by Becca Buse
My first memory of Trish Vanni goes all the way back to the early 2000s when I attended Vacation Bible School (VBS) at Pax Christi Catholic Community in Eden Prairie. I remember watching the drama team re-enact the story of the Prodigal Son, but with a Western theme twist. I remember being mesmerized by the production, and then turning to see Trish Vanni off to the side, smiling and proud of her thespians. Fast forward twenty or so years to the fall of 2020, when I began to brainstorm Minnesotans to interview for this project. Trish was the first person to come to mind, and the first person I interviewed. Our conversation this past September was just as lively and exciting as the VBS skit I saw that summer day. We caught up on what each of us has been doing and learned about the interfaith work in our lives. Trish also shared about Charis Ecumenical Catholic Community, a Catholic community in Eden Prairie that she founded and currently leads. Since the start of the pandemic, her community has been meeting 100% virtually.
When asked about her faith, Trish Vanni shared with me how the Catholic tradition is an embodied religion. An example is Communion every Sunday, physically eating bread that represents Jesus Christ’s body, and wine, his blood. Among the things she values most in being Catholic is the theological anthropology of Catholicism, which gets lost at times in its public face and is the idea that humanity is fundamentally good and blessed. She loves the Sacraments and big celebrations, baptisms, weddings, funerals—all of these are the life of the church, one big family.
I was not familiar with her current faith tradition as Reverend in the Ecumenical Catholic Church (ECC), and asked her to explain that further. She said ECC is moving passed obstacles that are in place with the traditional Roman Catholic Church, such as allowing for gay marriage and including women in all levels of leadership. She expressed to me how she felt judged as a woman in the Roman Catholic Church, but always had been in awe of its sisters (nuns). She wanted to find a role in the Catholic Church where she could be a leader and found that the ECC was the right path for her. In the Roman Catholic Church, as it stands today, women are not allowed to be priests.
When asked to share about how her faith has impacted her actions on social justice, she noted a comment once made by Martin Luther King Jr: Sundays at 11am were the most segregated hour in America. This still holds true today, especially after the murder of George Floyd here in Minneapolis. Rev. Vanni and many communities in the ECC are working to expand consciousness about the need for white community members to take on antiracist work. This includes showing up for collective actions called by communities of color and hosting workshops and study groups for the white community to expand their understanding of issues. Currently, members are reading books like “White Fragility” and participating in the ECC’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s movie and discussion series. Another book that came to my mind since speaking with Rev. Vanni is “White Too Long” by Robert P. Jones. As a Christian, Jones uses memoir from growing up, the history of race and religion in America, and statistics to analyze how white supremacy and Christianity are sometimes intertwined in America.
When I asked her to share a turning point in her life, she had to pause and think. As a grown woman with children, a PhD, and years of experiences, she reflected on her early childhood memories of faith. Rev. Vanni grew up in Hackensack, NJ and attended a Jewish Yom Kippur observance with close friends shortly after her father’s death. She had a very deep experience of the presence of God. Going to this celebration pushed her boundaries at a young age and made her open to interfaith as an adult. She sees this moment in her upbringing as a turning point in her belief in God. This openness to other traditions later on led to her joining with others to found the Interfaith Circle of Eden Prairie, a local interfaith organization.
Finally, Rev. Vanni shared the story of creating thanksgiving interfaith celebrations at Pax Christi Catholic Community in Eden Prairie, and her collaboration with other faith traditions in the Twin Cities. She began her story in the early 2000s, when her cousin was killed in the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 (9/11). Some of her family members began to communicate hatred towards the Muslim community, blaming them for the attack, instead of seeing the larger picture of violent extremists of Islam, separate from the Islamic faith tradition. She wanted to create a space for people to come together and celebrate the good in the world, and the positive aspects of religious and spiritual traditions. As she thought, she realized that Thanksgiving would be a time where people could come together from different faiths, be thankful, and celebrate together.
In 2005 she helped organize the first event at Pax Christi, with other members of the community, such as Shehla Mushtaq. This group of organizers named themselves Interfaith Circle and are still meeting, convening, and learning about each other. The Thanksgiving celebration has grown to include over fifteen faith traditions! Despite the success of the event, and the large participation, Rev. Vanni shared, “the biggest outcome has been how we all have been changed as a group.” Through listening and friendship, she has changed due to her continued participation in Interfaith Circle. Her telling of this story is a wonderful example of how to turn a tragedy into a celebration. This is a wonderful reminder as we continue to live through a pandemic; it may seem dark now, but there is always light at the other end of the tunnel.