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Once upon a time, Canisius College Professor Timothy Wadkins had an inspiration.

Wouldn't it be wonderful, he thought, to bring some of the "big names" in religion to Buffalo to expound on cutting-edge issues.

To determine if the idea appealed to anyone else, Wadkins, an associate professor of religious studies, arranged a luncheon to pitch it. He invited more than 40 pastors and professors who he thought might be enthusiastic about ecumenical dialogue.

That was nearly two years ago.

The result was "Conversations in Christ and Culture," a lecture series that already has brought three prominent Christian thinkers to Buffalo for lectures, workshops and concerts. Next year three or four more will be booked.

"We had a Center for the Global Study of Religion but we were isolated from the ecumenical community and had no budget for bringing in name speakers," said Wadkins, who heads the center.

To his delight, the idea was immediately embraced by Trinity Episcopal, Westminster Presbyterian and Holy Trinity Lutheran churches. They had been sponsoring their own lecture series but had found the cost to be an obstacle. They were happy to form a partnership with Canisius and to contribute financially to an ecumenical effort.

"Conversations" also gained the support of the Network of Religious Communities, which provided $5,000 for the first year's programs through the Riefler Ministry Enablement Fund. In addition, the Network has helped promote and publicize the series.

Another $3,000 came from the John R. Oishei Foundation.

The combined resources of Center for the Global Study of Religion, several churches and the foundations provided a $15,000 budget for the first year of the series. All of it was spent.

Wadkins feels the series is important "to make the Christian community of Buffalo aware of issues within the world of Christianity and culture, to talk about controversies within Christianity, to address issues that divide us, to help people become more knowledgeable about other religions and to promote healing across religious lines."

"The design of this is pretty simple," he said. "It is to expose people to outstanding speakers they may not otherwise be able to hear."

This year's lineup included internationally prominent theologian John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus of New Testament theology at DePaul University and a founding member of the famous and controversial Jesus Seminar. Appearing in July, he attracted about 120 people to a dinner-lecture at Canisius. Another 80 attended a half-day workshop he conducted at Westminster.

The first speaker in the series, Chung Hyun Kyung, professor of ecumenical theology at Union Theological Seminary, drew about 100 people to two lectures at Canisius in March.

The third speaker, Horace Clarence Boyer, a leading authority on African-American Gospel music, attracted about 350 people to a combination lecture and concert at the college, also in March.

The Rev. Thomas H. Yorty, senior pastor of Westminster, views the series as "a big conversation."

"There is a deep hunger in our society today for spiritual answers and spiritual depth," he said. "I think that's what this series can offer with a lot of integrity."

While the initial response in terms of attendance was encouraging, Yorty said he is confident that the audiences will grow as the series continues.

"It takes a while for even clergy and other congregations to get this on their radar," he said. "It can't happen after two or three events. I think we can better evaluate the impact a year from now."

The Rev. Cameron Miller, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, compares the speaker series to an underground spring that feeds a lake.

"It moves us across boundaries. Anything that moves us beyond our own boundaries is at the heart of what Jesus taught," he said.

"It's a chance to bring some of the more ecumenical thinkers into Western New York," added the Rev. G. Stanford Bratton, co-executive director of the Network of Religious Communities.

The Rev. Benjamin Fiore, chairman of the religious studies department at Canisius, termed the support "impressive and gratifying."

"It shows that people are eager for this kind of series," he said.

If the series has one shortcoming, executive committee members agreed, it is its failure to attract a wider representation from the community.

For example, Miller said he would like to see greater racial and ethnic participation and representation from the gay and lesbian community.

Next year's program is partially set. It will include the Rev. James Cone, an African-American theologian at Union Theological Seminary, New York City, and Robert Wuthknow, a prolific author who is a sociology of religion professor at Princeton University.

Fiore, a Jesuit priest, would like to snare Cardinal Avery Dulles, the Jesuit theologian who was named a prince of the church earlier this year by Pope John Paul II. Fiore's wish list also includes two prominent women theologians, Pheme Perkins, a former Canisius professor who teaches at Boston College, and Elizabeth Johnson, a professor at Fordham University.

In addition, he would like to hear the Rev. William Cain, a Jesuit playwright, who was a writer for "Nothing Sacred," the short-lived and highly-controversial television series about a Catholic parish.

Miller said speakers he would like to bring to Buffalo include Marcus Borg, a member of the Jesus Seminar, Bill Moyers, producer of television documentaries on religion, Elaine Pagels, a Christian historian at Princeton, and the Rev. Alvin O. Douglas, an African-American United Church of Christ minister who is a pioneer in biracial ministry.

A Black pastor also is high on Yorty's list. He would like to bring in the Rev. Calvin O. Butts, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. He has gained national prominence for developing housing in his church neighborhood.

"In Christianity, the usual emphasis is on what divides us," Miller observed.

The speaker series, he said, may impress upon members of the various Christian denominations that "we have a great deal more that unites us than what separates us."


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