What will become of the vision of the late Rev. Clark Lobenstine?
For those of us who work on interfaith issues in the nation’s capital, the lanky Presbyterian minister was an innovator.
When he arrived in 1979 as the first director of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington — the umbrella group for the D.C. region — the typical Christian attitude was to put minority faiths into a Christian framework. Lobenstine was a pioneer in saying to respect and accept, not simply “tolerate,” other faiths.
This meant also rejecting a common interfaith credo (then and now), that boils down to: All faiths are really the same at their root. Lobenstine pressed for the need for real pluralism.
Which is why his death this fall was so striking to those of us who work in the fields of interfaith, multifaith, pluralism. In some ways the concept of pluralism he helped shape has become mainstream, even in the dominant American faith of Christianity. We hope that Lobenstine’s decades of work and long shadow will continue to feed his vision.
When Lobenstine arrived, IFC was a fledgling organization that was beginning to forge needed dialogue among the Abrahamic faith traditions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. By the time Lobenstine retired in 2014, the canopy over the open tent of dialogue had expanded to cover 11 historic faith traditions in his 35 years of service, among them the Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Latter-day Saints, Sikh and Zoroastrian faith communities.
While he was considered the founder of the region’s primary interfaith organization, Lobenstine was quick to remind people that the group began six months before he arrived. He was simply its first paid director.
Given his earlier background as a young social worker in Louisville, Lobenstine believed that interfaith dialogue needed to be complemented by joint social action. In its early days, various committees and working groups under the umbrella of IFC gave birth to other local nonprofit organizations such as the Capital Area Food Bank and the Coalition of Housing and Homeless Organizations.
To this today, IFC annually updates and digitally publishes an emergency services directory (now in its 29th edition) that provides others in social work a comprehensive listing of resources for people in serious need of assistance in Washington and its nearby suburbs.
He stood out for rejecting an approach that’s called “syncretistic,” or a fusion-like blending of faiths that can blur essential distinctions.
He was an ordained minister within the Presbyterian Church USA, and his strong Christian convictions deeply influenced his approach to interfaith dialogue. He was also the son of a Foreign Service officer, and a childhood spent in Beirut exposed him to the cries of the Islamic call to prayer several times a day from the minaret of a nearby mosque. He knew that simply proclaiming that all people of faith are one would not make it so and, in fact, only by naming and proclaiming the significant differences among our faith traditions could we authentically come to the table of dialogue.
Lobenstine’s life’s work took on a new degree of urgency after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
He knew that mobilizing the Washington region’s Muslim community to strongly reject the image of terrorism being played out on our television screens that day would be paramount for the long-term healing of our community from these wounds of suspicion. Giving other people of faith the chance to meet and talk with Muslims who could articulate that Islam is a religion of peace was a role well-suited to him. Lobenstine knew many such men and women who could deliver that message with sincerity — scholars like Sana Kirmani of Towson University and the late Sulayman Nyang of Howard University (Nyang died less than one month after Lobenstine); community builders like Imam Johari Abdul-Malik at Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque in Falls Church and Sr. Bahijah Abdus-Salaam from Masjid Muhammad. Asking for their help came easily; he had been in relationships with many of them for a quarter-century.
Lobenstine himself traveled to communities in the District area to facilitate these dialogues and to sit in on multifaith panels when that was the desired approach of the host congregation.
Over his 35 years in interfaith ministry, Lobenstine mentored countless people who followed in his footsteps in various organizations throughout the North American continent. He hired me as a program director for IFC’s youth outreach and later had the confidence to promote me, in my mid-30s, to be his assistant director.
Religions for Peace-USA in New York City tapped him to consult with interfaith organizations that were being launched in Philadelphia and Kansas City after 9/11, sharing the dialogue model that he had built up in Washington. IFC’s own robust internship program under his leadership assures us that his name and legacy will be remembered by millennials as well as his peers.
On the last full day of his life, Oct. 14, Lobenstine was present for the annual Unity Walk in Washington, a program he helped launch as a local response to 9/11.
The walk begins with words of welcome from the sanctuary of Washington Hebrew Congregation and continues down Massachusetts Avenue’s Embassy Row to the Islamic Center. Along the way, walkers can venture into a Sikh gurdwara, Buddhist and Hindu sites, and several churches representing Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions, many of which sponsor community service projects while welcoming visitors.
The Unity Walk expresses the essence of what the Rev. Dr. Clark Lobenstine meant to the multifaith community of Washington. He was 73 years old when he died.
In a transient city where political and faith leaders come and go, sometimes departing with tarnished reputations, Lobenstine’s steady presence and strong moral compass over four decades challenged us to do more for those in need while bringing many more diverse voices into conversation with the religious “other.” Great was his faithfulness!
Mike Goggin was assistant director for the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington for nine years and is now the regional director of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps.