Fresno’s Faith in Community doing more walking than talking

Interfaith group "Faith in Community" honored

Fresno interfaith group "Faith in Community" is awarded the "Spirit of Abraham" honor by the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno. Video by John Walker/
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Fresno interfaith group "Faith in Community" is awarded the "Spirit of Abraham" honor by the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno. Video by John Walker/

When leaders of Faith in Community gather, board member Rabbi Rick Winer has been known to set the scene with the start of a joke.

“The Muslim, the Jew and the Christian walk into the church or the bar — not the bar,” he clarifies with a laugh, “or the restaurant or whatever. … ”

But this really isn’t a joke, he adds. “It’s real.”

Last week, this very real group — a coalition of roughly 25 congregations and organizations working to create a more “just, compassionate, equitable and thriving” Fresno — walked into the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno to receive a “Spirit of Abraham Award” for their work.

Among them was Andy Levine, Faith in Community’s executive director, who was raised Jewish; Bryson White, associate director and a Christian community pastor at Saint Rest Baptist Church in southwest Fresno; and Reza Nekumanesh, the Muslim director of the Islamic center in northeast Fresno and a board member for Faith in Community.

They were a fitting trio for an award named after the prophet Abraham, who is considered a patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And Levine, White and Nekumanesh are emblematic of what Faith in Community is — and wants to increasingly become — which is interfaith.

Across their religious traditions, clergy leaders say they share a desire to do more walking than talking and to stand beside those who are “closest to the pain.”

After Faith in Community was chosen from nominees for the Spirit of Abraham Award by the Islamic center’s board for work that helps Muslims in the central San Joaquin Valley, Nekumanesh called Levine to ask if the group would accept the honor.

“I know that you don’t do this for the Muslim voice, but you’ve helped the Muslim voice in Fresno,” Nekumanesh recalled telling Levine. “And he said, ‘No, I did do it for the Muslim voice.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He says, ‘I do it for everybody, and Muslims are part of that.’”

Reflecting on the phone call, Nekumanesh added, “That’s a beautiful thing to me, you know?”

White said interfaith work is especially important because “there is a correlation between Fresno being a heavily Christian city and the marginalization of people from other religious teachings.”

Fresno State President Joseph Castro also received a Spirit of Abraham Award, which has been presented annually since 2005. Nekumanesh said Castro has done a lot to promote diversity and inclusiveness on campus, including giving Muslim students a key to Fresno State’s meditation room for their morning religious prayers, hours before the room would normally open.

Castro also praised Faith in Community.

“Faith in Community plays a key role in raising awareness about important issues facing neighborhoods throughout Fresno,” he said. “I support their work in strengthening the connections between and among our diverse communities.”

Levine celebrated the diversity of Faith in Community’s members but was careful not to describe their award as a victory.

“In terms of changing the daily experiences of people in low-income conditions and neighborhoods, people of color, there’s not a lot to celebrate,” he said. “People are still living in pain and living in a system that has intentionally set up these structures, in many ways, and is benefiting off that pain.”

Life-saving work

Faith in Community was founded in Fresno around a decade ago, with its first campaign addressing substandard housing conditions in the city.

The nonprofit is part of Faith in the Valley, made up of Faith in Community groups from Merced, Modesto, Stockton and Bakersfield. The groups are part of the PICO National Network that has member organizations in 150 cities across the country.

In Fresno, Faith in Community has tackled a long list of issues concerning social justice:

They helped pass a couple city ordinances, one to stop the spread of “predatory” payday lending stores in impoverished neighborhoods and another that addresses abandoned and blighted properties. They weighed in on Fresno’s General Plan, urging investment in downtown and other existing neighborhoods. They campaigned in support of Prop 47 to give nonviolent offenders a “second chance” — rehabilitation instead of incarceration for things like drug offenses.

