In a rustic little corner of Chatsworth, flanked by trees and horses and dry, dusty land, sits the nerve center of the oldest interfaith program in the San Fernando Valley.
From its offices in a building owned by a United Methodist church, the Valley Interfaith Council (VIC) has, for 37 years, quietly provided an outlet for religious organizations to pool their resources and feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and support the elderly while allowing Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims an opportunity to learn tolerance by sharing mitzvot.
The list of services provided by the VIC is impressive. It is contracted by the City of Los Angeles to provide support services for senior citizens in the east, northeast and mid-Valley areas, which it does through three senior centers in those areas. Various other programs provide about 2,000 seniors with transportation, hot meals and in-home services each day. More than 30 participants and caregivers are served by the VIC's two Alzheimer's day-care programs while an estimated 318 low-income seniors and disabled persons receive assistance each year through the Handyworker Program. The program uses volunteer builders and other skilled workers to help make accommodations such as ramps and widened doorways for wheelchairs at participants' homes.
In addition to their work with seniors and the disabled, the VIC provides funds and manpower for a myriad of essential agencies in the Valley, including Meals on Wheels; the Food Pantry Coalition (which includes Sova Kosher Food Pantry and Encino B'nai B'rith); the Alliance for the Care of Abused Children; and the Interfaith Family Assistance Program which, among its other functions, helps at-risk families to obtain health insurance coverage through the state's Healthy Families program.
"The Valley Interfaith Council is based on the premise of pluralism, an honest pluralism that says, 'Your faith has validity for you, my faith has validity for me,'" said Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein, assistant dean of the Los Angeles School of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a 25-year member of the VIC. "That's different than the kind of naive pluralism we call 'brotherhood,' where I know I'm right but will put up with people who are wrong, or the simple-minded pluralism that says we're all basically the same.
VIC wants people who have a real commitment to their faith and tradition, but are open to bouncing their concepts against other people's concepts, which is really the religious challenge in an advanced democracy."
Jews have had a strong presence in the VIC from its inception, Goldstein notes. The organization grew out of a committee formed in 1964 by church and synagogue members to fight for fair housing practices for Jews and other minorities. Since then, membership has waxed and waned, growing to 398 active members in 1996 and falling to about 225 dues-paying members currently. However, recent events have provoked more of an interest, and the VIC has embarked on a campaign to increase its membership for 2001. The events of Sept. 11 have not changed the organization's focus.
"Our mission has always been to foster understanding between people of all religions and backgrounds, and that stays the same," said VIC President Katherine Rousseau. "There's just a little more stress on people in our country. The suffering of the families has affected us all."
The one positive change to come out of the recent tragedy, Rousseau said, is a greater emphasis on dialogue between Muslims and people of other faiths.
"We've been doing this work for years, and now we see it happening all over the country -- people coming together for interfaith services," she said.
The Valley Interfaith Council, along with the ADL and the West Valley JCC, will sponsor a series of dialogues titled "Diversity & Religion" to run six Tuesdays beginning Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. at the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus, 22622 Vanowen St. in West Hills. For information on these and other VIC programs and events, call (818) 718-6460.