What is the Adult Inter-Faith Fellowship?

Ron Hilt felt unwelcome as a boy when his pursuit of childhood pleasures clashed with church dogma. Experiencing ostracism following a divorce also left a bad taste in his mouth.

Now retired, the Union Church of Hinsdale member is drawing on those episodes to foster a community where all have a seat at the table. Hilt is among a group that has recast the church's longstanding Men's Club into the monthly Adult Inter-Faith Fellowship, with a vision to be an inviting gathering for all. The opening AIFF luncheon will be held at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 11, at Union Church, 137 S. Garfield Ave. (see Page XX for details)

"I don't want to be part of anything that's going to exclude people by gender," said the father of four daughters. "We need to be inclusive in terms of gender, and we want to be inclusive in terms of faith."

The previous men's group, consisting predominantly of fellow retirees, counted attendees from other local faith communities. Hilt hopes those connections continue and grow by extending the welcome mat to women of those churches. He also wants to get the word to anyone - even those who don't subscribe to any particular faith tradition - to come and enjoy thought-provoking conversation and an inexpensive catered meal. The AIFF luncheons take place the second Wednesday of every month (with a summer break) and host speakers on an array of topics.

"I want to be sure that the programs are either educational, informative or entertaining," Hilt said.

Past experience has taught him that travel, business-related subjects and music find broad appeal. The Oct. 11 kickoff will feature local vocalist and songwriter Ellie Banke performing in the church's sanctuary.

Another dimension central to the AIFF mission is outreach, particularly by providing the proceeds from each month's gathering to organizations addressing hunger and domestic violence. Hilt encouraged attendees suggest additional causes for consideration.

"If it deals with anything that is universal to interfaith people, we want to be able to support it," he said.

To find common ground along religious, racial and even political lines, occupying a common space is a key first step, Hilt said. And conversion is not among the AIFF objectives.

"We want to provide an opportunity for fellowship," he remarked. "I want to fill the dining room with members and guests who are interested in AIFF."

Hilt believes churches need to be agents for celebrating diversity.

"I think the biggest headwinds (to inclusivity) are coming from the decades that it has taken for people to have anything in their church to get excited about," Hilt said. "I'm hoping that this will be something to be excited about.

"Bring your friends," he added.

Ultimately, the former real estate agency owner wants to build his life around authenticity.

"When you're doing the right thing, you're going to be able to sleep at night," he said. "It doesn't make any difference to me (your faith), as long as you understand that honesty and integrity have to be two things that walk with you every day." - by Ken Knutson