Nevada Interfaith Association
Compiled and written by Sean Savoy
Northern Nevada, in particular the Reno-Sparks-Carson City region, has a 60-year history of interfaith relations in northern Nevada that has solidified the region as a national example of interfaith cooperation.
The history goes back as far as the mid-1960s with the establishment of the northern Nevada chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, which was founded in 1927 as the National Coalition of Christians and Jews (NCCJ). NCCJ’s founders included prominent social activists such as Jane Addams and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes who dedicated the organization to bringing diverse people together to address interfaith divisions.
NCCJ eventually expanded its work to include all issues of social justice including race, class, gender equity, sexual orientation and the rights of people with different abilities. In the 1997, the name was changed to the National Conference for Community and Justice to better reflect the breadth and depth of its mission, the growing diversity of our country and the need to be more inclusive. The northern Nevada chapter was quite active, especially in the realm of interfaith work. Executive directors like Marsha Patinkin (musical star Mandy Patinkin’s sister) and later Cristiana Bratiotis, continuing in the tradition of her father, Fr. George, worked hard along with the involvement of leaders from many sectors, inclusive of the faith community, to bring awareness and success to NCCJ’s interfaith programming.
Until NCCJ – whose stated mission was to “fight bias, bigotry and racism” and “promote understanding and respect among all races, religions and cultures” – closed its doors in northern Nevada in December 2001, prominent leaders in the region’s multi-faith community served in various capacities on the NCCJ board of directors and on various committees, organizing in and participating in events such as the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast, the Humanitarian Awards Dinner, and the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Eve Service, as well as in other programs for youth, specifically Camp Anytown.
But northern Nevada’s participation in interfaith work was not restricted to NCCJ. As early as 1964, Washoe County Hospital (later Washoe County Medical Center and now Renown Regional Medical center), had dedicated a chapel for interdenominational and interfaith worship, inclusive of Christian, Jewish, Latter-day Saints and Baha’i congregations. And going back to the early 1980s, local clergy leadership began to form local interfaith groups, most prominently the Washoe County Clergy Association (WCCA).
According to WCCA founding member and eventually its president, Fr. George Bratiotis, pastor of Reno’s Greek Orthodox congregation, “As faith leaders in Washoe County, we wanted the opportunity to ‘fellowship,’ to share ministries and ideas that would be beneficial to our individual congregations and to work towards helping community projects and organizations [such as NCCJ]. Other founders and early participants in WCCA included the Rev. Jim Jeffery (Episcopalian), Rev. Jack Glidewell (Lutheran), Dr. Clair Earl (LDS), Rev. Curt Fuller (First Congregational), Rev. Onie Cooper (Baptist), and there were others.
Eventually, WCCA’s initiatives would merge with NCCJ’s interfaith programming, where the aforementioned leaders would participate and new advocates of interfaith cooperation would emerge, including Rabbi Myra Soifer (Reform), Fr. Robert Bowling, Fr. Chuck Durante, and Bishop Phillip Straling (Catholic). Independent efforts to foster healthy interfaith relations flourished as well, among them Rabbi Soifer’s Study Buddies (c. 1991-2009), a “loosely” clergy group that met monthly around whatever topic anybody was willing to facilitate. During her 25-year rabbinate in Reno, Rabbi Soifer would also found a women’s clergy luncheon group that to this day meets monthly under new female clergy leadership.
In 1984, Bishop Gene Savoy, Sr. (International Community of Christ) founded the Nevada Clergymen’s Association (NCA) as an action group of ICC ministers working to promote equity, inclusion and fair treatment in religious diversity. In the late 1990s, the Nevada Clergymen’s Association would change its name to the more inclusive Nevada Clergy Association in an effort to expand its membership to include faith leaders outside of ICC’s ranks. This simple name change would help NCA become the “house” under which the region’s unified interfaith efforts would coalesce.
During the period after the closure of NCCJ’s northern Nevada chapter in 2001, leaders like Fr. Bratiotis, Fr. Jeffery, Rabbi Soifer, and Dr. Earl, among others, kept momentum going by continuing to ensure that clergy leaders and allies met regularly at quarterly and later bi-annual interfaith meetings, and encouraged participation among the multi-faith community at important events such as the annual Thanksgiving Eve event. Fr. Jeffery, in particular, oversaw the schedule of ongoing meetings and programming with the help of many supporters from various congregations.
In 2005, upon the retirement of Fr. Jeffery, who had been the custodian of the interfaith “list,” he passed the leadership baton to ICC, in specific Bishop Savoy Sr,.’s son, Rev. Gene Savoy, Jr., who was asked to spearhead the next phase of community-wide interfaith engagement.
It was at this time that participating clergy leadership was broadened to more inclusively represent the diverse cross-section of faith traditions that by now had established a more prominent presence in our area, among them, but not restricted to, the Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist communities, who since that time have gone on to institute their own interfaith programs in collaboration with NIA in the ensuing years.
