On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the inauguration of the first African-American president in U.S. history, a national conference on Black-Catholic-Jewish relations will be held at Xavier University in New Orleans.

“Americans at the Pulpit in the Public Square: A conversation on race, religion and rhetoric in a diverse America” will be held Jan. 17 to 19, sponsored by the The American Jewish Committee and The New York Archdiocese’s Office of the Black Ministry.

The conference aims to educate and train participants enabling them to be change agents. There will be two key questions considered — the different perspectives of the distinct faith and ethnic communities involved, and how they can work together to move forward.

The conference will consist of lectures interspersed with hands-on workshops and trainings. It will also give participants the opportunity to interact with each other meaningfully, breaking unspoken divides and strengthening not only their knowledge of each other, but the practice of being and working together.

The American Jewish Committee, established in 1906 by a small group of American Jews deeply concerned about pogroms aimed at Russian Jews, determined that the best way to protect Jewish populations in danger would be to work towards a world in which all peoples were accorded respect and dignity.

Established in 1976, the Office of Black Ministry was created to address some of the unique spiritual, cultural and social needs of African American, African, and Caribbean American Catholics, as well as the larger Black Community.

Xavier University of Louisiana is the only historically black, Catholic university in the country. Xavier was founded by a white women from Philadelphia (St. Katharine Drexel), to provide higher education for young Blacks; today it welcomes all people and serves a “community” that is broader than Black and Catholic. Since Hurricane Katrina, Xavier has been the site of the coming together of AJC and OBM in a unique and meaningful collaboration.

Among the other co-sponsors are AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Jewish Funds for Justice.
The conference begins on Jan. 17 with registration at the Hampton Inn Downtown French Quarter. After an opening prayer at 7 p.m. there will be a screening of “Axe in the Attic,” followed by a discussion, “Confronting New Orleans’ Challenges: A Microcosm for the Country,” with the film’s co-producer and co-director, Lucia Small.

Events will shift to Xavier on Jan. 18, with a morning panel on “Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Legacy: Race Relations Then and Now,” featuring Professor Cheryl Greenberg, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of History, Trinity College; and Andre Williams, City Council member, Miami, Fla.

At 11:15 a.m., there will be “Everything you always wanted to know but were afraid to ask! Q&A on the Christian and Jewish Faiths” with Dr. Sister Jamie Phelps, Director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies, Xavier University; and Rabbi James Rudin, Senior Interreligious advisor, American Jewish Committee.

An open Catholic Mass will be followed by a screening of “Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change.”

In the afternoon, there will be “The Role of Faith and How We Relate to One Another,” a discussion featuring Professor Laurence Thomas, Syracuse University Philosophy Department.
Dr. Jamie Phelps and Beth Israel Rabbi Uri Topolosky will lead breakout sessions featuring text study focused on the Jewish and Christian teachings on social justice and community building.

Late afternoon workshops and discussions include “Bridging the Divides — New Networks, New Directions in New Orleans” and “Building Ethnic and Religious Group Trust: Models You Can Use.”

The Xavier Jazz Band will entertain during the evening program.

On Jan. 19, there will be a Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Program featuring Fr. Freddy Washington and Temple Sinai Rabbi Edward Cohn.

The commemoration will be followed by a service learning project in the area, after which the conference will conclude.

To learn more about the conference, or to participate, visit http://nolaconference.blogspot.com or contact Neil Schneider at the Federation, (504) 780-5610 or neil@jewishnola.com.

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