Report from NAIN
North American Interfaith Network’s (NAIN) annual conferences, held since 1988, are a family affair, a time to deepen old relationships and start new ones, a laboratory for innovative interfaith interaction, and a place to learn professional skill-sets you can’t find anywhere else. NAINConnects in recent years have been hosted by Vancouver, Richmond, San Francisco, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, and Phoenix. Each site comes with its own flavor and special gifts. Each introduces NAIN to vital, unique interfaith communities with multiple programs and collaborative interaction.
One expected the same kind of experience in Atlanta at NAINConnect 2012 – “Establishing Interfaith Friendly Cities,” sponsored by Interfaith Community Initiatives and the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta. Few expected, though, what one NAIN trustee acknowledged weeks after the July 15-18 event: “Atlanta took everything up another level.”
Coming home afterwards, it was difficult to answer “What one thing was best about Atlanta?” A number of different factors took this Connect to “another level.” To start with though, it’s safe to say that NAIN has never explored social justice issues and how they relate to interfaith culture with the depth and detail they received in Atlanta.
NAIN’s usual religious, spiritual diversity was as warm and comfortable as usual. But NAIN has never attracted the racial diversity we enjoyed in Atlanta, and it made the gathering resonate more for us all. We were moved, regaled, and deeply informed by Dr. King’s close friend and colleague, C.T. Vivian, telling us terrifying but inspiring stories about challenging racism since the middle of the last century. We were nourished with gourmet Southern cuisine and spiritual wisdom suffused with laughter and tears at Providence MissionaryBaptist Church.
Two afternoons were devoted to visits, which included Ebenezer Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. and his father and grandfather served, and Morehouse College, where Martin went to college. Visits to the King Center and the Carter Center, with its agenda to wage peace, fight disease, and build hope, were highlights. The most impressive thing about the Atlanta Community Food Bank, providing millions of meals through 70 agencies, wasn’t its 190,000 sq. ft. plant, 130 employees, or 1,000 volunteers. Rather, we were moved by the clear spiritual motivation and interfaith inclusiveness that we witnessed in the staff and volunteers as they fed nearly 200 of us and shared the joy of their work.
Twenty-two workshops back at the hotel forced participants to make some hard choices. Those with edgy subjects drew the best, including interfaith dialogue and the GLBT community, and dealing with ‘hard’ issues.
The most powerful presentation all week came from 80-year-old Ambassador Andrew Young Jr. He arrived at the end of an 18-hour day and two plane trips to make the keynote about interfaith peacemaking. This weary pastor moved people to guffaws and tears with his stories and wisdom. The Host Committee promised the speech will be posted on YouTube. Young was alive with encouragement for everyone involved with interfaith bridge-building, challenging us to remember the social justice issues which make this work so important.
Atlanta’s Imam Plemon El-Amin chaired the Host Committee, was a master of details, and beautifully modeled collaborative interfaith leadership with his team. His indulgence with us during visits to a church and a synagogue tightened the schedule, meaning we had to drive by the mosque we’d hoped to visit. His quiet humility spoke louder than words, a dramatic example of how very good it is to see leaders from different faiths support each other selflessly.
Next year NAINConnect goes to Toronto, August 11-14, where the theme will be “In Diversity is Our Strength.” A call for workshop proposals has gone out.