Fast forward to 2010, someplace in New York City. The nation’s faith leaders have been summoned to speak a prophetic word amidst a recent calamity, or the ongoing war in Iraq, or a new report on worsening poverty in the United States.
Two of these national leaders will be Minnesota women: Rabbi Stacy Offner and the Rev. Peg Chemberlin. Offner this week told her congregation at Shir Tikvah in Minneapolis that she will be leaving to become vice president of Reform Judaism’s congregational organization in New York.
Each will help lead an organization with a long liberal legacy in U.S. Judaism and Protestant Christianity.
Rabbi heading to New York City
“The Union for Reform Judaism represents over 900 Reform congregations in North America,” Offner said. “That is essentially over a million and a half people. It’s exhilarating, enriching, empowering. I think there’s great strength in the movement.”
As Reform Judaism blazed a trail for new American Jews in the 19th century, Offner marked a few of her own after arriving in Minnesota in 1984. She was the state’s first female rabbi, when she served as an assistant and later associate at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul. But as the first openly gay rabbi in a mainstream pulpit in the Reform movement, she was asked to leave in 1988. Some Mount Zion members formed Shir Tikvah in southwest Minneapolis, and Offner became its founding rabbi.
“It’s just been a blessed journey, every day, every moment,” Offner said. “I’m leaving something I really think is perfect and going into something where I essentially know the job title and maybe a sketch of the job description.” In a letter to members of her congregation, she wrote: “Miraculously, the heart allows us to feel the sadness of loss and the excitement of new possibilities, all at the same time.”
The Union for Reform Judaism came to Minnesota for its biennial convention in 2003 and left with a new (and current) name. It had been known since 1873 as the Union for American Hebrew Congregations. The name change is just one example of how a reform movement — in any faith — is constantly reforming.
The movement, writes fellow religion journalist Holly Lebowitz Rossi, must contend with conflicting reform and traditional sentiments from within its ranks, possible shortages of rabbis as the denomination grows, and the tangle of Zionism and liberal politics.
Offner, a native of Long Island, will leave Shir Tikvah for New York in July.
Chemberlin to head NCC
Like Reform Judaism, the National Council of Churches has been a major player in liberal American religion. Thirty-five faith groups, from Presbyterians and Methodists to Ukrainian Orthodox and Polish National Catholics, are members.
At its zenith, the NCC led the way for the 20th century ecumenical movement in the United States. But as ecumenism lost some of its steam and evangelicals and Roman Catholics gained political capital, the NCC found itself in financial straits by the turn of this century. Critics argued it had abandoned its mission of church unity in favor of promoting left-wing religion. Recent staff cuts were aimed at alleviating a projected budget shortfall for next year.
“There’s always a continuing struggle for viability,” said Chemberlin, a Moravian clergywoman who for nearly 13 years has headed Minnesota’s ecumenical church movement. “We experience that in our denominations and in our congregations.”
Chemberlin hopes to capitalize on her experience of leading the Minnesota Council of Churches as a “gateway organization” for various religions in the state.
That role was on public display following Sept. 11, 2001, although the groundwork had been laid before that.
Chemberlin and the MCC called then-Gov. Jesse Ventura’s office after his 1999 Playboy interview in which he said organized religion was a crutch for weak-minded people. He agreed to a breakfast meeting six months later but wanted to meet with a broad array of religious leaders, not just a few. That was the Minnesota council’s specialty.
Spurred by that diverse meeting, the governor called Chemberlin when he wanted to invite faith leaders to lead a post-9/11 public event on the Capitol lawn.
“We had imams, Buddhists, probably the most diverse religious gathering ever in Minnesota,” Chemberlin said. “The work we do among ourselves in the Christian community is very important. It’s also important that we are reaching out to the rest of the faith communities, who are increasingly diverse in Minnesota, and certainly in this country.”
Chemberlin will become president-elect of the New York-based NCC in January and president in January 2010. As an elected official rather than a staff member, she will continue working here for the MCC even after assuming office.
She said she hopes the NCC might hold its national assembly in Minnesota in November 2009.
Among Chemberlin’s predecessors as NCC president was Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and mayor of Atlanta.