Reaching Out

Madison’s centers of faith and spirituality are engaging new and future members, all with a shared respect for diversity, tolerance and building community

Mt. Zion Baptist Church leads the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir.

Mt. Zion Baptist Church leads the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir.


For a midsized midwestern citY, Madison offers something for everyone who’s searching for a spiritual practice or ongoing faith community. From Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims to socially engaged atheists and agnostics, these groups are reaching out to new members and connecting with the community in unique ways—not just within the confines of their own beliefs, but for Madison and the world as a whole. Here’s just a sampling of what’s happening across the city

Preaching the Gospel

Located on Madison’s South side, Mt. Zion Baptist Church is the city’s largest predominantly African American church, renowned for its community involvement as well as its lively and passionate worship services and impressive choirs, all led by veteran music director Leotha Stanley.

And while music’s long been a core component of the more-than-hundred-year-old church, each January brings the opportunity to use gospel music to connect with the broader community.

Mt. Zion welcomes everyone to lend their voices in the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir.

A diverse group of forty to eighty singers—old, young and from a wide variety of backgrounds—practices songs at Mt. Zion and then performs at the annual Madison and Dane County Martin Luther King Jr. observance, an event that combines speeches and music to honor King’s memory and vision of social justice.

Stanley believes music can bring people together and affect positive change. If this small choir is any indication, he’s right.

Faithful and Festive

Bethel Lutheran once offered services exclusively in Norwegian. While Norwegian is no longer commonly heard there, Spanish is. The church is home to a growing bilingual ministry, which serves a diverse group of Mexican, Caribbean and Central and South American members. Many of them are attracted to Bethel, which offers Spanish-language Sunday worship, Christian education and even a Latino Youth Ministry tailored to address difficulties faced by immigrant families. The ministry is much more than a shared common language.

“Latino people are fiesta people,” says Rev. Jaime Dubón, who oversaw the Spanish-language ministries until moving away in late 2013. “We love parties. I often find myself doing special worship services such as quinceañeras. I love to do them because it’s part of our identity as Latinos and an opportunity to reach out.” 

Dubón and Bethel Lutheran both understand the importance of connecting with members. “In my pastoral career, I’ve come to the conclusion that church is relational. You have to build relationships. We need to become friends because we are all part of the family of God.”

Inquiring Minds

First Unitarian Society

Unitarianism, as practiced by the First Unitarian Society of Madison, grew out of the Christian tradition but is no longer considered part of Christianity. Instead, its manifold approach honors spiritual curiosity ahead of any one particular creed.  “I remember after my first service, I left thinking, ‘I can ask questions here and be encouraged to search.’ [The community] holds one another in our own spiritual journeys,” says director of adult spiritual programs Janet Swanson.

Swanson’s first meeting was twenty years ago. She stayed on and eventually joined the staff, where she helps plan a diverse schedule that includes courses on meditation, yoga and, of course, Unitarian Universalism. New and potential members can sign up for an intro class as well.

Children’s courses also explore ecumenical spirituality, says director of children’s religious education Leslie Ross. “Diversity of ideas is what’s appreciated here. There isn’t a right way and a wrong way. There are many ways. There’s lots of respect and appreciation for each individual’s path.”

Eclectic Education

The Islamic Center of Madison grew from a group of international students seeking to worship and socialize while attending UW. The educational mission is still strong here today. The center maintains a host of services provided to its membership (prayer services, Koran study and Arabic classes) as well as programs for the community at large.

Last year the center invited non-Muslim students to participate in the Ramadan fasting ritual for health reasons alone, and later break fast with a communal meal. The organization has worked with the Dane County Police Department and student nurses at the UW School of Nursing, offering intensive sensitivity training, and set up sections and programs devoted to Islam in Madison libraries.

Ibrahim Saeed has an active schedule as a UW scientist and academic fellow at the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions, and is interested in fostering dialogue among different communities of faith. He also volunteers as the Islamic Center’s board president, devoting his time to outreach.

