By LINDA M. LINONIS
In the faith community, Elsie Dursi’s name is synonymous with the Mahoning Valley Association of Churches.
She’s served as executive director since September 1989, and now has announced her retirement from the position she’s held for nearly 23 years.
Though she’s leaving that post, she isn’t forsaking the faith-based community. She’ll be involved, just in new ways she plans to explore.
Dursi holds the distinc-tion of being the first woman and layperson to lead MVAC. As for her legacy, Dursi said she hopes it will be her “spiritual leadership to people of faith” and “how to act out faith here and now.”
As a social worker, Dursi helps people “be responsible and responsive.” That idea has translated to her vision and execution at MVAC.
“This has been the best job in the world,” she reflected. “I can’t imagine what my life would have been without it. It’s been an expanding and broadening experience.”
So why retire? “I don’t want to limp out. I care too much about the work,” she said.
The Rev. Bob Bonnot, board president and pastor of Christ Our Savior Parish in Struthers, said Dursi has been successful as MVAC leader because of her “deep familiarity with ecumenical themes across the country” and “thorough and deep knowledge of the local community.” He said she has encouraged “Christian interfacing with Jews, Muslims and Buddhists.”
What she has accomplished speaks for itself.
She was well-prepared when she applied for the position. She was director of Protestant Family Service, where she worked with Valley churches supporting the agency through donations and volunteers. Her job at PFS put her on the MVAC board.
“It occurred to me I was interested in the MVAC position after attending some committee meetings to select a new director,” she recalled. Dursi withdrew from the committee and put her name into contention.
Dursi felt she had insight into the job because of her experience. “I knew the churches, knew the community.”
MVAC decided to “take a chance on me,” she said. The board and community were well rewarded; her innovative and inclusive ideas translated into uplifting and educational events.
Though MVAC involves Christian churches, Dursi said she made an effort toward interfaith involvement. At the 27th annual Mayors’ Prayer Breakfast on Nov. 20, her last as executive director, members of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths shared tables. “People interact with one another. They find they have lot, but not everything, in common,” she said.
In 2011, she was instrumental in establishing the Interfaith Youth Core at Youngstown State University, which brings students of all faiths together in community service and dialogue. “We got it working here. I’m pleased with how it has flourished,” Dursi said.
Dursi also has seen the face of the MVAC board change. The Rev. Mr. Bonnot, a Roman Catholic priest, is president, and other Catholics also have served.
While the work of MVAC expanded and included interfaith activities, other things changed. MVAC went from owning its own building, which it sold in 1995, to Dursi working out of her home. “There was a shift in how we did things. The churches did MVAC a lot of favors,” she said.
The Taste of the Faiths developed from her attendance at so many church dinners featuring their food specialties. It made her realize that an event should showcase these. “I can’t tell you how many churches I have been to,” she said. She said the fundraiser is an opportunity to learn about other denominations.
She also was instrumental in organizing a choral event highlighting church choirs. “It reflects different worship styles and is a way to witness,” Dursi said. A member of First Presbyterian Church since 1978, she sings in its choir.
Dursi was pleased with MVAC’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks. “That was a corner turner,” she said. “We realized we needed to know more about Islam and Muslims.”
Dursi also saw the Black/White Clergy Dialogue, which had organized Dr. Martin Luther King Day events, evolve into a community committee. “The workshop became a popular place to get issues of the day out, and what local people of faith could do,” she said.