Growing a string of PERLs: A report from the first year of Philadelphia Emerging Religious Leaders — Part I

Today’s emerging religious leaders are hungry to build relationships with each other, work shoulder to shoulder for social justice, and learn the skills of interfaith dialogue and collaboration that they will need as religious leaders, and they are capable of building and running an organization that allows them to do this work together. This is the lesson of the first year and a half of Philadelphia Emerging Religious Leaders (PERL), a group by and for seminarians, rabbinical students, and graduate students and professionals entering leadership in their religious communities.

From its founding in the Spring of 2013 through the end of Spring 2014, we grew PERL from a mere idea into an organization with a large core of volunteer leaders from several faiths, three program areas, and partnerships with several seminaries and interfaith organizations. We held a training for over thirty emerging religious leaders in the skills of interfaith dialogue. We participated in the successful efforts of Pennsylvanians Organizing to Witness Empower and Renew, Philadelphia’s Faith-Based Community Organizing group, to pass a living wage measure by organizing six canvasses and phone banks staffed by emerging religious leaders. We visited the Gurudwara of one of our members, shared food and stories about our communities and our lives and the Shabbat table of another, had one-to-one conversations, talked theology and social justice, and planned and ran many meetings together.

PERL members at POWER living wage campaign meeting
PERL members at POWER living wage campaign meeting, 2014

Through all this, we began to bind ourselves together into a string of PERL’s – at once a collection of fascinating individuals representing the richness of many of the world’s religious traditions determined to come close enough to see the preciousness in each other, and a thing of beauty in its collective whole, a group of future religious leaders making time to invest hopefully in a more connected, understanding multifaith future. For those interested in exploring ways for the next generation of religious leaders to create opportunities to develop their own interfaith understanding and cooperation, I offer this account of what we did and some of the principles that motivated and guided our work.

Reconstructionist Rabbinical College student Leslie Hilgeman (now Rabbi Chana Glazer) convened PERL’s first interfaith gathering of emerging religious leaders in Spring of 2013 after months of building relationships with prospective members and supportive faculty from several religious communities and seminaries. She was inspired in part by the hopeful vision of Eboo Patel, particularly his belief that doing work together was at least as important for interfaith efforts as talking. Several of Chana’s early choices in forming PERL have allowed the group to prosper and be dynamic. Adopting the category of “emerging religious leader” – taking a cue from State of Formation – rather than “seminarian” has allowed us to include a wider variety of religious groups and genders than we would have otherwise. Not all faiths have formal training programs for clergy in Philadelphia, and some do not have them anywhere. Limiting the group to seminarians would have meant that our Muslim and Sikh members would never have joined the group. Being a group of “emerging religious leaders” allowed us to welcome women who are becoming lay, professional, or academic leaders in religious traditions that do not ordain women as clergy. In choosing this structure and in seeking out potential leaders for PERL, Chana wanted to ensure that PERL would reflect the diversity of Philadelphia’s religious communities not only with respect to religion, but also gender, race, and sexual identity.

In PERL’s first full academic year, we continued to use the flexibility provided by the emerging religious leader designation, and intentionally nurtured the leadership of PERL members from across this diversity. By the end of this year, PERL had benefitted from the leadership and participation of emerging religious leaders who were Jewish, Shi’i, Sunni and Sufi Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic, Evangelical, Brethren, Methodist, and Hare Krishna; female, male, transgender, straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer; African-American, Middle Eastern, South Asian, white, Latino and Asian. This not only makes PERL reflective of the diversity of Philadelphia’s religious communities, it also opens the door for understanding and collaboration to take place across lines of difference other than religion.

Yet even the relatively flexible designation of “emerging religious leaders” has not always accommodated the diverse contours of every religious community. It can be difficult to explain that “emerging religious leaders” includes those entering non-clerical leadership roles in their religious communities, and there are undoubtedly emerging leaders in the Muslim, Sikh, Quaker, and perhaps other communities in Philadelphia who did not realize that they would be welcome in PERL. Searching for language that can do justice to the diverse contexts of the various religious worlds we inhabit is an important project for practitioners of interfaith engagement.

The enthusiasm Chana encountered at PERL’s first gathering allowed her to convene a group of emerging religious leaders who crafted a mission statement for a new organization centered on relationship building, acquiring and practicing the skills of interfaith collaboration, and jointly pursuing socioeconomic justice. Chana and her faculty adviser at RRC, Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, applied for and received funding from the Henry Luce Foundation to carry forward PERL’s work. Over the summer, I was hired as PERL’s first staff Organizer. As I came on, I realized that this was a critical moment for PERL. With only one event, a few meetings, and a mission statement under its belt, PERL was about to see its founding student leader ordained and move away.

In Part II I describe the principles that guided my work with PERL in its first full year and how we grew the organization and its programs.

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