Strength in diversity
Anchorage Interfaith Council brings many faith groups together
“Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.” – Kenyan proverb
Cal Williams sat with a gathering of eight other people late on the afternoon of Thursday, March 14. He was a happy man. It was the day after the new pope had been named.
“I believe Pope Francis will work with the needy, that coming from Argentina he understands village life, diversity in our world. He’ll emphasize harmony,” Williams said. His smile grew ever larger as he spoke to the group.
Williams is a member of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Anchorage.
“I think we have one of the most diverse congregations on this earth,” he told the people around him, at a meeting of the Interfaith Council of Anchorage. “We have black, white, Polish, Native peoples, Samoans, Filipinos. Yes, we even have four different choirs at different services.”
He takes joy in relating that the choirs almost compete to do the most for the church. “The Samoan choir gave us new chairs. So the Filipino choir members jumped up and added on a chapel.”
Williams has become the Filipino choir director at St. Anthony’s. The joy he shares in the diversity of his congregation reflects the mission of this Interfaith gathering. The council lists its goals as “encouraging dialogue, cooperation and community across Anchorage’s faith communities.”
That afternoon, the attendees represented many faith groups or denominations – Methodist, Presbyterian, Jewish, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Congregationalism, Catholicism, the Alaska Center for Spiritual Living. Interfaith Council membership includes an Episcopal church, Alaska Children’s Services, Church Women United. Attendees have often come from the Muslim, Buddhist and Zen faiths.
Those present were asked why they make it a point to attend Interfaith meetings. Loralee Willis from East Anchorage United Methodist Church answered, “Our faith groups need to be working together. More can be accomplished that way.”
Mary Jane Landstrom from Immanuel Presbyterian Church commented, “The group is very helpful in enlarging my perspective.”
And Cal Williams offered, “I’m here to learn of the work that is being done throughout the faith community – not just by my church – to bring about world peace and racial harmony.”
There is the sense among the group that many different faiths, on varying religious paths, are working toward the same goal – harmony, understanding and peace in the community.
For many years, the Interfaith Council has been led by Penny Goodstein from Congregation Beth Sholom. She looked back on the council’s projects since she became an active member in 2005.
“We’ve sponsored educational forums, like a discussion of a ‘just war’ and War Prayer at Cyrano’s (playhouse in Anchorage), with a panel consisting of a rabbi, a Muslim, a Buddhist and Christian ministers. We sponsored an Earth Care event, looking at what the writings of diverse religious groups say about the care of the earth. Each fall, we sponsor the CROP Walk, along with Church Women United, to help raise funds to alleviate hunger in our community and worldwide.”
Goodstein adds, “For many years, we’ve organized a Thanksgiving service on the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving, a gathering of many faith groups, everyone coming together to offer gratitude for all we have as a community. This past fall, it was at the synagogue, and so many people came that the crowd filled the temple well into the lobby. We will have to find a larger place to hold it this coming Thanksgiving eve.”
Choirs from a Catholic church, a Samoan church, the Congregational church and the synagogue all sang during the service, Goodstein said. “It was truly joyful. Oh, I do want to see that continue.”
Goodstein also shared some history of the council, printed in the group’s brochure. “In the late 1970s, there were many pressing social issues here that suggested a need for a broad-based community response, and the group was formed as The Church Council of Anchorage. It had members from the Catholic, Orthodox and mainsream Protestant churches. The group became the Interfaith Council of Anchorage in 1982 in order to include other faith traditions and organizations that support the mission and goals of the Council.”
Coming together as community was reflected in a roundtable opportunity for each person to express what was going on in their individual churches or faith groups. Were there specific needs or concerns – programs they’d like the others to know about?
Gary Holthaus, minister of the Anchorage Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, used the opportunity to tell the others that his congregation is in need of a bigger space, “a positive problem,” he called it.
Loralee Willis used her time to express joy that the congregation at her Methodist church now included a large group of Samoans.
“They are wonderful – happy and helpful. And they are marvelous singers.”
Goodstein wanted people to know of her synagogue’s sponsorship of the “Shining Light” program, an event to honor someone for outstanding contributions to the community.
“This year we are honoring Michele Brown from United Way,” she said. That event will be held on April 25 at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage.
Cal Williams simply invited everyone to come to one of St. Anthony’s four weekly services, “to see our wonderful diversity, the harmony and strength in that.”
The Interfaith Council of Anchorage will hold its next meeting on Thursday, April 11, at 5:30 p.m. in the Carr-Gottstein Building on the Alaska Pacific University campus.
“Anyone interested is very welcome to attend,” Goodstein said. “We’d love to have you come.”
More information about the Council is available on its Web site, interfaithanchorage.org.