(RNS) — Democrats plan to kick off their party convention next week with an interfaith service that officials say is designed to represent diverse faith communities and further the party’s theme that its presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, will “restore the soul of America.”
The service is scheduled to convene on Sunday (Aug. 16), the day before the Democratic National Convention officially begins in Milwaukee. Biden campaign officials told Religion News Service that the service will be online-only, in keeping with the largely virtual format adopted for the convention due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It will highlight local religious leaders from Milwaukee such as Pardeep Kaleka, executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee; Marin Webster Denning, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin and member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin; and Imam Noman Hussain, an Islamic studies instructor at Salam School, an Islamic school of about 1,000 students in Milwaukee.
Few among the faith leaders participating in the service are widely recognized names, but instead seem to be aimed at appealing to a slate of key regions, constituencies and religious traditions. From Georgia will be Bishop William Murphy III, lead pastor of The dReam Center Church of Atlanta. The Rev. Jeanette Salguero co-pastors The Gathering Place in Orlando, Florida, with her husband, Gabriel, with whom she also co-founded the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.
Neelima Gonuguntla, a Texas attorney, is a board member of Chinmaya Mission Dallas Fort Worth, part of one of the largest Hindu organizations in the United States.
Other participants include the Rt. Rev. Samuel Green, an African Methodist Episcopal Church bishop who serves in Columbia, South Carolina; Rex Lee Jim, a medicine man and former vice president of the Navajo Nation; and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, spiritual leader of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City.
“Next week, the world will see what Joe Biden’s America will look like: a nation united, not divided, by our differences,” said Josh Dickson, national faith engagement director at Biden for President, in a statement.
In a recent interview, the DNC’s director of interfaith outreach, the Rev. Derrick Harkins, highlighted the growing religious diversity of the American electorate while reflecting on the complex religious background of Sen. Kamala Harris, whom Biden chose Tuesday as his running mate.
“(Harris’) diverse background is in many respects reflective of so much of America,” Harkins told RNS earlier this week, noting that Harris grew up in a household that was both Hindu and Christian. “It’s reflective of the changing face of how we understand our religious traditions in America, but it’s also interesting that she still finds herself to be anchored in much of those religious traditions.”
Dickson revealed on a recent call that next week’s convention will also include a Catholic Mass, a “Believers for Biden” watch party and events run by the DNC faith council throughout the week.
The 2020 convention isn’t the first to include religious programing or speakers. Past gatherings have featured prayers from prominent faith leaders such as Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, as well as speeches from faith-based activists: Sister Simone Campbell, a Catholic nun and head of the Catholic social justice lobby Network, spoke at the 2012 convention, and the Rev. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, delivered a speech in 2016.