The Muslim community of Madison is unique, says Saeed, because “you have people from China, Malaysia, Indonesia, West Africa, Arab people, Iranians, Turkish, too. To engage with those people, learning new things—that’s the beauty. It’s the beauty of the religion itself, incorporating everyone with no distinction. They’re the same in the eyes of God.”

Motivating Millennials

Temple Beth El’s Madison Jews Next Dor

Heidi Lauhon, executive director of Temple Beth El, found that there was a crucial element absent from the pro-gressive synagogue, Madison’s largest. “We were missing a twenties-to-thirties demographic,” she says. “People are marrying and having kids at older ages. They aren’t looking for synagogue life as soon as they were in the past, which often happens when kids begin religious school.” 

The solution? The temple created a new outreach effort aimed at the younger generation called Madison Jews’ Next Dor. The group builds community with fun-based activities during the time period between phases of family life, and it is one of the many ways the temple is looking to expand its congregation. 

Lauhon is proud of Temple Beth El’s open-door policy to the community and its interfaith work, something she’s observed firsthand in her own life. Lauhon’s husband is not Jewish but was warmly welcomed at the temple. “Temple Beth El is a home for my family. I have very warm feelings about what it’s done for us and our Jewish identity.”

Beauty and Benevolence

Stroll around the Capitol Square and you’ll encounter Grace Episcopal Church, Madison’s oldest surviving house of worship. The church was built 175 years ago by the city’s earliest benefactors, and at least two U.S. presidents have worshipped there, enjoying the beauty of the church and its peaceful courtyard. 


Rector Rev. Dr. Jonathan Grieser leads the historic Grace Episcopal Church.

“Grace is where one can encounter the sacred in a way unlike in any other place in Madison,” says Rector Rev. Dr. Jonathan Grieser. “We live in an age and a city where there are relatively few spaces where people can encounter the beautiful. For me, the beautiful ultimately connects to God.”

Grace has a strong social mission as well, doing vital work for the homeless and working poor through a drop-in shelter, a once-a-month shelter dinner and an ongoing food pantry that helps people in need make ends meet. This type of care is what Grieser calls “part of our DNA as a congregation.” It also attracts new members to the church who need these services as well as those drawn in by Grace’s long-standing commitment to help others. 

Come as You Are

A community of Buddhists whose practice is centered on the chanting of “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” for one’s happiness and the happiness of others is actively engaged here in Madison. Called SGI-USA, local members are connected to a larger international organization in 192 countries and territories around the world. It’s the largest Buddhist organization globally, but locals practice in small groups called districts, held monthly in practitioners’ homes, or in larger meetings called World Peace Prayer at the Goodman Community Center the first Sunday of every month.

“Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” is the title of the Lotus Sutra, the final teaching laid out by Shakyamuni Buddha. The sutra teaches that all people can become happy just as they are. As a result, diversity and the celebration of equality are hallmarks of SGI meetings everywhere.

Introducing new people is a key element of the practice. Most people learn about chanting through friends, neighbors or co-workers in a one-to-one approach that proves a central Buddhist tenet: We are all interconnected.

Alternate Avenues


Freedom From Religion co-presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor. 

“People don’t realize that freedom of religion encompasses freedom from religion in government,” says Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor. She co-founded FFRF in 1976 along with her mother, Anne Gaylor, in protest of government involvement in prayer. Within two years, the Madison-born group became national. It grew to include a legal watchdog team that has challenged more than sixty First Amendment suits.

With one in five Americans now identifying as nonsecular, the younger Gaylor has seen FFRF’s membership grow by 150 percent in recent years. The group reaches out to new members through a weekly radio show, a newspaper and a yearly convention, which in 2013 featured such “freethinkers” as Julia Sweeney, Dan Savage and Juan Mendez, the first “out” atheist legislator. Currently, FFRF is expanding its footprint and next year will offer even more events for locals. Also in the works is a TV show. 

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