On These Shoulders
by Paul Chaffee
For all the increase in religious and interreligious news these days, and in spite of thousands of grassroots interfaith organizations dotting the globe, major media’s exploration of interreligious/ interfaith/ interspirituality has been timid. Exceptions like Religion News Service, Huffington Post Religion, and PBS’ Religion and Ethics Newsweekly may be turning the tide via the internet. Radio hasn’t done as well, with “Christian” radio still dominating the airwaves along with the likes of Rush Limbaugh’s vicious screed.
Still, though, a shining exception deserves attention. Interfaith Voices is an award-winning, public radio weekly newsmagazine hiding in plain sight. It is broadcast by 83 stations, so tens of thousands appreciate the show, but it remains unknown by millions of other interfaith activists who might find it compelling.
The important take-away? Besides being broadcast, Interfaith Voices programs are all downloadable to your digital devises. So you can listen and share them whenever you want. The weekly is produced in Washington, DC, giving it access to religious leaders of all types as well as those who walk the halls of power. As it becomes clearer each day that religion, government, and public policy are inextricably woven together, Interfaith Voices provides a wide platform for exploring the religious, spiritual, and ethical issues in our lives, personally and publicly. Its programs wrestle with intrafaith and as well as interfaith issues, with an emphasis on how major traditions are facing their own reform, starting with Roman Catholicism.
Where Did It Come From?
Hearing about Interfaith Voices, like discovering flowers in a desert, makes you want to know where it came from. Who planted this, created it, and how does it keep going?
The short version is that Sister Maureen Fiedler, with a PhD in religion and government and an extended social justice ministry, was upset when her elderly parents had nothing religious to listen to on the radio except right-wing, evangelistic stations trying to convert them and take their money. Strong of will, she started experimenting with various ways to get radio access for serious religious programming, including a commercial call-in program she briefly hosted.
Three days after 9/11, four PBS radio stations collaborated in an experimental broadcast on the tragedy. Rabbi David Saperstein, currently U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, along with a fellow rabbi, were guests. Over the air they delivered a press release which affirmed that “We stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters.” Sister Maureen hosted. The response was huge, and half a year later, in March 2002, Interfaith Voices was launched. To this day it survives on donations from an audience grateful for what it contributes in an interreligiously troubled world.
A Pioneering Role
Maureen Fiedler grew up in Lockport, a small town in western New York. Her family was Catholic but “not particularly pious.” Half way through college at Mercyhurst in Erie, Pennsylvania, she decided to enter religious life, beginning with the Sisters of Mercy. This led to high-school teaching, where she indulged her natural love of history and government. Her order responded by suggesting she get her doctorate, which she did at Georgetown University. Her dissertation focused on women in the life of political parties in the United States.
Finishing her academic work, she felt impelled to move from teaching to justice and peace activism, work that richly filled up her 1980s and 90s. She spent time in Central America, learned Spanish, was arrested for cause, and took advantage of the fresh breezes in Catholicism that Vatican II had generated. She protested against political tyrants in the Americas and protested in Rome against gender tyranny.
In particular Maureen Fiedler has fought for women’s rights, championing the need to ordain women, the importance of inclusive language, and LGBTQ rights. More recently she has provided leadership among the nuns who so troubled Catholicism’s hierarchy until the arrival of Pope Francis nearly two years ago.
“By the 1990s,” she notes, looking back, “I was working more and more with interfaith groups and their coalitions, particularly in Central America.” Along the way she took a degree in interfaith ministry and was ordained, albeit not in a Roman Catholic context.
In the midst of all this, Interfaith Voices launched in March of 2002. For nearly 14 years founder Maureen Fiedler has brought her energy, imagination, activist sensibility, and on-the-air hosting skills to a program that is described this way on the web:
Interfaith Voices is an independent public radio show fostering interfaith understanding by providing engaging conversation about religion, across many traditions and beliefs. We explore how faith intersects with culture, public policy, and the news of the day. As the nation's only public radio show exclusively about religion, we are a vital source of knowledge about how religious belief shapes our world.
Here’s a short sampler of subjects they’ve addressed this year, and their blogs stretch back for years:
- Songs, Chants, and Prayers from Ancient Syria
- Inside a Lakota Sweat Lodge
- Victims of War and Islamophobia: Europe's Refugee Crisis
- Pass the Plate or Pay Your Dues? How Churches and Synagogues Ask For Money
- God and Government: Uganda Edition
- The Religious Divide Over Same-Sex Marriage
- Sam Harris and Deepak Chopra, Spiritual Archrivals
- Religion's Role in the Climate Crisis
- The Push to Forgive in the Black Church
- Fifteen Years of Religion Reporting
- Why Minority Faiths Need TV Shows
Having been involved in interfaith work for a quarter century, what do we need to do now? More than ever before, she believes, we need an “increasing interest in interfaith dialogue, dialogue that is fundamental for peace in the world. Then when someone like Ben Carson and Trump fold on Islam, people understand that a deep level, those judgments are wrong. They know people from other traditions and can’t be cowed by bigotry.”
Undeterred by the challenges ahead, this powerful, extraordinary woman continues to produce a program each week exploring the deep water and rich reflections that people of faith and practice (or none) offer one another on critical issues of the day. Plus, you can download blogs of it all, bringing the conversation to your own family, congregation, class, or community. Enjoy.
And thank you Maureen Fiedler for exemplifying how very much one person can contribute to the good of us all.