Fitchburg Star - 10/10/2014

Connecting faith

Network reaches across diverse groups to share ideas, resources

Samantha Christian

Unified Newspaper Group

Fitchburg is a growing city with more ethnic, economic and religious diversity than most of Wisconsin.

Rather than allowing these perceived differences to divide the community, an unlikely pairing of faith leaders and city officials created a dialogue that has taken on a life of its own.

From initiating the Good Neighbors Personal Essentials Pantry and coordinating volunteer efforts at the senior center and area schools to acting as a support system during times of crisis, groups that were once simply discussing issues faced by the community are now creating relationships, branching off and finding solutions.

“The (Fitchburg Faith Network and City Leaders) as a whole has not taken action or positions. It is more of a networking place,” said Pastor Phil Haslanger of Memorial United Church of Christ.

This network began shortly after Mayor Shawn Pfaff was elected in 2011 hoping to improve Fitchburg’s sense of community and Haslanger studied findings from the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau.

Phil Haslanger

Phil Haslanger

The data showed that of the 25,000 people in Fitchburg, 17.2 percent were Hispanic or Latino, 10.4 percent black or African American and 4.9 percent Asian. Those numbers are nearly double what the averages were for the state of Wisconsin, at 5.9, 6.3 and 2.3 percent, respectively.

Haslanger saw the city’s increasing diversity and geography as a way for area churches to reach out and cross some of the perceived racial, economic and ethnic boundaries. Meanwhile, Pfaff was seeking ways to keep various parts of Fitchburg – particularly the developing northern Fish Hatchery Road corridor and urban core – connected as it became more diverse.

“We are a microcosm of Dane County,” said Pfaff. “Fitchburg is a very complex and diverse community with a lot of great attributes, but one of the things we needed to do is connect people.”

The city has taken steps to help create an inclusive atmosphere among its residents, who are split among three school districts. It built the Fitchburg Public Library in 2011 and collaborated with the Fitchburg Optimists for a splash pad in 2013.

Shawn Pfaff

Shawn Pfaff

But having grown up in a small town in western Wisconsin where the church and small-town businesses worked together to improve people’s quality of life, he felt the city ought to enlist the Fitchburg faith community as partners in this effort.

He started by holding informal meetings with different pastors and nonprofits during the first eight months of his mayoral tenure. As the conversations evolved, so did Pfaff’s friendship with Haslanger, and Pfaff suggested combining their separate goals.

“He really believed that this was something that Fitchburg was ready for,” said Pfaff. “I’m glad someone like Pastor Phil is leading (the faith network) up now, because he is a man that people respect and know that his heart’s in the right spot.”

Making the rounds

The joint session of pastors and city staff that they formed has been growing  organically ever since.

Haslanger is the point person for the faith leaders and is in charge of lining up presenters. Pfaff, on the other hand, rounds up the city staff and is the master of ceremonies during the meetings.

The Fitchburg Faith Network and City Leaders meetings have been held about four times per year at various churches throughout Fitchburg since its first meeting at the library in January 2013.

Present at the meetings are area faith leaders and city officials, including the mayor, city administrator, alders, police and fire chiefs and library, senior center and parks directors. The group has also been adding representatives from nonprofit organizations and the private sector who have a direct impact on the people of Fitchburg, even if they are located in Madison.

This variety allows people to bring a different set of skills, ideas and financial resources to the table, Pfaff explained.

A few organizations are featured at each meeting so the group can learn about their missions, upcoming work and ways to get involved.

Past presentations have included Centro Hispano, UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence, Habitat for Humanity, Joining Forces for Families, Catholic Multicultural Center and Fountain of Life.

There is also an informal question-and-answer session after each presentations. At the end of the meetings, city staff and faith leaders give updates about their departments or congregations and everyone is welcome to socialize and build relationships.

The most recent meeting, held Sept. 30, centered around the topic of youth, with brief presentations by Briarpatch Youth Services, Inc., Domestic Abuse Intervention Services and Muslim Youth of Madison.

While many people who attend are part of Christian congregations, the Fitchburg area is also home to two temples of Eastern religions (Deer Park Buddhist Center and the American Hindu Association) and many Jewish and Islamic families. The group’s goal is to reach them, as well.

“It’s a really interesting religious mix in this community as well, which is one of the powers of this gathering where we can kind of get to know each other across our normal lines,” Haslanger said.

