Voices for Earth Justice (VEJ) will host its first-ever Interfaith Prayer Breakfast on the National Day of Prayer (May 2) at Congregational Church of Birmingham in Bloomfield Hills. In addition to prayers from interfaith clergy, guests will enjoy remarks from Rev. Faith Fowler of Cass Community Social Services and the food of Chef Annabel Cohen.
Tickets are on sale at https://vejbreakfast.eventbrite.com
Since this is a big, new event for VEJ, voices4earth.org sat down with VEJ executive director BT Irwin to ask him to explain the "why" behind this event.
v4e.org: Where did the idea for an interfaith prayer breakfast come from?
BTI: Well, it's not an original idea at all. I suppose most people who are friends of VEJ have some experience going to interfaith events like this. Groups like the Interfaith Leadership Council of Detroit and WISDOM have been hosting events like this for years.
v4e.org: So, why do you feel like VEJ needs to do one? What about VEJ's interfaith prayer breakfast is going to be different from other events like it?
BTI: VEJ is a little different from other interfaith organizations in southeast Michigan. Whereas interfaith relationships are the focus and the mission of those organizations, VEJ's focus and mission is environmental justice. We believe that people of all faiths have a part to play in that mission and--let's say divine reasons--to play that part. Faith is a powerful force that moves people to live certain lifestyles and make certain choices. Faith communities are powerful influencers on personal lives and on society as a whole. Imagine the impact on our world when faith and faith communities become powerful influencers for environmental justice. So, I'd say that element--environmental justice--is what sets VEJ apart from most other interfaith work happening in southeast Michigan.
v4e.org: And you feel like hosting a prayer breakfast is the best way to do that?
BTI: It's a start. It's been awhile since VEJ has done any of its own programming that focuses on building up the interfaith community in southeast Michigan. That's not to say VEJ hasn't been doing work that brings people of different faiths together. Our volunteer program at Hope House & Gardens brings in people of a lot of different faiths to work side by side. But the garden and the neighborhood are the focus of that work. Our new community dinners and Wonder Walks programs are for people of all faiths and we are seeing a lot of diversity in the people who attend. But, in terms of a program that really lifts up and serves those who are doing interfaith work in southeast Michigan, we haven't had anything like that in awhile. And, since food is our focus right now, a breakfast seemed to make the most sense for bringing people together and serving them.
v4e.org: Why are you charging for the breakfast?
BTI: The short answer is that hosting an event like this costs money and VEJ does not have a lot of money. We have to be able to cover our costs and then some.
The long answer has two parts:
First, we believe we are giving people something of great value--Chef Cohen's food, Rev. Fowler's remarks, fellowship with great people--that is worth a lot more than the price of a ticket. We did our homework and the price we set for tickets is both in line for events like this and fair and reasonable for the people we're inviting to the event. I've been doing events for almost 20 years and people put more into things for which they pay. In the nonprofit sector, we have a bad habit of undervaluing what we offer the world and, as a consequence, the world often undervalues us. VEJ is offering a lot of value and we think that is worthy of people's commitment and financial support.
Second, we're trying to take VEJ from a $70,000 a year operation to a $250,000 a year operation over the next few years. Why? Because that's what it is going to take to be a stable, strong, sustainable mission organization. For most of our history, we've gotten by on a few big gifts or grants that come in once in awhile. The problem is that when those big gifts and grants run out, you have to start all over again. We preach resilience and sustainability at VEJ. So, we need to practice those things as well. That means building a growing community of friends--we think about 500 people over the next few years--who give lots of different kinds of gifts at lots of different levels. For each of them, giving to VEJ is a passionate, personal, purposeful choice--whether its $5 or $50,000.
So, the interfaith prayer breakfast is about growing that new community of friends and practicing mutual giving and sharing together. We are putting together an event that we believe will be inspiring, uplifting, and valuable to everyone who attends. We are asking those who attend to support VEJ so that we can do more programs like this. We're encouraging a community that works together toward a common dream.
v4e.org: Tell us a little more about the program you put together.
BTI: We wanted to put together a program that would fill people with joy. That's the word: "Joy." It starts with the people you will meet when you walk in the room. They may be different from you, but you will also find them to be friends who want many of the same things you want. Who isn't joyful about making new friends in unexpected places? Who doesn't feel more hopeful about the world when that happens?
When you listen to Rev. Fowler's story, I don't think you can walk away feeling cynical and hopeless about the world. We wanted Rev. Fowler because we wanted to remind people of what is possible. What can be more joyful than possibility?
When you eat Chef Cohen's food, you're going to feel joyful. Look, God didn't have to make tastebuds, right? Our bodies seem to be designed to experience beauty and wonder at every point of contact with the world. What is more joyful than eating extraordinary food and knowing the story of where that food comes from?
And, of course, praying together bathes the entire thing in divine blessing. What could be more joyful than that?
v4e.org: Why May 2 instead of Earth Day? Wouldn't Earth Day make more sense for VEJ?
BTI: It would, but Earth Day falls at a time this year that conflicts with some holy days for many of our friends. We couldn't be faithful to our interfaith friends and have the event on or near Earth Day.
So, we picked the National Day of Prayer (May 2) instead. There is an element of protest here. While the National Day of Prayer started in the 1950s, it has become more and more of an evangelical Christian observance. In fact, the foundation that promotes the National Day of Prayer does not hide that it is an evangelical Christian organization with an evangelical Christian political and social agenda. As an evangelical Christian myself, I'm saying you can't have a "national day of prayer" if it's just evangelical Christians praying for their version of America. A true national day of prayer is a day when people of all faiths pray together for something much bigger than themselves--for the people of this world and for the planet itself. So, you could say that we are "taking back" the National Day of Prayer for people of all faiths to pray for all people and places on this planet.
v4e.org: Is there anything else you want people to know about the Interfaith Prayer Breakfast?
BTI: Yes, this is a really, really big deal. It's a big deal for VEJ because it's the biggest event for the most people that we've put on in a long time--maybe ever. It's a big deal for southeast Michigan because it's one of the only public interfaith prayer events taking place on the National Day of Prayer. The relationships that can form at this event can lead to big things for Earth justice down the road.
And it's a big deal for you if you choose to attend. You're saying that entrusting your energy, money, and time to VEJ for one morning is better than anything else you can do with those things at that same time. I believe that, if you come, you'll be very glad you did. And if you're not, I'll personally reimburse you for it.
Early bird tickets to the Voices for Earth Justice Interfaith Prayer Breakfast are $55 through Thursday, April 11. Regular tickets ($65) are on sale through April 26.
You may purchase tickets online at https://vejbreakfast.eventbrite.com
Or, make your check to Voices for Earth Justice and write "breakfast" in the memo line. Send to Voices for Earth Justice, 15894 Greydale Street, Detroit, MI 48223.
Call (313) 355-6042 for questions.