Bonds of Family and Faith Shape Interfaith Work in Washtenaw County

Emmeline and Bryan Weinert.
Emmeline and Bryan Weinert.

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.”
-Mother Theresa

When we view the many societal difficulties of our age, we often encounter systemic complexities that can be challenging to map, let alone unravel. Where do we start? How do we engage? How do we connect with others, share our experiences, and hear testimonies from those whose life journeys are uniquely different from our own? When we ask these questions, it is important to return our awareness to a foundational conviction: We belong to one another. With eighty-three years of experience between them, the Interfaith Council of Peace and Justice (ICPJ) and the Interfaith Round Table of Washtenaw County (IRT) have served as two, dynamic interfaith community organizations within Washtenaw County. Amidst generations of service, these organizations have invited people of faith and conscience to expand how we belong together. Through compassionate community conversations and social justice organizing, IRT and ICPJ have shaped the landscape of belonging within Washtenaw County.

And if we zoom in to focus upon these organizations, we can see connections to larger, unfolding narratives of belonging too. This is certainly case when we explore the unique relationship between the two outgoing Board Chairs of IRT and ICPJ. They are Bryan Weinert and Emmeline Weinert — father and daughter. Both are long-time participants and supporters of these two interfaith communities.

It is not every day, of course, that a father and daughter share these roles at the same time, so they bring unique perspectives on the histories and strengths of both communities from which they have learned and received much. Alongside the gifts of what they have inherited, their forms of leadership within ICPJ and IRT have shaped the direction of both organizations in substantial ways. They have made meaningful contributions to interfaith connections in Washtenaw County as they have invited people to interfaith dialogues, created occasions for religious communities to form friendships, and helped organize neighbors to advocate for human rights. These include conversations and campaigns that work toward anti-racism, the eradication of poverty, the protection of immigrants, and equitable access to resources within Washtenaw County.

The occasions to serve as Board Chairs of ICPJ and IRT have also enriched their own family relationship. Bryan Weinert, Chair of IRT since 2013, says it has been particularly meaningful to see his daughter, Emmeline Weinert, step into leadership of ICPJ in 2016 and serve as Board Chair for the last year. The Weinert family has been involved in the life of both interfaith communities over many years. In this context, Emmeline Weinert shares that she benefited from growing up connected to many interfaith relationships. Among them, she experienced a strong calling toward social justice. She shares that she has benefited from Bryan Weinert’s institutional knowledge and personal wisdom, and he shares that he learns regularly from her deeply held commitments and her access to newer waves of social justice activism. Together, as they prepare to step down from these roles within the next year, they find themselves reflecting on the unique visions that ICPJ and IRT provide Washtenaw County.

Relationships are central to these visions, reminding us that we do belong to one another and are therefore called to consider how we belong to one another. In their own unique ways, IRT and ICPJ seek to cultivate interdependence, care, and shared activism for human dignity and rights.

“It is such a value to our community to have both of these organizations,” Emmeline Weinert shares. They each play unique roles: IRT focuses on transformative conversations and interfaith dialogue, and ICPJ focuses on social justice organizing. “IRT, in my experience, does a lot of that foundational work of building interfaith relationships,” she says. “It really is surprising how many misconceptions people have, and some have not had the opportunity to share spiritually and communally with people of different faiths.” She adds, “You have to have that shared fellowship to take shared action, which is what ICPJ is so focused upon. Relationships are central to a justice-filled and peace-filled world.”

Bryan Weinert agrees and affirms the ways that these organizations complement each other. He also shares how meaningful these community relationships are to him personally. Within this work, he has learned that, “I need the fellowship and experience of other people. Time and time again, I have been affirmed and inspired by the witness of people who aren’t like me. And thanks be to God in the literal sense that I’ve had that exposure.” As a life-long Lutheran, he says, “Worship is now more meaningful for me — worship in the sense of being together with others, experiencing and expressing our deeply held beliefs with others.” He adds, “And I think it’s because of that connection with people who are different, but who are likewise on a similar path with me. There is a desire to love one another and understand one another.”

Imandeep Grewal, a long-time friend of Bryan Weinert, belongs to the Sikh community, and she shares that she has enjoyed these kinds of interfaith connections and conversations with him. She says, “At a time when intolerance and divisions run deep, it is of particular value to recognize individuals in our community who are doing the hard and necessary work of creating spaces where meaningful dialogue is encouraged and appreciated, spaces where all feel truly welcome and cherished. Bryan lives his life in service, with generosity, and with profound love.”

