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Seeding the Interfaith Movement

By Paul Chaffee


Most of the hundreds of interfaith ventures emerging globally are independent non-governmental organizations, usually called nonprofits in the United States. Several types of organizations predominate, the subject of this issue of TIO.

Against this vast array of interreligious goodwill, the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) stands apart from the crowd, an unlikely one-of-a-kind organization. Going its own modest way, NAIN has been a seedbed for grassroots interfaith relationships in large communities and small for nearly a quarter century. In North America, it was the first international interfaith organization to devote its energies almost entirely to what happens locally, in your neighborhood and mine. The idea came in 1985 when Marcus Braybrooke convened an international group of interfaith leaders in Ammerdown, England, who agreed that regional networks needed to be created.

Temple of Understanding executive director Kusumita Pedersen and her colleague Daniel Anderson, who succeeded her in that role, were invited to the Ammerdown meetings. They returned to New York determined to create an interfaith network in North America. TOU identified 125 interfaith ventures and published the first directory of them in 1987. Inter-Faith Ministries of Wichita, directed by Jim Bell, was one of the first strong local interfaith councils in the nation. Leaders in New York, Wichita, and various locations across the continent collaborated in an event they hoped would birth an ongoing interfaith network.

Grassroots Networking Launched

New York Times reporter William Robbins, covering NAIN’s inaugural gathering in 1988 in Wichita, Kansas, wrote, “The meeting here, part of an effort to establish a North American Interfaith Network,.. was described as the first of such nature and scope on the continent since 1893, when a World Parliament of Religions was held in Chicago.’

From across the continent, the 1988 “North American Assisi” brought together 235 leaders from a dozen religions. Keynoter Diana Eck asked, “How can we live today, except together? And how can we live together except with understanding?” Professor Eck’s point has inspired hundreds of interfaith collaborations across Canada and the United States since then. Including Mexico has been beyond the means of NAIN, an all-volunteer organization, but remains a long-term goal.

At the turn of the century, Joel Beversluis described NAIN in The Sourcebook of the World’s Religions (2000) this way:

NAIN is a nonprofit association for communication between, and mutual strengthening of, interfaith organizations, agencies and programs along with offices of religious and denominational institutions pertaining to interfaith relations in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. The Network seeks to affirm humanity’s diverse and historical spiritual resources and brings these to bear on contemporary global, national, regional, and local issues. While it has minimal staff or program of its own, the Network sees its role as facilitating the networking possibilities of these organizations by providing information. It seeks to provide a coalition model for cooperative interaction based on serving the needs and promoting the aspirations of all member organizations.

Leukemia cut down Joel Beversluis when he was still a young man and editing NAIN’s newsletter. He would be gratified to know that his concise description doesn’t need a single update today.

In, but not of, the World

NAIN’s modest achievement? Every other year at first, then annually, NAIN’s members have gathered in “Connects.” These summertime events draw from several dozen to several hundred local interfaith leaders from across the continent for three to five days. We share stories, skill-sets, model programs, approaches to spiritual practice, and what we’ve learned about developing constructive interfaith relationships. Old friendships and new ones replace the usual rewards, like honoraria and resume enhancement.

Producing NAINConnect is a huge challenge for most host communities. But invariably it invigorates the host’s existing interfaith culture and builds a kind of ‘international’ excitement about engendering a new, kinder, socially just religious world. Wichita has hosted twice. The honor list includes Seattle (Washington), Buffalo (New York), Berkeley (California), Orangeville (Ontario), Dallas (Texas), Edmonton (Alberta), Chautauqua (New York), Fullerton (California), Beausejour (Manitoba), Columbus (Ohio), New York City, Las Vegas (Nevada), Vancouver (British Columbia), Richmond (Virginia), San Francisco (California), Kansas City (Kansas), Salt Lake City (Utah), and Phoenix (Arizona). Atlanta will host next year and Toronto in 2012.

Jan Swanson, with her hand up, talks with trustees at the Phoenix 2011 Connect about bringing NAIN to Atlanta in 2012.

Jan Swanson, with her hand up, talks with trustees at the Phoenix 2011 Connect about bringing NAIN to Atlanta in 2012.

NAIN’s most remarkable achievement? It is that rare interfaith organization sustaining itself without a perpetual financial crisis. Everyone pays their own way, and for most that means considerable personal expense. Dues are modest. NAIN has money in the bank, pays its bills, and spends half its small income on young adult scholarships.

Without a staff, NAIN’s volunteer leaders share the heavy lifting with the local leadership of each year’s Connect host. That changes annually, of course, making the process messy but usually creative. NAIN trustees collectively represent hundreds of years of interfaith leadership in cities, universities, social services, chaplaincies, towns, and smaller communities. Without the rewards and awards structures built into most professional organizations, trustees are happy to get involved simply for the privilege and opportunity it offers.

About Tomorrow

The cry for youth and young adults was an early refrain in NAIN. For more than a dozen years NAIN’s board has taken the matter seriously. Historically, annual scholarships brought half a dozen promising young adults to NAINConnects. Those who became most engaged were invited to join the board. By now a number are engaged in interfaith vocations as teachers, clergy, nonprofit staff, and chaplains.

Something changed, though, in 2010. Preparing for the Salt Lake City Connect, NAIN’s board heard that scholarship applications had more than doubled, to over 30, most of them extraordinarily qualified. Conference calls ensued and a decision was made to dip into the rainy-day fund to support a dozen scholarships, twice the usual. Each of the scholars presented in Salt Lake, inspiring NAIN to dig deep a second year. The dozen who participated in Phoenix last July, plus 2010 recipients who returned, have reenergized the organization. At Phoenix, the board decided to budget a dozen scholarships every year, understanding the policy will require fundraising to sustain this goal.

The benefits are considerable. One NAIN scholar in Phoenix, a junior at Macalister College, volunteered to intern this academic year at The Interfaith Observer. She is creating a global database of interfaith peacemaking efforts to be used in TIO’s peacemaking issue next year. Two other Phoenix young adults volunteered to create and manage a Facebook page for TIO. It’s now up and running. For the second year in a row, NAIN is supporting two of its own interns.

Even as new leaders are nurtured, a number of the founders maintain a supportive relationship with the Network, including Charles White, Bettina Gray, current NAIN chair, Sam Muyskens, Peter Laurence, Elizabeth Espersen, and John Berthrong. We owe a huge debt to them and their colleagues.

An Invitation

If NAIN excites you, go to its website and join – as a member if you are an organization, or individually as an associate. Please feel free to download this profile and circulate it. NAIN will never be a big, staffed organization with a long list of programs. But it shouldn’t be a hidden treasure any longer. Let’s share the wealth.

Next year NAINConnect 2012 will be held in Atlanta, Georgia, July 15-19. The theme will be deepening interfaith friendship and collaboration. For more information, write Jan Swanson at jansa9@comcast.net. See you in Atlanta!