my hope that you’ll find the members of the ICC on the front lines, whether at a march, a rally, a strike, a protest, or any gathering for the sake of a better world. As faith leaders, we do the most good by standing at the front – and by standing together.

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Rabbi Michael E. Harvey is the rabbi of Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Ordained by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 2015, Rabbi Harvey earned a Master’s degree in Hebrew Letters from HUC-JIR and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University. Throughout his tenure at HUC-JIR, he served congregations small and large in Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas.

Rabbi Michael E. Harvey
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