American Civic Life

How Wisconsin Faith Leaders are Tending to Complex Interfaith Work

By Phil Haslanger
Interfaith Creation Care 2023 at Wisconsin capitol. Photo courtesy

Interfaith Creation Care 2023 at Wisconsin capitol. Photo courtesy

Madison, Wisconsin, may not seem like the ideal location for interfaith work to blossom.  

By most measures, it is not a particularly religious city. It is dominated by a major university, state government, and a booming healthcare and biotech sector.   

Yet over the past half-century, interfaith seeds were planted, branches intertwined, and networks flourished. And then the storms came—both from events far away and the prospect of changing local leadership. So now, all that has grown faces a time of renewal—or retrenchment.  

The story of the development and challenges of interfaith work in the Madison area surely reflect the stories of other cities, yet they have their own distinctive character. They show how communities can bridge differences.  

Picture these scenes.  

In the late 1960s, people from multiple faith traditions began gathering at St. Benedict Center (now Holy Wisdom Monastery) for monthly interfaith dialogues that continued for years.  

Interfaith Pride 2022 with Rev. Selena Fox (left), Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, and Pastor Nick Upthall. Photo courtesy

In 1979, the Dalai Lama visited the St. Benedict Center, expressing his appreciation that 500 Buddhists could worship in the same space where a Catholic Mass had just occurred.  

In 1993, a Madison interfaith leader – Daniel Gomez-Ibanez – helped organize the revival of the World Parliament of Religion in Chicago. (Here’s his message anticipating the 2023 Parliament – once again held in Chicago. 

In 2001, the day after the 9/11 attacks, people across faith traditions gathered at St. Benedict Center for prayers, united by the trust they had built over the past decades.   

The seeds grew, and the branches spread out.   

There was an annual Interfaith Awareness Week at the Wisconsin Capitol each December around Human Rights Day that ran from 1998 for 17 more years.   

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Prof. Charles Cohen helped start the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions, which ran from 2005 to 2016 and connected people from the community and the campus. It continues in a new form on campus as the Center for Interfaith Dialogue 

A coalition of faith leaders formed Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice in 2012 to act on common social justice themes in the public arena. As Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, the executive director, said, “Dialogue was the place to start, but we are way past that. All our faith traditions talk about social justice.”  

Multifaith efforts have been organized by various organizations around poverty, health care, immigration, housing, worker justice, criminal justice, climate change, domestic violence, and reproductive justice. Not every faith was involved in every issue, but people found common ground where they could work together.   

Bridgebuilding continued. The 1,300-member Wisconsin Voices for Faith Justice created a program of visits to religious sites to experience various forms of worship and learning. That was followed by a series called Interfaith Intersections—public conversations with members of different faiths sharing their perspectives on issues like forgiveness, death and dying, and finding a moral compass.  

The relationships that were formed brought people together to grieve and support one another in times of crisis – after the murders at the Sikh gurdwara near Milwaukee in 2012 and after the assault on the nation’s Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021.  

Consider this: Rabbi Margulis worked with Muslims, Christians, and others to put on an Iftar dinner each Ramadan from 2017 to 2023, sometimes bringing several hundred people together for a potluck meal.   

Yet there was no Iftar dinner this year.  In the aftermath of the Hamas assault on Israelis on Oct. 7 and the Israeli war on Gaza since, relationships have been tested. Some of the Muslim leaders said it would be too hard to bring multiple faiths together for the Iftar this year.  

Rabbi Margulis said she called the cancellation a tragedy. “This is the time we need to be coming together amid the rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia,” she explained.  

Since Oct. 7, she has noted, “The Jewish community is asking itself, ‘Do we have any partners left?’ The answer is no.”  

Rev. Kerri Parker, the executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, who has been an active partner in many of the interfaith efforts in recent years, talked about an ongoing conversation Christians in her organization had been having with “our Jewish kin about antisemitism in our progressive spaces.” But, she added, “Oct. 7 derailed that conversation for now.”  

Rev. Parker called this “a really challenging time for interfaith work because of geopolitics.” She cited the need to be sensitive to each other’s pain. But she said that because of the relationships built up over the years, there are quiet, back-channel conversations continuing even though there is a pause on more public events.   

Rabbi Margulis said she is still in touch with the many Muslim friends she made. Some Christian pastors have reached out to friends across faith lines in this sensitive time.  

And the work goes on. The Wisconsin Council of Churches just received a Faith in Elections Playbook Grant from Interfaith America to work with faith communities to be, in the words of the grant application, “voices of calm, connection, and grace as an alternative to polarization and political strife.”  

Rev. Parker noted a challenge a Christian-based organization like the Wisconsin Council of Churches faces. Does it become an interfaith organization or retain its Christian identity? She said the leadership decided a few years ago, “Let’s root ourselves in Christianity, but from that place, come to relationships with other faiths so we can work with integrity.”  

Community members gather for the iftar meal on April 1, 2023 at Kromrey Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Phil Haslanger.

Another challenge for a place like Madison is attracting a new generation of leadership to interfaith work. Rabbi Margulis, who has been at the center of much of the work over the past decade, will be leaving as executive director of Wisconsin Interfaith Voices for Justice in June.  

Rev. Selena Fox, who helped found a Wiccan community called Circle Sanctuary near Madison some 50 years ago, said that under Rabbi Margulis’ leadership, “individuals and communities of many beliefs have come together to learn about each other and to work for the greater good.” Prof. Cohen said that “sometimes, just by the force of her personality, she has created connections that might not have come about.”   

Rev. Parker suggested that with Rabbi Margulis’ departure, “People will need to learn to take responsibility for leadership in a way that they have been able to lean back from.”  

A new generation of leaders is emerging. Many congregations of various faith traditions now have their own interfaith programs. University students are delving into this, even with the tensions surrounding issues in Israel and Palestine. The Center for Interfaith Understanding is helping train new leaders. The Wisconsin prison system has a Religious Practice Advisory Committee that Rev. Fox thinks may be unique in the nation.  

In November 2023, in the wake of the horror of Oct. 7 and its aftermath, the UW-Madison Division of Diversity, Equity & Educational Achievement included a panel on religious diversity for the first time in its annual Diversity Forum. A rabbi, a Christian pastor, and a Muslim professor showed how ideas can be shared even in times of tension.   

Those seeds planted over half a century ago continue to send out new branches, and the work of nurturing that growth continues. 

Phil Haslanger is a retired journalist and United Church of Christ minister from Madison, WI.