The Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs held its first meeting of the Puget Sound Interfaith Network for Public Theology earlier this month. The July 6th gathering was an opportunity for this cohort of local religious leaders and community partners to connect with one another and, together with the Center team, begin to shape the next phase of the Center’s work.
Center Director, Dr. Manuel Mejido, opened the meeting by outlining how the Network is instrumental to the Center’s efforts of fostering more effective faith-based responses to our most pressing social problems, like homelessness and the affordable housing crisis. He highlighted four objectives that will orient the group’s work:
- identify the capacity needs of faith-based organizations
- provide guidance on the development of community education programming
- engage Center scholars to ensure that their research speaks to the local reality
- enhance the skill set of religious leaders to serve as public theologians
Rev. Maggie Breen, the Center’s Community Engagement Manager, led the meeting’s opening conversation around potential themes to be explored by the Network over the course of the next year – from navigating land-use and zoning issues, working with City Hall and influencing legislation and policy, to learning how to build sustainable grassroots coalitions across faith traditions, being more accountable to our communities, and theologically grounding the justice work of faith-based organizations.
The wealth of experience in the room made for a rich and wide-ranging conversation that began with a questioning of the very framework from which we tend to approach issues such as homelessness. The group discussed the need to ask the “right” questions – to confront the root causes and systemic nature of social problems; grapple with the interplay of social location and access to opportunities; reflect on the complexities of solidarity, diversity and inclusion; and draw on the prophetic and liberative language of our religious traditions.
Members raised specific capacity-building issues as well, citing the need for enhancing skills in coalition-building and working with cross-sector partnerships; for dealing with staff burnout and turnover, and the recruitment and training of volunteers; for leveraging community resources to achieve organizational sustainability; for better understanding the current landscape of faith-based social service provision and advocacy; and for learning how to roll out community engagement programming in the context of faith communities that “aren’t quite there yet.”
In the coming months, these conversations will be more focused, with a distinct structure for each meeting. The first half will consist of discussion among Network members and other attendees around a specific capacity-building theme; and the second half will involve dialoguing with Center scholars about their ongoing research projects through videoconferencing. Each gathering will include several special guests in addition to the Network members: a handful of School of Theology and Ministry students will be invited to participate in the full series of discussions and in the Center’s second symposium in April 2018 as Graduate Student Affiliates; and faculty from both the School of Theology and Ministry and Seattle University at large, along with select community partners, will also take part.
Interactions among Network members and Center scholars will continue between meetings through Canvas, the university’s learning management system. By way of this online platform, scholars will have the opportunity to respond to Network conversations, just as Network members will be able to provide feedback on scholars’ research projects, creating synergies that will help build the Center’s knowledge base and generate educational resources.
The work of the Puget Sound Network will inform a series of professional development courses designed to equip practitioners for more effective justice work. These courses around faith-based community development and capacity building will be rolled out this coming academic year and will also be available for graduate credit. More information on these courses will be released later this summer.
The next Network meeting will take place on September 13th.
Network Members are:
- Hamdi Abdulle, Somali Youth and Family Club
- Wael Bahaa-El-Din, Muslim Association of Puget Sound
- Kelle Brown, Plymouth Church United Church of Christ
- Marilyn Cornwell, Church of the Ascension
- Jeff Lilley, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission
- Taijo Imanaka, Seattle Koyasan Buddhist Temple
- Rich Lang, United Methodist Church Seattle District
- Aaron Meyer, Temple De Hirsch Sinai
- Michael Ramos, Church Council of Greater Seattle
- Rizwan Rizwi, Muslim Housing Services
- David Rodes, Puyallup Nazarene Church
- Michael Yoder, Associated Ministries of Tacoma Pierce County
- Ruth Zlotnick, Temple Beth Am
Click here to learn more about the Network members.