As the head of the Interfaith Center of New York, the Rev. Dr. Chloe Breyer is responsible for building relationships with grassroots religious leaders across the city and mobilizing them around issues of common concern. This kind of behind-the-scenes convening work can be challenging. It is often invisible to the general public. And it is often difficult to raise money for – many private donors and foundations are attracted to more glamorous direct service work or high-profile advocacy.
But when our social fabric begins to fray, as it has in recent years, the need for intermediary organizations that can effectively build bridges between different communities becomes painfully apparent. At a moment when many religious and ethnic groups feel under attack and news of hate crime proliferates on the internet, can faith leaders be part of the solution? In this interview with NYN’s Greg Berman, Breyer talks about the challenges that religious leaders face as they enter the public square, drawing upon her experience leading the Interfaith Center and her work as an ordained Episcopal priest.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Berman: I wanted to start by asking you to reflect on what it's like to be simultaneously a religious leader and a nonprofit leader. Are these two identities ever in tension?
Breyer: That has been the vocational journey of my lifetime, having been a nonprofit director for over 15 years and a non-stipendiary associate, which is church-speak for somebody who assists in a parish. In my case, it's been two parishes in Harlem. I get to assist and be at the altar and preach occasionally and do a little bit of pastoral work. What it has taught me is very much at the heart of the mission of what we are trying to teach other faith leaders at the Interfaith Center, which is that you can be a faith leader and also have a hand in the well-being of the wider society. We think that the city is much stronger and its civil society more intact when we have diverse faith leaders working in the public square as well as in their pulpit.
Berman: Correct me if you disagree, but it feels like we are living through an era of polarization. In this kind of environment, it seems to me that an organization like the Interfaith Center is more important than ever. Has the work you do to bring people together across different kinds of divides gotten harder of late?
Breyer: I do agree with that premise. I find that we have to do more work to actually get beyond our sort of “usual suspects.” We've been around long enough to know that interfaith work, when it's done properly, is extremely difficult. We get glimpses of that, for example, when something happens in the Middle East and different groups of people who normally work together suddenly are not talking to each other. When that happens, we are often caught in the middle, and if we don't say something, we're accused of supporting the status quo. If we do say something, then we'll inevitably anger some groups. It's not easy work when people really disagree. But I look at polarization also as an opportunity to do honest interfaith work and not the kind of superficial stuff that we often see masquerading as interfaith work.
Berman: You refer to the Israel-Palestine conflict, which is obviously a divisive issue. I’m wondering how you navigate an issue like abortion, which is also an area where various religious groups disagree quite profoundly?
Breyer: We actually have been working with anti-abortion faith leaders and have wonderful programs with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese and a lot of Muslim communities where abortion is sometimes not agreed to.
Berman: I want to explore a little bit this distinction you made between superficial interfaith work and deeper, more grounded, more meaningful interfaith work. If I try to put myself in the shoes of a religious leader, I wouldn’t want to find myself being used as window dressing.
Breyer: It's called “rent-a-collar.”
Berman: Right. How do you avoid leaving that kind of taste in people's mouths?
Breyer: It goes back to a fundamental organizing principle, which is that in the public sphere, there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies. As faith leaders, I think we need to be wise about when we stand next to an elected representative. For example, if there's a tragedy, and you have both faith leaders and politicians professing their great sadness at what happened, that's an example of where it is so strong to have both groups together. But there are also cases where we do not see eye-to-eye with all of our elected representatives. Closing Rikers is an example of that.
When does one stand as a clergy person behind some kind of public policy, and when does one challenge it? There's no formula. Most traditions have examples of both types of engagements in the public square. You have the prophetic tradition in the Hebrew Bible where the prophets are often challenging the kings of Israel and saying, no, you have to behave more ethically. And then you have times when the prophets are anointing the kings of Israel too.
Berman: You mentioned your Rikers advocacy. You’ve spoken out in support of the plan for closing Rikers, which requires the building of new jails. Was that a tough call for you? I can imagine that some of the grassroots leaders you work with probably feel like it's a bad idea to build any jails whatsoever.
Breyer: Yes is the answer. But I draw on my own experience being on Rikers as a seminarian back in 1997. And I draw upon the Lippman Commission's incredible work that was so thorough and had so many people weighing into it. We're never going to make everyone happy. But you don't want the best to be the enemy of the good. That's kind of what I say to the “No New Jails” folks. Having been in situations where I've had to minister to somebody whose loved one has been shot, I can't even imagine their response if you were to say them that there isn’t a place where the perpetrator's going to have to spend some time behind bars for a while. You don't want a domestic violence perpetrator to come back out and terrorize people. So I'm definitely not a “No New Jails” person.