Mary Anne Perrone, a local educator and activist with ICPJ, likewise shares that she and others benefit from the leadership of Emmeline Weinert. She adds, “Emmeline approaches her work with us with skill and expertise, a passion for justice and a heart of compassion. She measures her words, even in the heat of inevitable conflict, with straightforwardness and kindness all at once. Emmeline’s orientation is toward problem-solving and then moving forward in ways that include all who want to bring ourselves closer along the path toward peace.”

Washtenaw County residents have also built relationships with the Weinert family through their places of employment, where their daily work is connected to their values. Emmeline Weinert brings her passion for economic justice to her role as Food Program Manager at Hope Clinic in Ypsilanti. Bryan Weinert’s environmental values have played out throughout his career in the non-profit and municipal recycling field, where he currently serves as the Director of Strategy at the non-profit Recycle Ann Arbor.

The Weinert family has participated in both IRT and ICPJ with longevity, but they see themselves primarily as recipients who have been invited into a larger, collective vision. The initial invitations to get involved came through personal circles of belonging within their own friendships and local communities. Bryan Weinert was first invited into interfaith organizing through Sister Dori Gapsynski, whom he met at Lord of Light Lutheran Church. In his college years, he was also influenced greatly by Russ Fuller, one of the founders of ICPJ. Emmeline Weinert grew up around these communities, and during her youth, she was involved with the Crop Walk and attended ICPJ events, learning about social justice. After she graduated from Loyola Marymount University and returned to Ann Arbor, she became involved alongside others in the One Human Family Campaign in 2015.

A joint venture between ICPJ and IRT, the One Human Family campaign invited local residents and congregations to organize community events and display lawn signs and banners that shared support for Muslim neighbors and refugees who were facing discrimination. Out of the One Human Family Campaign, Bryan and Emmeline Weinert then helped to found Washtenaw Refugee Welcome, a nonprofit dedicated to giving long-term support to refugees in Washtenaw County.

 Emmeline and Bryan Weinert express how meaningful it is to participate and lead alongside those who share the collective vision of ICPJ and IRT. “Within organizations, you want to make sure that multiple communities are represented and that people who are most impacted by the work are represented,” Emmeline Weinert shares. “It needs to be the default to make sure that different voices are represented. We have to mirror the world we want to see at every level of the work we do.”

 They share that they have been stretched and challenged in ways that have strengthened them over time. With a variety of voices present within the organizations, people have expressed mutual encouragement and occasions for learning. There have have also been examples of conflict and decisive moments when both organizations needed to center more intentionally the representation and concerns of racial minorities, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. “We want to bring people in, but we really need to go where others are as well,” Emmeline Weinert shares.

 “I’m a 60-something, white, male, straight, Protestant,” Bryan Weinert adds. “I’m not saying that someone with that background can’t serve. They can, and I have. But I think it’s healthy for the organization to be more proactive about who gets recruited to serve within leadership roles.” He shares that he has learned so much over the years from Board members who have backgrounds and identities different from his own, and he believes it is important to be aware of how various forms of privilege can silence or sideline some participants and leaders if we are not intentional to avoid this. “These are things to be aware of, and acknowledge, and proactively engage,” he says.

Bryan and Emmeline Weinert have received great gifts of belonging in their work with IRT and ICPJ, and they have worked alongside many other leaders to expand how neighbors belong within Washtenaw County. This work has been particularly vital during the pandemic. ICPJ has coordinated care alongside a variety of faith communities to ensure that people had access to safe housing during lockdown and the dangerous months of winter. ICPJ has also drawn attention to inequities in criminal justice sentencing within Washtenaw County. During the 2020-2021 program year, IRT has held more than forty virtual, conversational events, inviting neighbors to discuss pressing needs and reflect spiritually, all in the hopes of bringing neighbors together around shared values and curbing social isolation.

In the season ahead, ICPJ and IRT will continue to expand upon these visions, mindful that invitations of belonging lay the necessary foundation for peace and justice. Within this work, Washtenaw County can express gratitude for the unique bond of belonging between Bryan and Emmeline Weinert — father and daughter. They have received much from the community visions at IRT and ICPJ, and they have provided leadership during a unique era in both organization’s histories. Amidst these gifts, the relationships continue to grow — theirs and ours. And we, too, are invited into this expansive work, recognizing that we belong to one other.

Rev. Renee Roederer serves as the Director of the Interfaith Round Table of Washtenaw County (IRT). She is an ordained Presbyterian Church (USA) minister and a local community organizer who seeks to nurture belonging, dialogue, and spiritual formation throughout Washtenaw County. She lives in Ann Arbor and belongs to a large, chosen family of people who delight her daily.

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