Baton Rouge, says Joel Goodman, is losing its “lamed vavnik.”
The reference is to the Rev. Robin McCullough-Bade and a Jewish legend that a small number of people keep the world from falling apart.
McCullough-Bade has announced she is retiring as executive director of the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge.
“The rabbis say without their (lamed vavniks) acts of lovingkindness, life on the planet would implode under the weight of selfishness, anger, ignorance and greed,” said Goodman, first vice president of the Beth Shalom Synagogue Board of Directors. “She’s (McCullough-Bade) a manager. She’s a visionary. She has a warmth, wonderful personality. When I found out she was retiring, it was like someone has pulled a major keystone out of what makes up this community. … I can’t say enough about her.”
McCullough-Bade, 65, planned to retire last year but the COVID-19 pandemic convinced her she couldn’t leave the Interfaith Federation during a crisis. Now, however, it’s time.
“I wasn’t sure I had the passion and the energy to take it to the next level, and I … felt called more to do the pastoral parts of my calling as opposed to the administrative, the seeking grants,” she said. “The administrative part of it was becoming more tedious, so I wanted to use my best energy to do that core call that I’ve had for over 30 years. That’s more working with individual people on their own spiritual journey and to walk with people on that journey.”
McCullough-Bade has guided the federation since 2009. She is only the third executive director since it began in 1986 as the Greater Baton Rouge Federation of Churches and Synagogues. In 2008, the name was changed to the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge.
An Ohio native, McCullough-Bade had served in pastoral roles along with her husband, the Rev. John M. Bade, who had to retire from the ministry after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The federation's first director, the Rev. Jeff Day, asked her to lead its response to Hurricane Katrina starting in 2005. When the second director, Margaret Johnson, retired in 2009, McCullough-Bade was hired.
McCullough-Bade continued longstanding programs such as the Holy Grill food ministry in north Baton Rouge and the annual Sounds of Community concerts, and added some of her own.
In 2013, she brought in composer Robert Kyr to listen to Baton Rouge residents speak about violence and create a choral work called “Waging Peace” that was performed by a 100-voice choir. Last year, she interviewed local Black leaders about race relations for a video series called "More than Kumbaya" that was posted on the federation's website.
Her work in 2016 was especially important, said the Rev. Fred Jeff Smith, pastor of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. That year brought turmoil locally with the police killing of Alton Sterling and a devastating flood and personal tragedy for McCullough-Bade, whose husband died.
“It takes a certain degree of tenacity to bring disparate religious believers together where no one's religious background is made to feel superior or inferior to the other,” Smith said. “She leveled the playing field. I thought that was an important thing to do. She made it possible for us to work on those issues and in those areas where we had common ground. To be able to uplift the areas of commonality and not allow it to fray and to fracture, I thought, was a very positive thing that she brought.”
McCullough-Bade said the faith community will continue to face ministry challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, but she is encouraged by how many — especially younger people — seem willing to do the hard work.
The open fellowship she experienced from people of all faith backgrounds is one of her enduring memories as federation director.
“I really believe faith communities want to do good,” she said. “They want to have compassionate love. We share that common denominator of the love of our neighbor and how can we help the person that’s in need. I think there’s a lot of ways we can do this.
“Many look to the faith community to model something different so love is greater than hate. … How can we get out of our own boxes, out of our own houses of worship, and seek out someone and to offer them respect and try to learn from each other and figure out how we make a difference in this world?”
The federation will be taking applications for McCullough-Bade's replacement in April at ifedgbr.com.