June 2, 2018
Jerry and Sybil McLeese, friends, neighbors, and concerned citizens
There is a line of dialogue in the Sinclair Lewis novel “Elmer Gantry,” mockingly delivered by a skeptical college sophomore (Greek for “Wise Fool”) attending a tent meeting, who asked the itinerant preacher how much the soul weighed. The glib assumption behind the question was that if the soul is that part of the body that deals with weighty issues and is preserved for eternity, it should register on a scale, like the pancreas. Those of us who have put such freshman concerns behind us are more apt to regard the soul as a metaphysical measure of the moral imperatives we harbor within ourselves.
If that is true, then believing that this wildly diverse collection of creatures we call Mankind can become more tolerant of each other is a really heavy lift. Jerry McLeese, former sportswriter and full-time social activist, has been cheerfully carrying that soulful (couldn’t resist) burden for many years. As the guiding lights behind Interfaith Winston-Salem, he and wife Sybil have nurtured the hope that if those of different faiths shed their biases over breakfast and listened to each other between bites, they could achieve the tolerance necessary to build the understanding that is the foundation of peace on earth, goodwill to men.
I caught Jerry in the midst of his first sabbatical since founding Interfaith Winston-Salem after years of being chief bottle washer, fund-raiser, outreach director and training his successor. Today, Interfaith Winston-Salem is under the stewardship of Truman Dunn (no relation, although his father was also named Warren Dunn), who is overseeing the continuing good works of the organization. The journey of faith he and Sybil have traveled would make a mule footsore. Jerry hasn’t dropped out, just recharging his batteries for the time when the organization is scheduled to bind up its growing pains.
The two of them consider the United Methodist Church as their “anchor,” and their pursuit of greater tolerance began in earnest after 9/11 and in a rural Methodist church whose pastor announced that he “hated’ all Muslims. This confession came after Jerry and Sybil had organized a controversial inquiry into the tenets of the Muslim faith so they could reach an understanding that might help ensure that irrationality and ignorance did not become entrenched because of a national tragedy. Another heavy lift at a time when the embers of the World Trade Center hadn’t cooled.
Despite the success of the program, Jerry felt he could not waste any more time sitting quietly in a pew while intolerance was being spewed from the pulpit. He left that church and landed in another, where the controversies there were centered more on doctrinal differences. Sybil soon followed when she was told she was no longer welcome to promote the apparently alien oncept that, given a chance, a colloquy between different faiths might be the first step toward greater tolerance and leaving behind the duality of right and wrong.
Today, Jerry and Sybil are members of the Green Street United Methodist Church, considered among the most progressive churches in town, even to the point of spilling out of the sanctuary onto the streets to protest injustice. Prior to becoming a church where everyone is welcome and can participate in all the benefits of belonging, the Green Street church was steadily losing membership. What turned it into the robust and diversified congregation it is today is the outcome of applying tolerance, compassion, and love to everyday life.
If their winding journey toward salvation suggests that the two of them are wild-eyed agitators, it would require overlooking that Sybil is the daughter of a Baptist minister and Jerry started life as a Southern Baptist, neither background for anarchy. Their hope for Mankind may not be modest, but it is entirely within the scope of what a religion that preaches love thy fellow man requires: providing the means to help people look beyond their narrow interests and embrace the bigger picture of all Mankind. We’re back to “Do unto others…”
Religious extremism is not something Jerry likes to dwell on because his energies are oriented toward its opposite motivators: Love and Peace. Defining love is not easy. The dictionary at my elbow has 24 definitions of love and a footnote with twenty synonyms. Jerry works up to a definition for him step-by-step. You start with tolerance, which encourages compassion, which leads to understanding, which then embraces peace, which is a manifestation of loving your neighbor like yourself. Something like the Golden Rule expressed in Management by Objective lingo. Peace, as it turns out, has a lot to do with tolerance, compassion, and understanding. Does it remind you, like me, of that tune, “What the world needs now…” Hope springs eternal as much as love remains elusive.
