Communicators from all Faiths Gather
REPORT: Religion Communicators Convention Dives Deep
by Paul Chaffee
A largely unknown treasure for interfaith activists is the convention held each year by the Religion Communicators Council (RCC). Founded in 1929, the RCC has given annual awards to religious communicators and to secular communicators working on religious subjects since 1949. About 70 Derose-Hinkhouse Memorial awards go to religious communicators from ten “classes” of communication; Class E-Specialized Writing, for instance, includes Book, Adult; Writing for Web; Miscellaneous; and Best of Class.
At a banquet on the night following a Derose-Hinkson banquet, 27 Wilbur Awards were given, “recognizing excellence in communicating religious issues, values and themes in the public media.”
Therein is the secret sauce of this annual convention. Hundreds of projects are submitted for the awards, and the winners represent a kind of ‘cream of the crop’ among religious thinkers and communicators. Most winners attend, becoming a pool of potential presenters for that year’s workshops, the envy of every other interfaith planner in the land. Below you’ll find a summary of the highlights and several videos. Most of the presentations were downloaded to RCC’s Facebook page, where you can find and watch the ones that interest you.
TIO contributors were there: Elizabeth Dabney Hochman won a Wilbur for her book Ten Years of KidSpirit, and Michael Wolfe for his film American Muslims: Facts vs. Fiction, which is embedded below. Bud Heckman, a frequent TIO contributor, was voted the 2017-18 president of RCC.
One hundred and ten communicators, including half a dozen young adult interns, were able to choose four of the ten workshops presented in Chicago this year. Those I attended were informative, compelling, and interactive. “Rewriting the Script: Analyzing Gender and Religion in the Media” began with startling research and went on to invite us to help rewrite the gender scrip in major media today. “Podcasts that are Addictive” wove together the requirements of both podcast content and technology with great good humor.
“News from the Frontlines: Defeating Anti-Muslim and Anti-Immigrant Movements” was riveting. It came with resources from rethink: media for Security, Rights, and Democracy. For instance, here are strategic suggestions for conversations with the religious, ethical ‘other’: (1) focus on freedom of religion as a root American value, (2) argue that unity is better than fear for us all, (3) emphasize that ‘united with stand’; (4) propose targeting individual terrorists, not whole groups, and (5) project a ‘getting to know you’ attitude rather than doctrinaire opposition.
The workshop that moved me most was titled “Five (or More) Ways to Make One Sick Blog.” You can read my response, titled "Meaning-making Among the Disenfranchised," at the end of this article.
Two keynotes were true highlights. Wahajat Ali spoke about “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to be a Moderate Muslim.” A Pakistani American Muslim, he is a brilliant social analyst who seems to have been born with Robin Williams’ comic sensibility. Again and again we bubbled with laughter, only to be silenced with harsh details, like the fact that Islamophobic hate-groups have increased by 197 percent in the past year.
Rabbi David Saperstein came fresh from his three-year Obama-appointed role as the first non-Christian to hold the post of United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. His address, “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” was a religious, ethical state-of-the-world address, a deeply grim story. Saperstein is America’s leading prophetic voice; however dour the facts, he is inspiring, not depressing. Like Wahajat Ali, he received a standing ovation.
Three plenary sessions brought together leading religious voices and journalists, half of them from Chicago, which is particularly troubled with street violence. They addressed ‘guns into plowshares’; the difficulties in covering religious news; and the complications social media generates for religion and religious communication.
In between and prior to the talk fests, we watched two films on the religious community’s engagement with the plague of violence in our midst. One was about the death of first-graders in a Newtown, Connecticut school, the other about the endemic violence that plagues certain Chicago-Cook County communities. Tough subjects to film, and tough films to promote. But these two were exemplary and deserve a wide audience: Newtown, an award-winning film from Odyssey Networks, is being featured on PBS this month; and the Chicago Sunday Evening Club’s Violence in Chicago: Responding with Faith.
How much can you pack into three and a half conference days and not feel oppressed? Quite a bit at this RCC convention. We enjoyed two field trips. The Bahá’í House of Worship for North America is a masterpiece of twentieth century religious architecture. We were welcomed there, given refreshments, had our questions answered, then were freed to explore the sanctuary and the magnificent gardens and fountains surrounding it.
