By Paul Chaffee
INTERFAITH IN THE LAND OF THE LIVING SKIES
Regina is a community of 210,000 set on the vast prairies of Saskatchewan, Canada nearly 500 miles from the nearest big city. To call it a hotbed of interfaith activity would court disbelief if you didn’t know better. But on July 19-22, Regina hosted the North American Interfaith Network’s 2015 NAINConnect, an annual event begun in 1988 that brings together grassroots interfaith activists deeply engaged in their local communities. Small communities like Craik, in Saskatchewan, population 453.
Bigger communities in cities like Toronto and Guadalajara. And religious communities that meet each week, like Jubilee! Church in Ashville, North Carolina; Vicki Garlock (a TIO Correspondent who writes here every month) presented one of 27 Regina workshops, describing Jubilee’s ground-breaking approach to interfaith education for children.
The theme this year, “Restoring Spirit through Sacred Listening,” an unlikely subject for activists, perhaps, was unpacked in all sorts of ways. We listened to stories of Baha’i’s still being viciously oppressed in Iran, a workshop which evoked tears and requests for how to help. We listened to sacred Sikh songs (bhajan) and watched sacred Hindu stories being danced and ventured into improvisatory theater – each art-form an avenue into spiritual experience. The deep, disciplined listening at the heart of Buddhist mindfulness was explored. We spent time listening to those who spoke from and for communities living on the margins of life.
Zarqa Nawaz, a highly successful Saskatchewian Muslim TV producer, proved she has the high-end skills of a stand-up comedian, all the while telling a story of surprising both Christian and Muslim communities when fears about her work turned into a contagion of friendship.One workshop focused on listening to stories of religious terror. We heard about The Green Room, a progressive Muslim revival movement in Edmonton, and what a comfort it is for Muslim millennials in the middle of their faith formation. We heard Zarqa Nawaz’s hilarious story of growing up Muslim in a tiny Canadian community and producing “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” a six-season television show that has been broadcast in 65 countries. All this and more was grist for the mill at NAIN this year.
NAINConnects tend not to bring huge crowds of interfaith-friendly lay people together. Rather they attract local interfaith leaders from across North America once a year to share stories, program strategies, and what we’ve learned. Just as important, NAIN nurtures a web of deep friendship among dozens of us committed to the cause of a healthy, robust interfaith culture for ourselves, our children and grandchildren.
Each year NAIN visits a new city, and each city turns out to be unique. Regina tilted academic rather than the more typical how-to focus. In the process it engendered a remarkable group of spiritual jewels, to borrow a Buddhist image, for the 150 registrants.
The opening evening featured a banquet set in the magnificent glass-tent atrium of the First Nations University of Canada, where a First Nations chef enticed most of 200 people into eating more than we should have. Aboriginal, Indigenous participation in NAIN has been important for the past decade, but Regina’s program raised the bar. Canada has taken its atrocious behavior towards First Nations people much more seriously than the United States. The terrible stories we heard about the oppression – particularly in schools that systematically stripped Aborginal children of family, language and culture – were framed against a backdrop of treaties that the government has taken seriously in recent years. Treaty 4 (1874-77), established with England’s Queen Victoria, governs Regina’s and most of southern Saskatchewan’s relationship with Aboriginal peoples.
The opening plenary was delivered by Dr. Marie Wilson, a point person in the painful but constructive Truth and Reconciliation process that Canada is making. It is a $20 million effort, concluding this year, involving 143 different projects across the country with 7,000 statements from survivors of resident schools. She reviewed the ten principles of reconciliation that have guided Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
But First Nations involvement included much more than this grim history. We heard magnificent drumming and singing. Elder Betty McKenna led a tour of the First Nations University’s healing gardens where flowers and herbs used in traditional medicine are grown. June Berry Woman, aka Rev. Dr. Bernice Saulteaux, talked about religion among the Aboriginal tribes of Saskatchewan. And tours to museums and a residential school cemetery were illuminating. In short, an embarrassment of riches, limited only by the workshop/tour choices one made, since you couldn’t go to everything!
The young adult scholar’s contingent, 14 this year, was the largest group since NAIN started using about half its annual budget for scholarships this past decade. As usual, their participation in workshops, listening groups, and plenaries, their fresh insights and enthusiasm, added immeasurably. Elias Gonzalez, the first ever Mexican NAIN youth scholar, talked about the scholar’s group encountering the “mystery” in the “passion of the Christian cross in all the different denominations, the shine of the Bahai’s star, the depth of Atheism, the open arms of Universalism, the devotion light of the Islamic half-moon, the serenity of the Buddhist mind. A clear example of the vital dynamism of a Spirit that enjoys dancing.”
Grace Patterson had a different take of the scholar’s group: “We’re working on religion after the bricks and mortar are gone,” a disconcerting notion for some of the old-timers. A magnificent painting exhibit from the Saskatchewan Youth Visual Art Project graced the walls of the resource room.
A special treat this year was the creation and, before we departed, the dissolution of a beautiful Mandala of Compassion, created by fine, colored sands in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition during the Connect. Lori Petruskevich, a long-time Buddhist practitioner and teacher in Saskatchewan, was the lead artist, showing others how to use the colored sand, and speaking several times about the joy and peace that exercises in compassion can create.
This year’s gathering was held at Luther College, part of a consortium of colleges which comprise the University of Regina. The huge campus is set in gorgeous parkland running along a beautiful lake. Three campus institutions were partners in the effort, the University of Regina, Campion College (a Jesuit institution), and First Nations University of Canada, all built on Treaty 4 lands. Heavy lifting came from The Regina Multifaith Forum and Multi-Faith Saskatchewan.
NAIN in Mexico!
The most exciting news this year came when NAIN’s chair, Rob Hankinson, announced that the 2016 Connect will be held, July 10-13, in Guadalajara. Since its inception, North American Interfaith Network members have bemoaned the lack of relationship with Mexican interfaith leaders, in part because of language issues and the difficulties in providing translators for dozens of workshops. Last May, as reported in TIO, the Diálogo Multicultural Universal II in Guadalajara was a huge interreligious festival drawing over 5,000; they took on translation challenges by bringing in a number of graduate students studying English.
Hankinson and about a dozen NAIN members were at the interfaith festival. Long discussions with Gabriela Ana Maria Franco Valtierra and other Diálogo planners led to the possibility, and now the certainty, that NAINConnect goes to Mexico next year. Gabriela was in Regina and shared a video invitation to come to Guadalajara next July.
The depth and breadth of what Regina produced in this “land of the living skies” is a perfect example of how far the global interfaith movement has penetrated communities everywhere. The issues were not a rehash of old interfaith presentations but a venture into new arenas. As a conference, it was totally professional, with a down-home friendliness.
Thank you, Regina!