Getting to the Golden Rule is little like learning to dance. You start out just getting it straight your left foot is different from your right. The Interfaith Winston-Salem follows a five-step model developed by the Three Interfaith Amigos, a rabbi, a priest, and an imam, who use it to build trust. First, you share stories that establish a common ground. None of that “my way or the highway” stuff. Second, you explain the core teachings of your faith, which likely include compassion, charity, justice, and peace. We’re talking here about those fundamental values, not the window-dressing that we humans feel compelled to add on for entirely human reasons. Third, you take the leap of looking for consistencies and inconsistencies. You’ll find them, so Step 4 is to engage in more difficult conversations after trust in each other has overcome suspicious hesitancy. Assuming everyone survives, then Step 5 is experiencing the spiritual practices of other traditions. Jerry emphasizes that if you skip to Step 4 before stepping more slowly and carefully, you’ll step into a mine field.
The obvious question that emerges is whether this ecumenicalism doesn’t diminish the attraction of your core denomination. Jerry, who as long as I have known him, never raises his voice above laughter, let his response notch up a decibel. “No, not at all,” he said. “In fact, the more you know about religion in general, the stronger your own faith becomes and you tend to exercise it more diligently through your anchor congregation.”
Getting Christians or others of different faiths to break Ramadan fasts with Muslims or share Seder meals in Jewish homes or doing any of the cross-cultural things they do as members of Interfaith Winston-Salem requires leadership, open minds, and perseverance, to say nothing of, in my case, of wishing everything served was Southwestern Bar B Que like we served at every church festival and get-together in Oklahoma. Along with ambrosia.
Jerry acknowledged the frogs-in-a-wheelbarrow aspect of running an organization that depends on people showing up at 8 a.m. Sunday morning in the Golden Corral restaurant for their interfaith meetings, which, on June 3, will feature a talk about the Baha’i faith. He’s just as quick to acknowledge that Winston-Salem is rich in leadership (i.e.: management) talent. As an example, he applauded the Winston-Salem Foundation’s determination to build “social capital” here by creating a program called Everyone Can Help Out (ECHO) to honor social entrepreneurs who cross boundaries to build a stronger community.
“It’s individuals who step up and take the initiative to improve conditions in our city that create equity in the community,” he says. “They form the resource pool that can take up where established organizations leave off.” He cited Dean Clifford as a clear example, a woman who organized several dozen folks across the city to identify the gaps in how the community was serving the refugees the UN Commission on Refugees sends to Winston-Salem to live and work. The federal government supports the program financially and the World Relief organization provides guidance and support for refugee families. However, refugees can be successfully integrated into the community only by the insights into systemic issues and dedication of volunteers like those Dean Clifford has assembled.
Interfaith Winston-Salem isn’t all about the inner self. There’s a lot they do that helps feed the more secular needs, such as feeding sixty or more overnight guests at the Bethesda Center, many of whom are homeless, advocating for affordable housing, addressing Islamophobia, and creating conversation across social, racial, theological and politic boundaries. Within the umbrella of Interfaith Winston-Salem, there are committees and activities that address issues facing our community and the nation.
Some things they do are so simple you have to wonder why they’re so unique. At the suggestion of volunteer Anne Collins, they began building benches and placing them on elementary school playrounds. Not just any kind of benches. They’re benches that kids with problems or needs can sit on when they want someone to come sit with them and give guidance and companionship. Those of a compassionate nature are then assured that their offer of help will be welcome and appreciated.
Perhaps the most singular achievement of Interfaith Winston-Salem is the pivotal role it played in getting Winston-Salem officially designated by resolution of the city council as a Compassionate City. That’s not quite the same as a Sanctuary City, but the effect can be about the same. It institutionalizes the concept of policies guided by social justice and fair play instead of fear and loathing. In short, it says to the world that Winston-Salem respects and protects those who seek a better life here in America. Winston-Salem is the 18th city in the world to join the Compassionate Cities movement.
As Kim Williams, a former pastor, has said: “I have seen time and time again the work of Interfaith Winston Salem change lives and creates hope.”
It may be a heavy lift, but I’m reminded of another famous piece of dialogue, this one from the movie “Boys Town.” I’m not sure, but I think the scene shows one of the young residents helping another and when questioned by Spencer Tracy, answered: “He ain’t heavy, father. He’s my brother.”
I think the message there was that we are all brothers…and sisters.
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