By Paul Chaffee
STANDING ON THESE SHOULDERS
San Francisco’s new mayor came to the 7:00 am interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Breakfast this year. So did the city police chief, the fire chief, half the city’s supervisors, San Francisco’s own Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, and 400 clergy and lay leaders. For a prayer breakfast in San Francisco?!
It was also the 90th year birthday party for the woman who made such an event possible. The theme for the day tells the story – “Healing the World: Honoring the Work of Rita Semel.”
Senator Feinstein couldn’t attend but has said, “Rita is one remarkable woman. She has done more for interfaith relations in San Francisco than any one individual.” Before the achievements are recited, though, a sense of her indomitable spirit deserves mention. Dan Pine recently profiled her in J. (the Jewish news weekly of Northern California). He opens with a story that measures her steel.
When a Muslim Army psychiatrist gunned down 43 people at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13, a fearful Bay Area Muslim community braced for a backlash. Rita Semel wasn’t about to let that backlash occur.
Two days after the November 2009 incident, Semel drove out to Fremont, where the Bay Area chapter of United Muslims of America was holding a long-scheduled fundraiser. Semel stood up and read aloud a statement of support for the Muslim Community, signed by the Northern California Board of Rabbis and other religious leaders.
“It was about not condemning a whole community for the things that one man had done,” Semel recently recalled. “When I, a Jewish woman, read that statement, they were beside themselves with gratitude, because they were feeling very beleaguered.”
Military life in the south seventy years earlier seeded this interfaith sensitivity. Rita Roher grew up in New York City, graduated from Barnard College, and married Max Semel as World War II was starting. Stationed in Mississippi, with Max in training, Rita looked for housing for them and was interviewed by a Methodist minister with a room for rent. “We had a lovely conversation,” she remembers. “But then he asked me, ‘Tell me, what religion are you.’ My heart fell. I said, ‘We are Jewish.’ He said, ‘Oh good. I have so many Methodists in my life, I just couldn’t take any more.’ It was my first real interfaith encounter, and it changed my life.”
Max went to fight in D-Day, and Rita moved west, finding an entry-level job at the San Francisco Chronicle. Working her way up the ladder, she was one of two reporters assigned to cover the signing of the United Nations Charter, June 26, 1945. “It was so exciting. We thought it was the beginning of a whole new world,” she remembers.
Fifty years later she worked with Bishop William Swing and a group of local interfaith leaders to plan the UN’s official 50th anniversary celebration at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, across a small park from where she had seen the Charter signed. One outcome of the UN’s 50th birthday was the formation of United Religions Initiative. Rita served as chair of the initial board, then of the Interim Global Council, and finally the Global Council, standing down in 2005 after a decade of leadership. But that gets ahead of the story.
San Francisco’s Interfaith Flowering
As a young journalist still new to California, Rita Semel was hired as assistant editor of The Jewish Community Bulletin, predecessor to the J., and she began doing public relations for the Jewish Community Federation. At home, Rita and Max became the proud parents of Jane and Elizabeth; out in the world Rita became known as a Jewish social justice activist.
In 1963 she and Eugene Boyle, a Catholic priest, organized the San Francisco Commission on Religion and Race. Focused on social justice issues, the Commission brought together religious leaders from different ethnicities and traditions. It was San Francisco’s first interfaith organization, and Rita co-chaired it for 25 years.
In the late eighties, the city approached religious leaders on two occasions, asking for help. Mayor Art Agnos called on religious communities to collaboratively serve the homeless on cold winter nights. Later he came back and asked them to be involved with disaster relief following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. These two ad hoc efforts were the start of many new happy relationships, inspiring Rita to suggest that they make it official and create a San Francisco Interfaith Council. Which they did.
More than 20 years later a vital Council takes an active role in the city. For two decades SFIC has coordinated the interfaith winter shelter program. A breakfast program draws eighty to a hundred from several dozen congregations each month. The Council provides a forum connecting Red Cross professionals, city officials, and congregations during disasters. It has a free trade coffee project, promotes local ministries to veterans, supports Habitat San Francisco, organized a juvenile justice chaplaincy program, and sponsors the San Francisco CROP Walk. Though it has spun off a number of service-providing projects, SFIC serves as a connector rather than provider (in a city rich with providers), giving it the flexibility to keep taking on new projects.
When the Presidio of San Francisco was transformed from a military base to a national park, how to use the 800 buildings on the 1480 acres generated great debate. Rita felt that the interfaith community should have a place in this new, unique park and organized a group of interreligious leaders from across the Bay Area. Three years later, in 1996, the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, supported with a SFIC grant, was invited to manage the Main Post Chapel, now the Interfaith Chapel. The Center brings together two dozen San Francisco Bay Area interfaith groups to represent a regional interfaith voice.
Meanwhile the momentum from having created a thoroughly interfaith celebration for the UN’s 50th anniversary kept growing. Bill Swing, along with Rita and leaders from both SFIC and the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, jumped into the unknown and spent five years forging the Charter of the United Religions Initiative, which was signed in 2000. Today it networks nearly 600 interfaith groups in more than 80 countries.
Meanwhile, Rita is the vice chair of Graduate Theological Union’s board of directors and has served as trustee for San Francisco’s Catholic Charities, United Way, and a dozen other nonprofits and government agencies on issues such as homelessness. Her latest campaign is to get housing for San Francisco public school kids whose families live in cars and early reports are that it will succeed.
Looking back at half a century as an interfaith social justice advocate, what was most important for her? “The Interfaith Council, I think, because so many things came out of that. It was a seedbed for everything else that followed. We’re all standing on the shoulders of people who came before.”
She goes on, “But I don’t think we have much time for satisfaction. There is so much unfinished business.” Where do you start? "All work is local. You’ve got to fix up your own backyard. We haven’t solved the homeless problem here in San Francisco. We have kids coming to school from homeless families living in cars. How can you say you’ve done anything when there still so much to do?"
The Thanksgiving Prayer Breakfast and Birthday Celebration last month ended at nine, and by 9:30 Rita was off to her next meeting.