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Talking with Strangers in Sacred Space

REPORT: Reflecting on NAINConnect 2016 in Guadalajara, Mexico

Talking with Strangers in Sacred Space

by Lynda Trono

NAINConnect 2016 participants were welcomed with conch shells, incense, and drumming. – Photo: Greg Harder

NAINConnect 2016 participants were welcomed with conch shells, incense, and drumming. – Photo: Greg Harder

Since 1988 the North American Interfaith Network has gathered for an annual “Connect” somewhere in Canada or the United States. In an historic move, NAIN went to Mexico for the first time this summer, hosted by the Carpe Diem Foundation in Guadalajara, which has a rich history in Mexican and Latin America interfaith programming. Equally historic, the Guadalajara Connect was completely bilingual, with professional translators and earphones bridging the chasms between people speaking different languages.

More than 20 workshops unpacked different aspects of “Sacred Space,” ranging from quantum mechanics, to sacred sites, to indigenous land rights, to healing intrafaith conflicts with interfaith skillsets, and more. The conversations in the halls and dining room seemed as important as the workshops. Best of all, NAIN was able to benefit from the richly imaginative and generous Mexican spirit, their music punctuating our talking, the tours to Tlaquepaque, the old city, and the feast at the end, making this so much more than a talk-fest. NAIN grew up this year, claiming its full North American territory, and interfaith on this continent is richer as a result. Below, Lynda Trono, program convenor on NAIN’s board of directors, reflects on the bumpy but rewarding lessons when you meet strangers and find friends.

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The opening ceremony included a group of Aztec and Mexican dancers. – Photo: Greg Harder

The opening ceremony included a group of Aztec and Mexican dancers. – Photo: Greg Harder

This year’s NAIN (North American Interfaith Network) Connect began with a surprise. The theme was Espacio Sagrado, or, in English, Sacred Space. And for the first time in the 28 years of NAIN’s existence, its annual Conference was held in Mexico.

I have been to a number of Connects before, but this was the first one that began with a Christian sermon. Bishop Raul Vera was one of two keynote speakers to address the crowd the day we arrived. The crowd was bigger than usual at a NAINConnect. English speakers were given head sets for translation purposes. So it wasn’t that I didn’t understand what was being said; I didn’t understand why an interfaith gathering was starting with a Christian sermon. I became a bit agitated. After 45 minutes I snuck out of the hall and went to my room for 20 minutes of meditation. I was trying to get some perspective.

When I came back to the gathering space, the Bishop was still speaking. He had moved on to talking about human rights. By this time my attention had waned. I just sat politely. Half an hour later the Bishop finished his talk. I was relieved. To my astonishment, I found myself in the middle of a standing ovation. It became clear that I was missing something.

The next speaker suggested new possibilities that appealed to my bewildered mind. Gustavo Esteva, a prominent activist and advocate of radical pluralism, spoke about intercultural understanding and basically disputed the idea that we might ever understand another person’s worldview, particularly when there were profound cultural differences – different ways of understanding and interacting with the world. Even if we can't understand those others, it is incumbent upon us to love them, because they are part of humanity.

The Turning Point

I thought, “Yes. I can do that. I know there is something important going on here. I just don't know what it is. But I can love my friends who have asked this Bishop to open the NAINConnect. And maybe some day I will understand. Maybe Mexicans always start conferences with long speeches! Maybe they have more patience and longer attention spans than those of us who are accustomed to a commercial break every 12 minutes.”

The following day we had an opportunity to share our experience of the Connect with other participants. I looked for some people to join. Always awkward. I was determined to connect with some Mexicans despite the language barrier. I joined up with Edna and Victor from Tepic, a city two hours from Guadalajara. Moses, who is from Regina, Saskatchewan, joined us, and I grabbed Hector, a Columbian from Scarboro Missions Interfaith Department in Toronto and fluent in both Spanish and English.

Our group shared basic information, names, where we were from, and what drew us to this event. We were then invited to reflect on our experience at the Connect. I was able to share my quandaries about the first day and how surprised I was at the long, long sermon.

Mexico’s Bishop Raul Vera, a lifelong champion of human rights and social justice, gave the opening keynote at the NAINConnect 2016 in Guadalajara. – Photo: Rofto Foundation, Kari Amble

Mexico’s Bishop Raul Vera, a lifelong champion of human rights and social justice, gave the opening keynote at the NAINConnect 2016 in Guadalajara. – Photo: Rofto Foundation, Kari Amble

Was I in for some learning! Victor and Edna explained that Bishop Raul Vera was LOVED by the people of Mexico. Hence the standing ovation. Since his years in Chiapas working with poor indigenous communities, Vera has been an outspoken advocate for the marginalized and dispossessed. He has supported gays and lesbians in their struggle for justice, and that is not very popular in traditional Mexico. He has risked a lot to stand up for what is right and has been called the Oscar Romero of Mexico. In fact, the UN has recognized him for his human rights work and has expressed concern for the lack of protection he has received from the Catholic Church or the Mexican government. Edna thought that Vera’s long Christian sermon may have been deliberate. He has more protection if he makes it very clear how human rights connect to the Christian gospel. For Hector, the highlight of the conference so far was meeting the Bishop.

So I had missed something. Because my cultural blinders told me you shouldn’t start an interfaith Conference with a Christian sermon, and that no sermon should last longer than 20 minutes, I missed hearing the Oscar Romero of Mexico. I didn’t learn what I might have about Mexico and its struggles. I did learn a lot about myself.

At the end of NAINConnect, a mariachi troupe showed up and people started dancing in the halls. – Photo: TIO

At the end of NAINConnect, a mariachi troupe showed up and people started dancing in the halls. – Photo: TIO

I didn’t miss everything though. I removed the logs from my eyes and dove into the sacred space that was offered. I learned a deeper appreciation for the people who are engaged in interfaith activities in Mexico. I learned what they are passionate about. And where their passions intersect with mine. I tried out my limited Spanish and learned more Spanish. I immersed myself in a culture that has more respect for people than adhering to a schedule. I learned a new respect for the Sacred Space that is Mexican culture – a place where flowers and music and dancing are just as significant as deep thought and academic rigor.

On the last day, Larry Greenfield, executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, summed up his experience of the Connect by referring to a book by Danielle Allen called Talking to Strangers (2004). Larry, who was with us for the whole conference, had spent hours talking with NAIN participants. Then at the end, he spoke about how we are taught as children not to talk to strangers. But it is only by actually interacting with strangers, he said, that we can generate trust and so cultivate a global citizenship and achieve peace in the world.

Larry Greenfield (l.), executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions; Sister Josefina of the convent, Comunidad de Hermanas Esclavas de Cristo Rey, which hosted NAIN in Guadalajara; and Gabriela Franco Valtierta, who led the planning team for the Carpe Diem Foundation, which cosponsored the Connect– Photo: TIO

Larry Greenfield (l.), executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions; Sister Josefina of the convent, Comunidad de Hermanas Esclavas de Cristo Rey, which hosted NAIN in Guadalajara; and Gabriela Franco Valtierta, who led the planning team for the Carpe Diem Foundation, which cosponsored the Connect– Photo: TIO

From my experience in Guadalajara, this message rings true. By opening ourselves up to one another we not only build trust – we create sacred space and a whole new world of possibility opens up.

Muchas Gracias amigas y amigos in Guadalajara, Mexico. You are no longer strangers but friends.