Support system

Haslanger said the group has also strengthened the bond among church leaders, as reflected in the support around the staff at Christ Memorial Lutheran Church following the Aug. 22 double murder of Ashlee Steele and her sister, Kacee Tollefsbol.

The most recent Fitchburg Faith Network meeting was held a month later at the Church on Raritan Road, where Steele had been a member and preschool teacher.

Although the location for the meeting had been set long before the tragedy, it served as a poignant reminder of how important a collaborative community can be during times of need.

Pastor Jeff Meyer began the meeting with prayer to bless the dialogue, and he thanked the group for its continued support.

“It’s a refreshing time to see so many interested people in making this community a better place,” he said.

Police chief Thomas Blatter said the incident affected “many neighborhoods and the community as a whole,” in addition to the church and law enforcement community.

“We’re very thankful for the response of the community (and) the leadership of the mayor and the faith community coming together and providing the assistance that you did,” he said. “That was very helpful for us (and) for the healing process of the neighborhood.”

Pfaff said in an interview with the Star that he was saddened, shocked and greatly moved by the tragedy.

“But I was (also) so honored to be able to see how the Fitchburg faith group really stepped up and provided that sense of community during that really trying time,” he said.

Broadening horizons

The Faith Network is happy to keep expanding its group, Haslanger said.

“The cast of characters has changed based on the topic (and) who is available (the) day (of the meeting),” he said, but overall the group continues to grow. “We’ve been able to weave in the folks from Zion City International, a predominantly African American church … and we’ve gotten a little wider range of communities (that) we’ve connected with.”

Bethany Klein, development director at Habitat for Humanity of Dane County, first attended the meeting in January as a guest speaker to spread awareness about Habitat’s plan to build affordable housing in Fitchburg. She said there may be times when Habitat and the group can share services and resources for the betterment of the community.

Klein was excited to see several area nonprofits sitting side by side with Fitchburg’s faith leaders at the meeting in September.

“This shows the Fitchburg Faith Network’s dedication to working alongside those organizations that provide crucial services to our neighbors in need,” Klein wrote in an email to the Star. “It gives nonprofits the opportunity to discuss challenges and needs with Fitchburg leaders, especially to mobilize people of faith to take action to solve critical needs such as affordable housing.”

Pfaff said that’s the whole point.

“Even if you’re not a person of faith, we want people to feel like they have a place to go that just isn’t driven by government or city services,” Pfaff told the Star. ”It’s a way for people to work together and to (make) better opportunities in our city.”

At the end of that meeting, Pfaff told the nearly 25 people who attended that he was “blown away” by the knowledge and passion of the people involved.

“This group can be a model for around the state,” he said.

The next Fitchburg Faith Network and City Leaders meeting, the group’s seventh, will be held Jan. 20.

Possible topics for discussion include early childhood programs and prison reform and re-entry, with tentative presentations by representatives from United Way of Dane County and Karine Sloan, the new principal at Leopold Elementary School.

Into the future

Because the group has been growing organically, it’s anyone’s guess as to how it will continue to evolve.

Pfaff would like the group’s next goal to be working with the private sector on projects in the northern Fish Hatchery Road corridor.

“I really want to use these resources and this vessel that we’ve created to really do that right the next two years,” he said. “(We want to) do it in a way that reinvigorates the neighborhood but also works with the population that lives there to improve the quality of life for everyone.”

He also said that if the essential city services, especially the police and fire department, can continue to develop relationships with faith leaders, like pastors who talk to their parishioners every week, they can ensure quality of life issues are really improved. He envisions the group tackling issues of disparity, income, inequality and quality of life.

“This is what faith is: to be a foot-soldier to improve people’s lives, and this group is doing that,” said Pfaff. “The sky’s the limit for this group.”

Haslanger said the future of the group depends on how interested people continue to be as leaders change in churches and City Hall.

While Pfaff recognizes that mayors change, along with their priorities and values, he is confident the relationships will continue even when he is no longer in office.

“I’m hopeful that the faith-based community among themselves will continue to communicate, and that’s one of the things I’m really proud of is that they’re talking together,” said Pfaff.

That’s what’s important, Haslanger said – the relationships the group is building now.

“Groups sort of have a life as they’re needed,” he said. “Right now it’s a really neat moment.”

Fitchburg Faith Network’s Sept. 30 meeting highlights:
Fitchburg Star

Fitchburg Star