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The Rev. Dr. Shanta D. Premawardhana
October 8, 2003, NEW YORK CITY -- The Rev. Dr. Shanta D. Premawardhana, a Baptist pastor and a leader in interfaith work in Chicago, was elected Sept. 29 by the National Council of Churches Executive Board to serve as the Councils Associate General Secretary for Interfaith Relations and Director of the NCC Interfaith Relations Commission.
For the past 14 years, Dr. Premawardhana has been senior pastor of Chicagos Ellis Avenue Church (formerly Cornell Baptist Church), and during that time has been active in the Hyde Park and Kenwood Interfaith Council. Founded in 1911, this organization is said to be one of the nations oldest interfaith organizations.
From 1996-1998, he served as president of that organization, which currently includes 38 Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim congregations and organizations. He is recognized for his leadership in building relationships across social boundaries that normally divide, for training people in interfaith dialogue and for helping Christian members of the Council reflect on "Removing Anti-Judaism From the Pulpit."
More recently, Dr. Premawardhana has been a leader in the congregation-based community organizing network, the Gamaliel Foundation. Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations across racial, ethnic and economic lines join in 51 community organizations in 28 states to work together for issues of economic justice and immigrant rights.
Dr. Premawardhana also is the vice-president of the Chicago-based Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations, which currently has a membership of about 100 congregations. Recently, these congregations successfully lobbied to pass legislation that allows immigrant students to pay in-state tuition in Illinois colleges and universities. They are also working on legislation to reform education funding, which currently perpetuates wide disparities.
His accomplishments built on earlier interfaith experience, including the insights he gained as founding pastor of the Chicago Ashram of Jesus Christ in Skokie, Ill., a Christian community with an outreach to South Asian immigrants of various faith groups. The Ashrams programs included small group interfaith dialogues, in which persons of different religious traditions met weekly in each others homes, to learn from each others journeys of faith.
Dr. Premawardhana is Vice-President of the Alliance of Baptists, an NCC member communion. From 1995-98, he chaired the standing committee on Interfaith Relations and was instrumental in helping the Alliance adopt an historic "Statement on Jewish Christian Relations."
Of his role as pastor, Dr. Premawardhana notes that his job is "to equip the saints for the work of ministry." Acting on that phrase from Ephesians 4:11-12, he has led members of his congregation in focused efforts to identify the gifts with which God has graced them, and to use their talents in ministries that touch their immediate neighborhood, their city and state. Internationally, he has led the church to develop relationships with churches in Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.
Among the honors he has earned, the Academy of Parish Clergy, a national organization of Christian clergy, named him 1998 Parish Pastor of the Year.
Dr. Premawardhana was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and received his seminary education in Sri Lanka and India. He went on to do graduate work at Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill., earning a masters degree in Comparative Religion: Buddhism and Christianity, and a doctoral degree in Phenomenology of Religions, with a specialty in Hinduism and Christianity.
He is married to the musician and piano teacher, Dhilanthi Fernando, and has three children, Charith, Devaka and Amali.
The National Council of Churches is the leading ecumenical organization in the United States. Its 36 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican member communions (denominations) comprise 50 million adherents in 140,000 local congregations nationwide.
Along with interfaith relations, Council programs include education and leadership ministries, Bible translation, environmental justice, faith and order, church renewal, public policy research and advocacy, research and communication, and work to reduce poverty.
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