Berman: In a similar vein, I'm interested to hear a little bit more about the work that the Interfaith Center has done helping to train NYPD officers. When I was running the Center for Court Innovation, I would sometimes get pushback from staff who thought that it was inappropriate to partner with an institution that they thought was racist and oppressive. Have you had to navigate similar dynamics in the work you have done with the NYPD?
Breyer: We have had a long journey with the NYPD, which is now I think quite a different place than it was in 2002. Back then, the NYPD was spying on mosques and infiltrating Muslim student associations and really overstepping its authority. So, at that time, because we were very conscious of Muslims being discriminated against as part of the backlash of 9/11, we joined in a lot of the advocacy that was being done to reform the NYPD. There were lawsuits and legislation. And then there was the election of de Blasio and the appointment of a new police commissioner. It all kind of added up. It was at that point that we began the educational work, working with deputy commissioner Susan Herman and the collaborative policing department. We came up with this beautiful video that outlined five faith traditions that police officers might get confused about when they were out on patrol. It took a thousand years and a thousand conversations but overall, I guess, I think they're going in a good direction. And so I feel like we can engage with education without having it be window dressing. But people will argue with us, no question.
Berman: I've been reading a lot recently about the rise of secularism and the struggles of many congregations to hold onto their membership or attract younger congregants. Is this something you are seeing in New York?
Breyer: I see the world through all of the different faith traditions that New York is home to. Most Muslim faith communities that I have relationships with are booming and are building bigger places because they have so many people in the congregation. A lot of the Episcopal churches and the Roman Catholic churches that I know are selling their buildings because there aren't enough younger congregants to support them. So I think it's difficult to generalize across the board.
Berman: Help me make sense of the levels of bigotry that we are seeing these days. Is there an increase in anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Asian rhetoric, anti-Black racism and the like? Or is it a case of social media just revealing prejudice that's always been there? Or is something else going on?
Breyer: I do think that there has been an increase in religious and racial and ethnic intolerance. And I think it is because of the rhetoric that we've heard from the leadership of the country. Trump being in office made things acceptable that hadn't been acceptable. And social media has allowed people to say things that they would never say face-to-face to somebody. That has combined with what we hear on the news about our jobs being threatened or life being generally worse than it used to be. I think the pandemic has a lot to do with it as well, most obviously with the attacks on Asian-Americans and the gun violence that we've seen. It's also important to remember that there's a difference between religious communities that report on hate and bias attacks and those that do not report or do not know to report.
Berman: That suggests that the problem is even worse than we think.
Breyer: Yeah, that's true.
Berman: So what do we do?
Breyer: I think that it's really important for those people who have public profiles to lead by example. Whether you're a movie star or a politician or something in between, I think there's an additional burden on you. That’s one reason why we focus on education for the police. The police are looked upon often as examples in the United States. So if the police are doing Islamophobic things, then that gives other people license to as well. I think there is a larger onus that should be placed on public officials about their speech and behavior. Can you legislate that? Of course not. But we have to regain a culture of respect. If the last 10 years have taught us anything, it's how much our democracy rests not on law, but on habits.
Berman: The Interfaith Center has ambitious goals, but the budget of the organization is relatively modest. How do you think about the disjunction between the scope of what you're trying to do and the resources you have at your disposal?
Breyer: I think we are sort of intentionally small so we can be nimble. But we tend to partner with big institutions like the New York Public Library, the NYPD, and the New York Unified Court System. By and large, we limit our work to New York City, so we tend to have really strong relationships here both in government and in other spheres. It's a relational organization. I guess I can't really describe it any other way. The advantage of our size is that we can move quickly. If there's an emergency of some kind, we can respond to it.
Berman: We’ve talked about prejudice and violence and Rikers… a lot of heavy topics. I'm wondering what gives you hope and optimism as you look to the new year?
Breyer: The thing that gives me the most hope and optimism is that we see grassroots, diverse religious leaders engaging in the public square. When I showed up at the mayor's house in the pouring rain for a vigil to close Rikers, there was the venerable head of the American Buddhist Association, which represents Chinese Buddhist temples in Chinatown and in Flushing. And he came to support the campaign even though it was raining so hard, and so many people in Chinatown are demonstrating against having a jail constructed in their neighborhood. Or I think about this tiny little mosque on 221st Street in the Bronx which has dozens of African migrants staying there. The mosque is not just helping people that are sleeping on their floor, but also pressing the city to get them NYC identity cards and healthcare and a bed to sleep in that's decent. That’s the kind of thing that gives me hope when I think about the future of the city.
Greg Berman is the chair of NYN Media’s advisory board, co-editor of Vital City and the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. He previously served as the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation. He is the co-author of Gradual: The Case for Incremental Change in a Radical Age (Oxford University Press).
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