They walk Fresno neighborhoods at night with a message of peace to stop violence. They hold forums to talk about things like racism and criminal justice reform. They support immigration reform and health care for all. They urge city leaders to do something about landlords and companies who keep renters living in substandard conditions. They push for more parks in Fresno and the removal of “toxic” industry in neighborhoods.

Much of this work has happened alongside a number of ally organizations, including many who have assembled under the banner of Building Healthy Communities.

Congregations uniting is powerful, Levine said, but it’s not enough. Faith in Community is joining with “all groups that are working for a more fair, equitable and just Fresno. … The powers that be rely on us not actually working together and thinking that we are more different than we are similar.”

Faith in Community leaders say poverty and “systemic, institutional racism” are at the core of many of the issues.

“There is this historic and current belief that certain people, predominantly white middle-class folks, matter more than others, matter more than people of color and communities of color,” said Levine, who is white. “That sort of pervasive and sick belief drives public policy across all the issues that matter.”

Levine often cites some staggering Fresno statistics, including a track record of being the nation’s worst city in concentrated poverty.

Board member Chris Breedlove, senior pastor of Community United Church of Christ in northeast Fresno, said “our work is cut out for us, it’s cut out.”

“And it’s hard work. It’s hard work because lives are at stake. People live and die because of poverty. People live and die because of racism. People live and die because of indifference and injustice.

“And so the work that we’re doing is not just feel-good work. It’s life-giving work. It’s life-saving work.”

Humble helpers

But while proud of their work, Levine and the other clergy members downplay their role as organizers. For them, this isn’t about becoming glorified leaders or just the next group to have the ear of City Hall.

“This is about making sure that everyone has a voice, particularly those that are closest to the pain,” Levine said. “We aren’t gatekeepers or speaking on behalf of anybody else.”

Levine left an education advocacy organization in New York because of that mentality, opting instead to move back to his hometown to fill the open Faith in Community position in 2012.

At his job in New York, he said, “it became clear that it was people of privilege speaking on behalf of others and making decisions for others. … That got me soul-searching and got me realizing that organizing is a way to stand alongside those closest to the pain and send a strong message that they have more right than anybody to be the ones that are actually dictating their policies.”

Levine and White’s work has been largely influenced by family members who “picked a vocation that was also a calling.” Levine’s father is a professor of social psychology at Fresno State and his mother a school psychologist for special education. White’s father was an executive at Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission and his mother an elementary school teacher.

White is also the grandson of a prominent black pastor in Fresno’s history, Rev. Chester Riggins, who led Saint Rest’s congregation for about 44 years, starting in the early 1960s.

For White, Jesus Christ is the ultimate model of how to live: Love God and love your neighbor.

“Those are two sides of the same coin,” White said. “You can’t love God and then not love your neighbor.”

He’s also drawn to passages about Jesus’ resurrection “as a sign that death and destruction don’t have the last word, but that life has the last word. As God’s answer to death-dealing forces in the world.”

Levine takes heart in the Jewish notion of “tikkun olam,” which means “to heal the world” — what he says is central to being a Jew.

Rabbi Winer of Temple Beth Israel in northwest Fresno said something similar. When his students read the Torah, the sacred Jewish writings, he likes to ask them, “What’s the point?”

“Who cares what it says in there if it doesn’t leap off the pages and get us out into the community, working to make the world a better place.”

Board member D.J. Criner, senior pastor of Saint Rest, said that when he was growing up, he saw a lot of Valley pastors who “talked a good game on the pulpit,” but when the community really needed them, they weren’t around. Criner is doing things differently through Faith in Community.

“We (the faith community) sometimes throw our religions in people’s faces and down people’s throats, and they are like, ‘I don’t see a change. If you serve this awesome God, where is he?’” Criner said. “He calls us to be those agents of change, so we walk in, ready to help change our community. …

“People working together, it reflects what heaven is going to look like.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

Support Faith in Community

Those interested in supporting the nonprofit’s work can make check donations to Faith in Community and send to their office, 2101 N. Fruit Ave., Fresno CA 93705, or donate online.