A milestone year for the interfaith movement was 2010 when new bylaws for the old Nevada Clergy Association were adopted, making it possible for NCA to become the central organizing entity for interfaith efforts in the region, with Rev. Savoy, Jr. as president. This was also the year that the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast, a former program of NCCJ, was reinstated as the Nevada Prayer Breakfast (NPB) at the urging of NCA board member, Rev. Sean Savoy, who led the program for 10 years (2010-2020). He had previously served as committee chair for the event from 1997-2001 under NNCJ. Rev. Savoy stated: “The program did something no other event had done. It brought a vast cross section of the community – from faith to government to business leaders and educators to healthcare and arts and culture – together every year under one roof for the single purpose of celebrating the beauty of diversity of Nevada’s people through prayer, or any form of prayer, with the intention of raising up our state to a commitment to the greater good.”
The NPB program allowed for even further diversification of participation to include more prominently the members of the area’s Native American, evangelical Christian, Pagan, and LGBTQ faith communities, among others. The inception of the Vision Award, given annually at this event, provided the opportunity for a united interfaith community to reach out and honor prominent and visionary Nevadans from various sectors of society chosen by the NPB governing committee to have been instrumental in elevating Nevada to new heights of innovation, service and humanitarianism.
During this period, NCA also took on an expanded leadership position in other well established community programs such as the Northern Nevada Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Committee (formerly Holiday Commission), a long standing group dedicated to honoring and celebrating the legacy of Dr. King as minister who encouraged non-violence and cooperation among people of all faiths. NCA was instrumental in establishing the annual Onie Cooper Humanitarian Award, named after the commission-committee’s founder, who as previously mentioned, was a pioneer in the early days of the area’s interfaith initiatives.
Over a period of ten or so years, many old and newer area clergy leaders, members and associates representative of the multi-faith community joined NCA’s ranks to be part of committees, programs and events, including such prominent figures such as Rev. Carl Wilfrid, (Lutheran), Rajan Zed (Hindu), Revs. Stefani Schatz and Rick Millsap (Episcopalian), Rabbis Terri Appleby and Ethan Bair (Reform), Rev. Neal Anderson (Unitarian-Universalist), Rev. Robert Stover (Presbyterian), Imam Abdul Barghouti and Dr. Sherif Elfass (Muslim), Revs. Matthew and Shelley Fisher (Buddhist), Rev. John Auer (First Congregational), Fr. Jorge Herrera (Catholic), and Bruce Brinkerhoff and William Frey (LDS).
Among these and many other unnamed supporters was Patricia Meidell (LDS), who initially became involved with NCA as a member of the Nevada Prayer Breakfast committee. Eventually, she would go on to serve as a member of NCA’s governing board, taking over as acting president in 2016, and being elected president in 2017. With strong support from already participating clergy leaders and faith representatives, many mentioned above, but particularly Rev. Sean Savoy, Pamela Kellerstrass (LDS), and Rev. Larry Holloway (Bethel AME), as well as newly arrived or newly appointed leaders such as Revs. Erik and Amy Allen and Rev. Sarah Johnson (Lutheran), Fr. William Stomski (Episcopalian), Rabbis Benjamin and Sara Zober (Reform), Rev. Sherman Baker (Baptist) and Dr. Bradley Corbin (Baha’i), she worked tirelessly from 2017-2020 to expand NCA programming, beginning first with a name change.
Once again, in the spirit of inclusion and modernization, NCA became NIA (Nevada Interfaith Association) under its revised bylaws as a way to incorporate the large group of members, associates and friends whose affiliation and support of interfaith work was not based necessarily on their clergy status but as a direct result of their personal interest and actual participation. This allowed many groups and individuals to take on leadership and organizational roles, for example, lay members of faith groups or representatives of secular non-profit organizations, such as Donor Network West, Volunteers of America, and the Life, Peace and Justice Commission of the Roman Catholic Diocese or Reno.
In addition to a new name and bylaws, new governance and membership guidelines, initiatives for board expansion, development and funding strategies under new administration were implemented, and a web site was launched. A partnership with the northern Nevada’s largest non-profit health system, Renown Health (formerly Washoe Health System) saw the renovation of its old 1964 chapel located at their Renown Regional Medical Center (previously mentioned) as the Renown Health Spiritual Center and Estelle J. Kelsey Interfaith Sanctuary. This partnership between NIA and Renown Health has helped to foster the engagement of the religious-spiritual community in clinical health and has provided a safe space for interfaith education and ritual ministry in the hospital setting.
Harkening back to the NCCJ days when youth participation was part of its interfaith programming, NIA began the annual NIA Youth Conference. The purpose of the gathering was to bring dozens of high school youth from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds together to experience interpersonal interaction and relationship building while learning leadership and communication skills. During their time together, the youth also explore and celebrate their common values in community. The conference culminates with the youth participating in a service project.
Interfaith cooperation in Northern Nevada – a movement as it has been called – is a decades’ long testament to the power of people of differing faith backgrounds, beliefs, creeds and convictions coming together and working together with mutual respect and in solidarity for the betterment of a community.
The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 challenged NIA to keep its programs ongoing in creative ways. In-person formats were adapted to virtual offerings with success. The post-pandemic course for NIA appears bright, as the organization maintains a strong commitment to continuing in its interfaith mission and legacy.
“The vision of the organization was to show that, although we were ‘different,’ we could still work on common projects together and respect one another’s faith traditions in so doing. We never asked each other to ‘compromise’ our beliefs or faith traditions, rather we respected each other’s faiths and practices. We always stressed to each other that if we didn’t feel comfortable addressing a project, an issue that we were addressing or an organization that we were helping, that we would ALWAYS respect each other’s involvement or non-involvement.” – Fr. George Bratiotis