Many people rightly decry the lack of spaces where difficult conversations about social and political subjects can take place. Traditional media outlets and civic organizations are declining, providing fewer opportunities for opposing viewpoints to meet in a simulated town square. Meanwhile, social media has earned a reputation for promoting sensationalism and hostility.
Fortunately, a group of faith leaders in Toledo are facilitating events that offer members of the public an opportunity to engage on important topics in an informed, constructive manner.
An Ecumenical Evolution
The First Thursday dialogues were first established in 2001 by a coalition of Catholic organizations including Catholic Charities, the Secretariat for Pastoral Leadership, and the Central City Ministries of Toledo. The theme of the events was stated to be “Culture at the Crossroads: Critical Issues of our Age” and featured notable speakers on a variety of controversial subjects, including poverty, war, and gun control.
The series continued until a confluence of factors contributed to the series being discontinued in 2012. As political climates worsened, a new coalition of faith-based organizations – namely the Social Justice Subcommittee of the Toledo chapter of U.S. Catholic priests and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church – were inspired to revive the series in 2017.
Both the original series and the revival were championed by Reverend Martin Donnelley, a principal figure in the Catholic Diocese of Toledo who sadly passed away in 2019.
Since then, the coalition has coordinated six events per year – four in the spring, two in the fall – taking place from noon to 1:30 p.m. on the first Thursday of designated months. Originally occurring at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in downtown Toledo, the location changed recently to Monroe Street United Methodist Church.
Guests, who must RSVP ahead of time, pay $15 for entry, all of which goes toward covering the cost of a soup and salad lunch, which they consume while hearing from that month’s speaker. A question-and-answer session always follows, allowing for meaningful dialogue on complex issues.
We’ve Got Issues
What makes the First Thursday gatherings unique is their capacity to cover a wide variety of topics that vary in scope and nature, yet still retain a common thread. Numerous talks have focused on racism and immigration; others have taken an environmental and ecological focus; while others still have focused on matters of governance and politics.
Guest speakers are often representatives of civic organizations (such as ABLE, the Toledo Fair Housing Center, and the Toledo Design Collective), activists (such as Lake Erie advocate Mike Ferner, peace activist Terry Lodge, and single-payer proponent Dr. Johnathon Ross), or elected officials (including Mayor Kapszukiewicz, U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur, and State Senator Paula Hicks-Hudson).
“Our focus has always been social justice issues and issues of the day,“ says Father John Blaser, a retired Catholic priest and longtime participant in the series. “We’re not afraid to talk about issues that are controversial.”
For more information about First Thursday, email FirstThursdayToledo@gmail.com.