11/11/2013 07:53 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Remembering Annie Rawlings: Interfaith Justice Seeker, Beloved Friend

Interfaith work is community organizing work.

While there is a place for finely worded doctrinal agreement about God, the real fruits of Interfaith work are measured in soup kitchens that honor multiple types of dietary constraints or City Hall marches that call on God in many names. Interfaith work involves phone calls, emails, tireless amounts of networking, and lots of ethnic food. Its promise is revealed in joint efforts by people of different religions to address common concerns.

Annie Rawlings, my friend and colleague at the Interfaith Center of New York knew all this very well. She was a Presbyterian who could locate the neighborhood Sikh Gurdwara and enjoyed their Lungar meals.

Annie was a big-hearted champion of the poor and disenfranchised. She recognized that if progress was to be made confronting problems like immigration reform and prison re-entry, America's communities would require a diversified front-line comprised of Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and non-believers. Annie died suddenly at the age of 56 on Saturday November 2nd after snorkeling in Cancun, Mexico. Her loss is the loss of all those engaged in interfaith organizing work.

As the child of liberal Christian activists--her father Charles Rawlings is a Presbyterian Minister and faith-rooted labor leader--Annie joked about her siblings' childhood games reenacting organizing meetings. A graduate of Union Seminary, she founded the Beck Institute on Religion and Poverty at Fordham University before becoming Executive Director of A Partnership of Faith in New York City.

Later, in the office of Social Witness at the Presbytery of New York City from 2004 through 2010, Annie involved the presbytery in prison re-entry, police-community relations, immigration, international witness, Jewish/Christian relations, and the Middle East. Most recently, she joined the Interfaith Center of New York as its Director of Public Outreach and Program Administration and continued to work on many of the issues she was passionate about from an interfaith perspective.

The cutting edge of interfaith activism is not always glamorous. I have a memory of Annie speaking at an August press conference, wearing a "We are all Sikhs" t-shirt, perspiring in the heat and seeking to make sure that other faith leaders around the podium got equal airtime. The importance of finding diverse faith voices to speak out against hate crimes directed at people of a different tradition was critically important in the summer of 2011 and Annie did her part in New York--balancing the breadth of religiously diversity with the media's desire for brevity.

I also recollect her offering tray of Danishes to a hallway full of formerly incarcerated individuals who were waiting to check in with their parole officers at the Harlem Community Justice Center in East Harlem. Unlike most other parolees, these men were being welcomed back into the community by Christian and Muslim religious leaders who offered a ministry of hospitality--along with breakfast. Thursday mornings' radical hospitality turned the Justice Center into a place where Parole officers, court officials, parolees, and even the judge were on equal footing. Annie's passion for prison reform expressed itself in a pastoral way each week, even as she recruited mosques and church leaders to do their own part in bringing down the too-high rate of recidivism in Harlem.

The ecumenical concordats of our time have their important place in a world rife with religious animosity and strife. But the particular type of interfaith work that Annie Rawlings practiced arose from the grassroots and was based more on common action than common word. While it is too much for a single individual to represent a whole movement, Annie Rawlings' work exemplified a kind of "interfaith in the rough" that arises from the compassionate teachings of all the world's great religious traditions.