Soundings

Erlandson's leadership turned Interfaith Works into inclusive model

From its ecumenical origin in 1974, Interfaith Works has evolved into an interfaith nonprofit organization of about 30 faith-based communities drawn together to promote peace, tolerance and charitable work in South Sound.

Operating on a shoestring budget out of a basement office at Tumwater United Methodist Church, Interfaith Works’ part-time executive director, Kathy Erlandson, has been leading efforts to expand membership and serve the community, especially its hungry and homeless.

After nearly 10 years at the helm and 14 previous years as a key volunteer and event organizer, Erlandson, 60, stepped down this week for some rest, some relaxation and a hip replacement.

“I’m a little burned out,” said Erlandson, her kindly face framed by silver, close-cropped hair. “But I wouldn’t have stayed 24 years if the work wasn’t important to me.”

Erlandson takes modest pride in some of her accomplishments. She was instrumental in starting the Emergency Overflow Shelter Program in 1990 at the church where she is a member and former pastor – the Olympia Community of Christ. Since, a dozen or more congregations have stepped up each year to offer their church buildings as a safe place for homeless infants, children and adults to spend the night 30,000 times.

Under her leadership, the group that formed in 1974 as the Associated Ministries of Thurston County has evolved into a much more inclusive organization of faith communities, including Baha’i, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and others, plus nine affiliate groups such as the Dispute Resolution Center and the Olympia Fellowship of Reconciliation.

“Around the country, groups like ours are springing up,” Erlandson said. “But very few communities in our state have something like Interfaith Works, and it is especially unusual in a small town like Olympia.”

Then again, Olympia is an eclectic, fairly tolerant place with a strong history of community volunteerism and support for the less fortunate, a solid backdrop for the Interfaith Works mission.

As Interfaith Works grew, so did Erlandson’s understanding and tolerance of other religions.

“I was a pretty narrow Christian when I started,” she recalled.

COMMUNITY LEADER

Fighting hunger is another major focus of Interfaith Works. This year marks the 30th annual CROP Walk, which takes place the first Sunday of May and draws some 400 to 500 participants. The CROP, or Communities Responding to Overcome Poverty, Walk has raised more than $1 million for hunger relief in South Sound.

The 6.2-mile walk takes off from the Capitol steps at 1:30 p.m. May 2. Those benefiting from this year’s event will include earthquake victims in Haiti and Chile and several South Sound hunger-relief agencies. For more information about how to participate, donate and volunteer, go to www.oly-wa.us/interfaith/CropWalk.php.

Also coming up soon is the first in a concert series that will make up the Interfaith Works 2010 World Sacred Music Festival, set for 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Capitol Theater in downtown Olympia. The festival will feature the Al-Andalus Ensemble, joined on stage by a traditional Spanish dancer.

The contemporary chamber trio of oud, violin and guitar plays music that celebrates a time in history (711-1492 AD) when Christians, Muslims and Jews coexisted peacefully in medieval Spain. For more information about the event, visit www.olysacredmusic.org.

Proceeds from the sacred music festival help fund the Interfaith Works operating budget, which hovers around $55,000 a year.

The main source of funding is contributions from members and others. Faith community members contribute whatever they feel they can afford.

FUTURE OF INTERFAITH

One of the never-ending challenges at Interfaith Works is expanding membership. The first non-Christian member was Temple Beth Hatfiloh, which joined in 1981. But there still are some 140 faith-based communities in South Sound that, for various reasons, haven’t joined the fold.

The Interfaith Works board of directors had 29 applicants for the executive director position. They chose Daniel Kadden, 51, a Jewish community activist and consultant to other nonprofits. Kadden, born in Chicago, worked as a community organizer for the Jewish Council of Urban Affairs about the same time as President Barack Obama worked as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side.

They never crossed paths, but Kadden’s father met Obama at a book signing for Obama’s autobiography, “Dreams From My Father,” just as Obama launched his political career in a run for an Illinois state Senate seat that he was elected to in 1996.

“I’ve got an ‘Obama for State Senate’ campaign button,” Kadden said. “I grew up around that setting of people working for peace and social justice; my parents were Holocaust survivors.”

Kadden sees Interfaith Works as an effective model for social change. Some of his goals are increased membership and creating programs that reflect the values and interests of the community.

“The anchoring institutions of a community are the faith communities,” Kadden said. “They are the places that people draw their inspiration and purpose. And we can do more together.”

On this Easter Sunday, we should all give thanks, regardless of our personally held beliefs, for the work of Erlandson, Kadden and the more than 900 volunteers who donate nearly 10,000 hours of their time to Interfaith Works charitable causes each year in South Sound.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444

jdodge@theolympian.com

www.theolympian.com/soundings

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