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Three tips for Grassroots Interfaith Organizers

By Dr. Vern Barnet


A few days before the Kansas City “Gifts of Pluralism” interfaith conference opened 10 years ago, as one of the planners, I said I thought the effort would be a success if 50 people showed up. Some 250 folks participated and, at the end, applauded.

Rev. Vern Barnet, foreground, leads an interfaith celebration mixing sacred waters in Kansas City.

Rev. Vern Barnet, foreground, leads an interfaith celebration mixing sacred waters in Kansas City.

The results continue to reverberate and shape how many of us understand the diversity of faiths in our area. A Kansas City Star editorial later called the conference “a model for how to hold an interfaith conversation” about concerns following 9/11.

Here are three of several features that I think made the conference valuable and worthy of imitation by interfaith leaders a decade later.

  • Local speakers: Early in the planning, the temptation to bring a “big name” out-of town speaker was resisted, despite the thought that an outside guest might boost interest. Over and over, interfaith authorities say that while information is important, building relationships is primary.
  • Out-of-town folks who appear for a speech and then leave may attract an audience, but they do not often directly help the interfaith process as much as the featured involvement of local experts who enlarge a circle of friendships before, during, and after a program.
  • A sponsor of an interfaith panel earlier this year told me he asked a Christian to discuss the Qur’an because no local Muslim was qualified. In fact, we have nationally known Muslim experts who are part of our community. A chance to build a key relationship was lost.
  • Arrangements: The “Gifts” planners selected the Pembroke Hill School campus on State Line for the conference to emphasize the entire metro region as a community bridging administrative divisions. It was accessible by public transportation. The school location also emphasized the learning experience the conference offered. And the venue kept the costs down. A $75 fee covered two days and three meals, cultural entertainment, a three-ring, 100-page printed notebook and other materials.
  • Asking questions: With small group sessions following the major presentations, folks met and learned about one another’s faiths. And not just by reciting creeds.

Instead, the Rev. David E. Nelson, a local “Appreciative Inquiry” expert, trained the conferees to ask each other questions like, “How have you felt the presence of the sacred in your life?” This question was especially fitting because the conference subtitle affirmed, “In a world without direction, we find the sacred.”

Such personal questions lead not to theological arguments but to friendships. And what better context for understanding others’ faiths is there than friendship?

This article was first published by the Kansas City Star, October 11, 2011.