The Interfaith Center of New York (ICNY) is a secular non-profit organization with a mission to “overcome prejudice, violence, and misunderstanding by activating the power of the city’s grassroots religious and civic leaders and their communities.”
Over the course of 25 years, ICNY has built the most religiously-diverse and civically-engaged network of grassroots and immigrant religious leaders across the five boroughs of Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and The Bronx. These include Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Afro Caribbean, and Native American New Yorkers who have either attended one or more of our social justice retreats, participated in our religious diversity education programs for social workers, teachers, lawyers, and NYPD officers, or joined multi-faith advocacy work on immigration and religious freedom. ICNY’s decades of organizing and educating in New York City’s grassroots religious communities have gained us trust, the basis for all our successes, which recently includes increasing turn-out for the 2020 US Census and galvanizing faith-community humanitarian response to the COVID-19.
The Interfaith Center of New York (ICNY) is a nationally recognized nonprofit organization that catalyzes collaboration among grassroots religious leaders and secular civic officials to address New York’s most pressing social problems. ICNY is also a non-governmental organization (affiliated with the United Nations Department of Public Information) helping to make New York an internationally recognized model of mutual understanding and cooperation among faith traditions.
The former Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Very Rev. James Parks Morton (1930-2020) founded the Interfaith Center of New York (ICNY) upon leaving the Cathedral in 1997. While at the Cathedral, Dean Morton famously incorporated interfaith services and arts programs at a time before interfaith work was widely accepted in either the Episcopal Church or New York City as a whole. The creation of the Interfaith Center was a natural next step for the Dean, and its original mandate was “To make New York and the world safe for religious diversity.”
In the first few years of ICNY’s existence, Dean Morton continued to draw on the arts as a way to find commonality between faith communities. After 9/11, however, the focus of our work began to shift, and ICNY became the first NYC-based organization to host a religiously diverse press conference with Jews, Muslims, Christians and other faith traditions condemning terrorism and violence in the name of religion.
Our long-term efforts to provide civics education for grassroots religious leaders is best illustrated in ICNY’s Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer Retreat for Social Justice, which since 1998 has hosted 80-120 diverse religious leaders semi-annually for 1-2 days on topics of concern that bridge religious divides. Past retreats have covered aging: Growing Older and Wiser in an Aging City (2008); zoning: Building Sacred Space in the City: Religious Freedom in Bricks and Mortar (2010), and violence: Creating Safety, Preserving Faith: Religious Leaders Respond to Domestic Violence (2011) and Confronting Hate Crimes (2009).
In keeping with ICNY’s special attention to civically-grounded interfaith work, ICNY scaled-up a local teacher training initiative in 2012 and, with the help of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), created “Religious Worlds of New York” a three-week curriculum for educators including work with leading scholars of religion, meetings with diverse religious leaders, visits to local houses of worship, and the time to develop their own religious diversity curriculum projects that draws on their local community context. In partnership with Union Theological Seminary, ICNY helps the selective group of K-12 teachers from around the country who are part of this program to distinguish between academic and devotional approaches to the study of religion, and give them the pedagogic tools they need to teach about contemporary lived religion.
Beginning in 2017, ICNY developed a cohort-based program that demonstrates the full breadth of our mission. Known as the Interfaith Civic Leadership Academy, the program offers a select number of diverse faith leaders the opportunity to participate in workshops with community organizers, local government officials, and also legal teams (to learn, for example, about “know your rights”). The program also offers mini-grants to enable participants to do their own community projects, which have included for example, environmental education and a beach cleanup by local Hindu communities, mindfulness stress reduction training for diverse religious leaders, a Democratic primary debate for the 14th Congressional District in Jackson Heights, and a Baptist-Buddhist dialogue retreat.
ICNY realized that religious diversity education was as critical for law enforcement officers as it was for teachers. We recognized that combatting stereotypes in law enforcement trainings was critical to overcoming Islamophobia in the wider society. While still advocating for reforms to prohibit unwarranted surveillance against mosques and Muslim communities, ICNY began a multi-year partnership with the NYPD’s Collaborative Policing Department that culminated in a 15-min. training film, “Policing in Today’s Multi-Faith New York”, which has been shown to each class of new recruits at the Police Academy since 2017 as well as officers in other departments of the police force. We also lead courses in religious diversity education for immigration law student and attorneys with New York Law School.
ICNY’s recent initiatives include developing a Faith Leaders’ 2020 Census Tool-Kit for NYC congregations as part of the Interfaith 2020 Census Coalition with FPWA, Catholic Charities, UJA Federation of New York, and COPO; a partnership between ICNY, New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS), and New York City’s Thrive NYC to create a manual for faith leaders struggling with mental health issues during the coronavirus pandemic; and the successful vaccination of over 100 individuals in vaccines hesitant communities of faith with the help of NYC Test & Trace, the Manhattan Borough President, the Senegalese Muslim Association, Masjid Al Aqsa, and Jamaica First Ward Church of Latter-Day Saints.