by Connie Schulz for Cleveland.com
posted January 8, 2011
updated January 12, 2019
Churchgoing Christians are used to hearing their ministers quote from Matthew 25:35: For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in.
However, most Christians never get to hear Jesus' message delivered by a rabbi -- and one who quotes Islamic text, too: One should like for his neighbor what he loves for himself.
It's also not your typical religious service when Muslims join Unitarians in thunderous applause as a Baptist preacher invokes the names of Harriet Tubman and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschell in the same bellowing breath.
Nor is it common for hundreds of Jews to rise from their seats and sway to the soulful offerings of a black gospel choir.
I dare say most Americans have never listened to a woman whose title begins with "the very reverend" and ends with "dean of Trinity Church."
Lord, what a night.
More than 40 religious congregations showed up Monday evening for the founding meeting of a new coalition called Greater Cleveland Congregations.
Not one minute of the two-hour gathering was ordinary, but every last second of it felt deeply familiar to the 2,000 people of faith who filled up Cleveland Masonic Temple to reclaim their city.
And do be clear on this: This wildly diverse group was not asking for permission to intervene. They were extending an invitation to every citizen who has felt left behind.
"This is not a town hall meeting," Fairmount Temple's Rabbi Joshua Caruso said to uproarious applause, and then pointed to the crowd. "This is for us."
Ari Lipman, a longtime community organizer, has helped start similar groups around the country through his work with the Industrial Areas Foundation. His efforts in Cleveland began about a year ago, when he met with Caruso. Soon, dozens of other religious leaders had joined their effort.
After only a year of clergy meetings and brainstorming sessions with congregants, GCC was ready to roll out its five-prong agenda, summed up Monday night by the Rev. Tracey Lind:
"We intend to organize and campaign for good jobs, accessible and affordable health care, safe and productive schools for our children, fair and equal treatment in our criminal justice system, and sustainable and healthy food."
Lipman said Cleveland's level and pace of engagement was unprecedented.
"Normally, it takes three to five years to get this kind of commitment to have a founding ceremony," Lipman said. "The amount of energy here is breathtaking."
He was particularly taken with the level of regional support.
"I've never encountered so many people in the suburbs who feel in their gut that their success is tied to the city, like here in Greater Cleveland."
Unfortunately, there was a paucity of West Side churches, and only one Catholic parish in the Cleveland Diocese was officially represented.
Hundreds of Catholics in Northeast Ohio had planned to attend. Days before the event, Bishop Richard Lennon made it clear that he did not support GCC, and instructed churches not to participate.
Diocese spokesman Robert Tayek gave no reason for Lennon's decision, even after I told him that many Catholic churches supported similar efforts in other cities.
"We have our concerns, and that's all we're going to say," Tayek said. "We have made it clear we're willing to meet with [GCC's] leadership."
We've got enough burned bridges around here. Let's build one.
One of the most moving moments during Monday's ceremony was when the Rev. Jawanza Colvin called for the roll. One by one, more than 40 individuals stood at the microphone to announce a congregation, and then ask the members to rise. The crowd roared just as loudly for five people as it did when 402 members of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church jumped to their feet.
Greater Cleveland Congregations, like any interfaith group, has a lot of work ahead, starting with its budget. The religious organizations contributed half of the $250,000 goal. The rest must come from foundations, and private donations, unless more religious organizations step up. That invitation remains open.