BLOOMINGTON — Whenever there's an attack on a synagogue, a mosque or a church, the Bloomington-Normal faith community has been quick to respond, to come together in support with a vigil.
“This year alone, we've gathered four times for vigils,” said Illinois Wesleyan University chaplain Elyse Nelson Winger.
But a group of faith leaders wanted to do more.
“Vigil after vigil was the only time I'd see the other clergy,” said Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe of Moses Montefiore Temple in Bloomington, who decided, “We need to get together.”
So, about a year and a half ago, Dubowe connected with the Rev. Mollie Ward, director of mission and spiritual care at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center, to create the McLean County Interfaith Alliance.
When a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., turned violent in August 2017, “that's what really catalyzed this group,” said Ward.
About 300 people participated in a multifaith service at First Christian Church that included leaders from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu faiths.
Seeing the turnout, Ward said the group thought “we need to capitalize on the energy and passion people have here.”
Dubowe and Ward already knew each other from their work with Not In Our Town as co-chairs of the faith and outreach committee.
Ward said, “We're trying to be proactive, not reactive” through the alliance.
On Saturday, members of the Interfaith Alliance participated in a Habitat for Humanity project at St. John's Lutheran Church in Bloomington to help build walls for one of the newest Habitat homes in the Twin Cities.
Earlier this year, they helped repackage bulk containers of rice into smaller packages for food pantries. They are examples of the type of projects the alliance wants to be involved in — either organizing itself or partnering with other organization.
The group also is working on an interfaith picnic at Normal's Fairview Park in September and an Interfaith Giving Thanks Service at IWU's Evelyn Chapel in November.
“We need to eat together. We need to break bread together,” said Ward.
She recalled an interfaith worship service last year on the Sunday afternoon of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend with fellowship afterward.
“People wouldn't go home. It was funny,” said Ward. “There was so much energy.”
The Interfaith Alliance is an accomplishment itself, said Dubowe. The group meets once a month at different locations. The time rotates between breakfast, lunch and evening meetings to accommodate the varied schedules of faith leaders, some of whom have other jobs in addition to their faith work, explained Ward.
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The monthly meetings are “a way of building relationships and supporting one another,” said Ward. “We've laughed together. We've cried together. … We've celebrated with one another.”
Dubowe said, "We're all doing the same type of work. ... We hold the hands of our congregation. Sometimes it's important that we hold each others' hands."
Through its monthly meetings and a newsletter that goes out to 67 people in various faith communities, the alliance shares information about events happening in their communities: speakers sponsored by the Bloomington-Normal Zen Group, a Jewish film festival, even garage sales. The newsletter also lists upcoming religious and spiritual observances. The group recently started a McLean County Interfaith Alliance Facebook page.
Last month's meeting included not only members of Jewish and Christian congregations, but also people from the Baha'i and Buddhist communities. Isaac Simmons, an IWU student who is a campus multifaith ambassador, happened to wander in during the meeting and, before it was over, he volunteered for a committee.
“The goal is not to preach our beliefs, but seek what we have in common,” said Dubowe.
The various violent attacks in recent years are “very troubling,” she said.
“We live in challenging times. We need each other even more,” said Dubowe. “We must come together and talk.”
Winger said, “It's important that we come together, but it's heartbreaking that on a continuing basis” the gatherings have been needed to “recommit ourselves to fighting hate. … It's urgent work.”
Within hours of the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, people from other faith communities reached out to Dubowe asking what they could do.
Dubowe said she was numbed and overwhelmed when they offered to come and create a human chain around the synagogue.
“Instead, I said we're going to open up the building and offer doughnuts and coffee,” recalled Dubowe.
The word went out through the Interfaith Alliance and “we had over 100 people bring more coffee and doughnuts,” said Dubowe.
She said the idea is “to be there together in times of joy and in times of sorrow and sadness, and remind us that love will prevail … and that we're not alone.”