We also visited St. James Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Chicago, a magnificent sanctuary and home to a congregation founded in 1855, a church where Abraham Lincoln worshipped the day after his 1860 nomination to be president. St. James provided a short organ concert, then hosted the plenary on social media, set out refreshments, and hosted a convention highlight – The Silk Road Rising Story.
Silk Road Rising is a 15-year-old theater group that “creates live theatre and online videos that tell stories through primarily Asian American and Middle Eastern American lenses. In representing communities that intersect and overlap, we advance a polycultural worldview.” Clear evidence that using the arts to further interfaith, intercultural relationships is one of the most effective yet underutilized tools in peacebuilding.
You can watch a two-minute introduction to Silk Road Rising here. But first watch a snippit of their work – a 15-minute video titled The Balancing Arab, about two friends in a Pilates studio trying to bridge the unexpected cultural gaps between an Irish American Christian and a Palestinian American Muslim. Not only does Silk Road create and produce multiple productions, they take them on the road, make them available on the web, visit schools, congregations, and community organizations, all to the end of engendering a healthy multicultural world for us all.
As mentioned above, most of the convention’s various programs were webcast live, and can be viewed on RCC’s Facebook page. The hard work of downloading and embedding major presentations achieved here comes close to realizing the dream of so many interfaith organizers: to share the experience online, in real time, while making it available thereafter. Viewing this on a screen is not the same as being there, but it is much less expensive and is an incredible living resource for us all.
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A SAMPLER WORKSHOP FROM THE RELIGION COMMUNICATORS CONVENTION
Meaning-making Among the Disenfranchised
The workshop title – “Five (or More) Ways to Make One Sick Blog” – gave pause. A how-to? About sick blogs?! Really?
Jessica Mesman Griffith and Jonathan Ryan admitted at the top that they knew nothing about blogging when they began. They were quite clear, though, about what they wanted to offer their readers and contributors: an open, non-judgmental spiritual context where the religiously alienated, the marginalized for whatever reason, might feel at home. Here the disappointed and depressed, the doubtful and divorced, gay and transgendered, spiritual but not religious, indeed where all manner of lonely people could share their troubles in a safe, affirming spiritual environment. Yes, this workshop was about creating a blog. What made it valuable, though, was hearing about assembling an extended community of the disenfranchised, people from all walks of life who have found a home, a familial meaning-making space for Catholics and non-Catholics hungry for such an opportunity.
Jessica was an award-winning writer of Catholic devotional literature and well-versed in Catholic ‘apologetics,’ that is, theology. Jonathan came to Catholicism via a Presbyterian ministry, and he’s honed his thinking through long conversations with atheists. Jess and Jon were both emotionally and spiritually disheartened by what the Church does not publish, by its failure to deal openly, non-judgmentally with people’s doubts, their pain, their alienation. The blog they co-founded is called Sick Pilgrim, “a field hospital for wayfaring souls,… a space for the spiritually sick, and their fellow travelers to rest a while.”
They didn’t imagine a big readership when Patheos approached and offered them a place in its family of more than 400 regular digital contributors. But shortly after the January 2016 launch of The Sick Pilgrim Travelling Show, they found themselves with more than 100,000 readers, the fastest-growing blog in Patheos’ library of resources. With 15 months of experience, it won a 2017 Wilbur Award (for Digital Communications: Faith-based blogs). Along the way it has evolved in various ways. Matthew LeFleur, associate editor, is the third member of their leadership team. A community of 200 are core participants in the project. A weekly “Dark Devotional” is based on each Sunday’s lectionary readings (scripture readings commonly used on the same Sunday by hundreds of thousands of congregations).
The Sick Pilgrim workshop at this year’s RCC convention was webcast live and downloaded onto the Religious Communicators Council’s Facebook page (along with other remarkable presentations at the 2017 convention). Very low-tech video providing rich, high-end dividends. Religious communicators everywhere can profit from this workshop, learning about Sick Pilgrim’s huge appeal, how it fosters spiritual comfort and growth, about an interfaith filter coming from an unofficial Roman Catholic effort, and much more. Personally, as an interfaith Christian, I kept sensing Jesus in the room, filled with joy. So was I.