Participants in a March 1986 charter meeting of the Greater Baton Rouge Federation of Churches and Synagogues found an early mission statement in the Bible’s book of Isaiah.
Twenty-five years later, the organization, which changed its name to the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge in 2007, is still seeking to promote justice through ministry to the poor and dialogue among those of different faiths and cultures.
“While we did a number of programs, the main single aspect of the federation is relationships, and from those, other things could happen as a result,” explained the Rev. Jeff Day, who served as the federation’s executive director for 20 years.
The federation began, in part, as an outgrowth of the Urban Ministries Coalition, an association of downtown churches that sought to deal with community needs.
After 80 people representing 40 congregations attended a luncheon at the Catholic Life Center in September 1985, the Rev. James Stovall, executive director of the Louisiana Interchurch Conference, sent November letters inviting all Baton Rouge churches to participate.
“The idea appealed to me because I always felt that most spiritual-minded people, while we have minor differences of opinion about the major issues, we are one accord,” said the Rev. Charles Smith, pastor of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church and vice chairman of the federation during its initial year.
The original charter congregations were Beth Shalom Synagogue, Broadmoor United Methodist Church, Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church, Congregation B’nai Israel, Elm Grove Baptist Church, First Baptist Church, First Christian Church, First Presbyterian Church, First United Methodist Church, Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church, Shady Grove Missionary Baptist Church, Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, St. Aloysius Catholic Church, St. Isidore Catholic Church, St. James Episcopal Church, St. Joseph Cathedral, St. Jude Catholic Church, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, University Baptist Church, University Presbyterian Church and University United Methodist Church.
Former LSU Chancellor Cecil G. Taylor, of University Presbyterian, served as interim chairman during that first year; while David Ourso with Our Lady of Mercy served as treasurer.
The board hired Day, who served as executive director until his retirement in 2006. He is now pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Ponchatoula and will be the guest speaker for the federation’s Community Prayer Breakfast scheduled for 7 a.m. Sept. 14 at Boudreaux’s, 2647 Government St.
“What was happening here was rather unique at the time,” Day said. “In all my ecumenical and interracial work, I wasn’t aware of any community the size of Baton Rouge or even smaller putting together an organization of this nature.”
Under his guidance, the federation created - and continues to be involved with - numerous ministries designed to strengthen the sacred and social fabric of the community.
Working in pockets of poverty, namely Zion City (Plank Road area) and Scotlandville, where people are likely to be overlooked, the federation serves 2,400 hot meals monthly through the Holy Grill, which is sustained by the Food Bank of Greater Baton Rouge, 47 member churches, other donors and grants.
The annual Community Prayer Breakfast was launched in 1987. Two years later, the federation launched what eventually became Habitat for Humanity in Baton Rouge.
Every spring since 1991 at a Sounds of CommUNITY concert, vocalists and dancers from Protestant, Catholic, African-American and Judaic houses of worship perform.
The Stations of Hope began in 1993, with travelers making a pilgrimage to eight houses of worship.
Inter-Faith Caregivers, which provides services to people living at home with chronic illnesses, began in 1997.
Kids Café provides children ages 5 to 18 a hot, nutritious meal and tutoring after school. The ministry operates from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at Greater Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Scotlandville and from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday at the Cadillac Park BREC Center in Zion City.
However, what Day said he is most proud of from his years with the federation is the “comfort level that developed in visiting each other.”
“Racial, ecumenical, Christian and Jew, rich and poor ? we truly developed friendships, even love for each other, that continue today,” he said.
The Rev. Robin McCullough Bade, a Lutheran minister who became executive director of the federation in 2009, noted the ongoing benefits of Day’s relational approach to ministry.
When the church buildings of predominantly African-American congregations were being burned in the South, Day partnered up black and white congregations in Baton Rouge for sustained dialogue events to transform relationships that can block collaboration, she noted.
“Some dialoguers are still together,” Bade said. “St. Paul Lutheran Church and Elm Grove Baptist - they share meals, work at local schools together. They’ve built these wonderful, loving relationships that have been sustained over time.”
That pioneering Baton Rouge dialogue experience fills a chapter in “A Public Peace Process: Sustained Dialogue to Transform Racial and Ethnic Conflicts” by in Harold Saunders.
Margaret Johnson replaced Day, serving as executive director from 2007 until her retirement at the end of 2008.
During Johnson’s tenure, strategic planning produced a new mission statement: “pursue unity, justice and peace through interfaith cooperation.”
Also, the federation changed its name, modified its membership requirements and renewed its focus on social justice.
In renaming itself the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge, the federation expanded its membership beyond Christians and Jews to include those of such other faiths as Islam, Buddhism and Sikhism.
Talk of becoming more inclusive had begun years before.
At the 2007 Prayer Breakfast, the Rev. Philip Woodland, then-board president of the federation as well as pastor of University United Methodist Church, talked of how the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought “the realization that across America, many were not aware of the significance of one segment of the religious community - that of Muslims.”
Johnson was replaced by Bade, who has served as executive director since 2009.
Bade has spent much of her time meeting with clergy about where the federation should go next. She discovered a strong desire to focus on interfaith dialogue.
“We live with such a global awareness as much as we live with such diversity that sometimes we still don’t know who our neighbor is,” explained Bade. “If they are different it’s too easy not to get to know them and look for that common ground. That’s an important role for the federation - to provide these opportunities for people to come together for peace.
“It doesn’t mean you’re any less of your faith if you attend worship at a mosque, synagogue, Buddhist meditation,” she said. “You’re on sacred ground, and it’s OK to be there and that becomes the gift to you and your presence is your present to them.”
The federation’s strategic plan also calls for a more vocal advocacy for the poor. According to Bade, one in four Louisiana children live in poverty.
The federation began hosting poverty forums annually in March 2009. The idea is to bring community leaders together to analyze data, identify gaps in services and target ones for people of faith to fill.
Participants have been challenged to take personal responsibility for doing what they can do - such as serving as mentors to children in need.
“People want to help but they just don’t know how,” said Bade.
The federation isn’t a direct social services agency, with the exception of the Holy Grill, but it does serve as a resource for those who want to get involved.
The founding pastors invested a lot of personal capital in creating the federation and Bade is still struck by the clarity of their vision.
“There was the need to feed, which lead to Holy Grill; the need for housing, which led to what eventually became Habitat for Humanity; and the need to dialogue, in response to the burnings of black churches in the 1990s,” said Bade. “In many ways the federation has been such a leader, a blessing in the community - exposing the needs of our neighbors.
“People who come forth from their faith communities have a certain kindness, respect for their neighbors; there’s genuine love and openness that’s there. I think the Interfaith Federation brings out the best in people.”
The federation has just fewer than 50 church members, but there are also many congregations who assume they’re members and they’re not, Bade said. “All that’s required is time, money and verbal support of the work of the federation.
“Gathering us together, taking us out of our comfort zone and helping us to see the bigger picture - to me, that’s what the federation should be doing,” continued Bade.
“You learn by doing,” said Day. “You can’t correct oppression by sitting comfortably in your pew or writing a check, you have to get out and do something.”