On These Shoulders
It is hard for anyone alert to the contemporary interreligious landscape and the global community of interfaith dialogue to fully grasp the vacuum from which early interfaith endeavors emerged in the mid-twentieth century. It was truly a raw social experiment. We had no idea if or how it would work, but we felt compelled to try. The Rev. Dr. Charles White, who passed away October 26, 2013, was a leading light among those first interfaith explorers. A Presbyterian minister, he was a courageous man with a broad vision and a loving embrace of humanity.
When many of us first started thinking about the possibilities of expanding our communities to embrace pluralism, we had to discover each other one by one, one setting at a time. There were no lists, guides, journals, mentors, references, or templates. I first met Chuck White at a National Association of Ecumenical Staff (NAES) meeting in Colorado in the late 1970s. NAES held yearly summer workshops for Christian ecumenical staff.
At that time I was president of the Berkeley Area Interfaith Council – a local experiment to revive what had once been the Berkeley Council of (Christian) Churches and include other faiths. We had heard there were a few attending NAES who also worked with other faiths, and my board urged me to attend and explore if it were possible to find and connect with any other interfaith councils. Among those participating were Chuck White of Buffalo Area Metropolitan Ministries, Clark Lobenstine from Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington D. C., and Sam Muyskens of Interfaith Ministries in Wichita, Kansas. A beginning. This early group, joined by several others, eventually formed the steering committee for the formation of the North American Interfaith Network, and NAIN was born. Chuck co-chaired the steering committee from 1988-1990 and then served as the first chair of the NAIN Board of Directors, serving from 1990 to 1994.
Prior to his time in Buffalo, New York, Chuck was pastor at a Presbyterian congregation in Barrow, Alaska, and assisted local Inuit to organize for improved local schools, medical facilities, and self-rule. His participation with the local Inuit in Barrow led to an invitation to participate as one of the few non-native advisors in the formation of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), representing Inuit from the U.S., Canada, Greenland, Denmark, and Russia. Their first meeting was in Barrow.
Chuck’s work in the Arctic provided a wealth of experience with which to guide NAIN’s early growth. As chair he was gifted at organizational leadership – able to recognize the needs of the individual as well as the group and to evoke a climate of deep and attentive listening, even in routine organizational functions. He was wise and welcoming, a keen observer, quick to sense and examine injustice, and just as quick to find win-win solutions.
As a pioneer in interfaith communications, Chuck helped pave a path that led to The Interfaith Observer (TIO). He understood that one of the most urgent needs of the emerging interfaith community was good communications; at the time virtually nothing was available. Chuck became the first editor of NAINews. This was before the era of desktop publishing and online journals – strictly typewriter, off-set printing, and bulk mail. No cut and paste buttons! A labor of love and many hours. His experience as editor for NAINews led him to found Multi-Faith Resources, distributing the first interfaith calendar and a growing number books and interfaith resources.
Chuck’s roots were in Southern California. He was born July 15, 1937 in Fresno. When he and his wife Elizabeth (Liz) moved back to California in the mid-1990s from Buffalo to Wofford Heights, in Southern California, Chuck again adopted his local community with a visionary combination of leadership, commitment, and service. Even through retirement and declining health, he served as president of the Kern River Valley Revitalization, was instrumental in forming the Kern River Valley Community Fund, served on the Giant Sequoia National Monument Association, and was president of the Kern River Valley Education and Cultural Foundation, providing educational tools and opportunities to those who otherwise would not be able to achieve their educational dreams and goals.
Liz White tells a story of her husband’s life-long persistence in expanding the circle of spiritual community wherever he went. When they arrived back in Southern California, near Bakersfield, Chuck met with the local Christian ministerial alliance in hopes of growing another interfaith community. The reception was less than welcome. Not allowing that to deter him, he started building friendships and looking for places of need. One of those places was the Sikh community of Bakersfield. After 9/11, Sikhs faced ignorant, bigoted and in some cases violent response to their traditional way of dress, including the turban. Knowing the Sikh community well through his associations in NAIN, Chuck reached out to befriend and support the local Sikhs, who in return honored him with the presentation of a formal plaque in recognition of his leadership to defend their civil liberties and their community.
All of us who knew Chuck White add our own appreciation and love for a great leader in our midst who will always live in our hearts.