Approximately a dozen leaders of major faith traditions in the metro Milwaukee area founded the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee in 1970. This religious diversity—Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Quaker, and Unitarian-Universalist—was unusual at a time when most ecumenical efforts were Protestant-only in their composition. Initially called the Greater Milwaukee Conference on Religion and Race, and then the Greater Milwaukee Conference on Religion and Urban Affairs, the organization was founded out of a spirit of collaboration, shared learning, collective action, and a commitment to social justice. Among the founders were former Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler, Archbishop William E. Cousins, and Rabbi Dudley Weinberg.
Early programs addressed housing, the military draft, and programs for older adults. During the 1980s the Beyond Racism program became the hallmark initiative of the Conference. In what is often described as the nation’s most racially segregated region, Beyond Racism developed several approaches to addressing personal and systemic racism. Hundreds, likely thousands, of individuals participated in the very intense relationship-building work of Beyond Racism, carrying what they learned (and how they may have been changed as individuals) into their personal circles.
The Beyond Racism program was a fitting focus for the Interfaith Conference, given that its founding grew out of the racial tensions of the late 1960s and the faith community’s commitment to the Civil Rights Movement. This commitment to speak out, to be an interreligious witness for justice, has been and remains at the heart of the Interfaith Conference. Additionally, the organization has worked to prevent the death penalty from returning to Wisconsin, to foster the development of affordable housing, to provide shelter for women and families, to serve as a watchdog over welfare reform efforts, and to ensure the stewardship of the environment.
Since the 1970s the Interfaith Conference has partnered with Church World Service, a global relief and development organization, to sponsor the CROP Hunger Walk. This was one of the early community-based fundraising walks in the greater Milwaukee region. Each year some one hundred congregations raise funds for global relief efforts and collect food for the Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee. In addition, for decades the Interfaith Conference has served as a hub for peace and justice efforts. The Peace and International Issues Committee as well as the Milwaukee Association for Interfaith Relations have hosted briefings, discussions, and speakers in the interest of building relationships, and increasing understanding of global and local issues. And the Interfaith-Congregation Action Network (I-CAN), formed in the 1980s, has organized several hundred advocates from over one hundred congregations to speak out with their elected officials about matters impacting people in poverty as well as other social justice issues. Through I-CAN, residents had what was often their only opportunity to meet face-to-face with legislators.
The Conference’s strength lies in its leadership. In its roughly half-century history, the Interfaith Conference has had four executive directors: Rev. John Fischer, Jack Murtaugh, Marcus White, and Tom Heinen. Now numbering seventeen member judicatories (or denominations), the Interfaith Conference represents a wide array of the region’s faith community, with the leaders of those spiritual traditions often sitting on the Conference’s Cabinet. As the twenty-first century unfolded, the Interfaith Conference drew in additional faith traditions, making the Conference even more representative of the area’s faith community as a whole. An emphasis upon interfaith relations has become a vital focus for the Conference. The “Amazing Faiths” dinners provided opportunity for hundreds of individuals to share meals in each others’ homes and to learn about each other and about faith traditions other than their own, as well as to build relationships. Interfaith relations, stewardship of the environment, hunger, and poverty continue to be at the heart of the Conference’s work.