By Paul Chaffee
LEARNING TO 'SHARE' YOUR WORKSHOP AT THE PARLIAMENT
Nothing challenges the planners of massive interfaith gatherings so much as selecting proposed workshops for a schedule that lasts but a few days. The planners of the Salt Lake City Parliament of the World’s Religions received more than 2,000 workshop proposals hoping to shoehorn their way into the October 15-19 schedule.
When the time came, 700-800 workshops were approved with approximately 1,800 presenters, about 18 percent of the 9,800 who attended the Parliament. Rather than say “no” to more than 1,200 proposals, Parliament planners approved a number of workshops contingent on their willingness to share their 90-minute slot with a somewhat similar workshop. A few planning groups would have none of “shared sessions” and departed.
But half of the 700+ workshops actually offered turned out to be hybrids, created by multiple planning groups. They took their various goals, their unique stories and content, their 90-minutes in the sun, and mixed and matched it all with each other. Half-time for one, then half time for the other, was one approach. Weaving their exercises or joining their panels served some. In a number of workshops, three planning groups participated in the final design.
This process is torture for command-and-control leaders but also has the potential to be a blessing.
What Sharing Entails
TIO had a workshop approved about how interfaith folks communicate, connect, and use the internet. It profiled three large interfaith web portals, KidSpirit, Spirituality and Practice, and The Interfaith Observer.
Wisdom Circle Ministries had planned a dialogue program aimed at identifying “the language of interfaith,” a context where our personal communication and relationships go a step deeper. The distance between the two workshops was a stretch, but turned out to be easily bridged. We were all concerned about communication and connection, and we worked generously and in good faith with each other. An outline for the hybrid session quickly emerged.
We spent the first half hour hearing from Elizabeth Dabney Hochman about KidSpirit, Mary Ann Brussat about Spirituality and Practice, and myself about TIO. Then Robert Hrasna from Wisdom Circle Ministries introduced the kind of communication being proposed for the next hour. His colleague Claudia Roblee organized us into small groups for our second half hour to unpack the question:
In light of the tough big issues facing humankind today, what are the most important things we can do to build communication, connectivity, and collaboration?
When we went back to the full group, Claudia led us in ‘harvesting’ what we learned in our discussions. Responses to the question included – the importance of face-to-face communication, taking an interest in people’s issues, using personal stories, reframing our stories, and using the internet.
It was a small group, perhaps two dozen, but friendliness and a rich dialogue marked our 90 minutes together, testimony to what can happen when we’re ‘forced’ to share with each other. A short questionnaire was filled out, suggesting that about half of those attending felt close to a religious institution, the other half, not so much. But the mix felt perfect. The future of interfaith work is dependent on our willingness and enthusiasm to share the enormous work Earth is calling for from us collaboratively, in community with like-minded strangers.
In this sense the Parliament of the World’s Religions provides a laboratory for the work ahead, an opportunity to meet strangers with similar passions but different expectations, to work and meet colleagues who become friends.
The work conrtinues in our communities, and our programs are much like the Parliament workshops. Sharing the planning process is a skill-set that supercharges grassroots interfaith programming. The empowering pivot comes when the ‘stranger’ is not just invited, but invited into the planning process. That’s when it really cooks.