A Summer of Exciting Interfaith Events
MEETING PEOPLE TO HELP IN THE WORK GOING FORWARD
URI North America Reginal Assembly
by Robyn Lebron
Respecting the uniqueness of each tradition, and honoring the differences of practice or belief that we bring together, play an important part of United Religions Initiative’s Preambles, Principles & Purpose. The URI North America Assembly, held July 27-29 for Cooperation Circles (CC) and Affiliates from the US and Canada was a huge success! We had fabulous attendance, everyone bringing their hearts and their enthusiasm.
Attendees openly shared thoughts on a multitude of topics – from the serious need for equality and for acceptance of those who feel excluded, to how we can support social change without losing our own faith perspectives.
The breakout session on “Inclusivity in the Interfaith Movement,” led by Rev. Carolyn Wilkins from Culver City Area Interfaith Alliance, was a powerful example of what was shared. Thinking back on the session, she reflected, “We had a place to give voice to something that bothers us, and create ideas for activism around it.” Then she enthusiastically added, “The assembly has exceeded my expectations for meeting people to help in the work going forward.”
Over the three days, attendees laughed, hugged, shared, and even shed some tears. The energy and desire of URI CCs and Affiliates to create a just, peaceful, and sustainable world shown like a beacon of light in a sometimes dark and frustrating world.
Abdullah Ghazi from Saudis for Peace (Saudi Arabia), a CC from the Multiregion, beamed as he shared his sense of the gathering. “This is my first time at any interfaith assembly. The first time you meet people face to face, you humanize them. This divide [between religions] is a great weight that the whole world is living through – I needed to see other people doing something similar to what I do – to get recharged to go back and fight the battles!”
On the last night by the light of a full moon the group gathered, surrounded by nature. They shared the glow and warmth of a bonfire as they raised their voices in song, with joyful hope for a better future.
Empowering interfaith activists
Reimagining Interfaith Cooperation
by Megan Anderson and Tahil Sharma
Reimagining Interfaith Cooperation, held July 29–August 1, was not your typical interfaith conference. The Marvin Center at George Washington University found itself overflowing with leaders and activists in the interfaith movement who re-examined the understanding of interfaith cooperation around the world.
Rev. Jennifer Bailey posed a challenge in her keynote remarks at the opening of the conference: Should we see ourselves as a movement – as something that begins and ends, becoming a part of history? Or should we see ourselves as something more – something that has no end, but continually draws upon the current context to deepen our understanding of beloved community and society as being deeply interfaith? There is no simple or singular answer, as this question necessitates reflecting on how we understand the development of religious and secular pluralism as a socially productive norm in the world.
This was one of the many insightful and sometimes challenging questions and topics that were engaged as hundreds of people representing numerous worldviews and over a dozen countries participated in one of five different action and skill-building oriented tracks:
Cultivating Inclusive Communities in the Face of Religious Discrimination
Community Organizing for Social Change
“Staying Woke” Recognizing Privilege, Challenging Systematic Oppression
Interfaith Organizing in a Changing Spiritual Landscape
“Making a Movement” Building Skills to Bring Interfaith to the Next Level
Circle groups and a World Café-style closing activity provided intentional spaces for reflection, introspection, and conversations that were deeply engaging as people exchanged experiences, challenges, and best practices in making interfaith work in unique ways.
In addition to educational programming, attendees were given the opportunity to experience Washington D.C. through pre-conference excursions to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, or the National Museum of the American Indian, a social justice themed tour of national monuments on Monday night, and public action in Lafayette Square Tuesday afternoon.
Attendees also had the chance to engage with a variety of different faith and/or spiritual traditions during the morning and evening Spiritual Focuses, and it would be amiss not to mention the incredible artistic talent displayed by The Sanctuaries through painting, screen-printing, song, and poetry throughout the event.
Addressing Compassionate Discomfort
One important point of reflection everyone left with was how to engage in compassionate discomfort. Talking about issues such as race and privilege, partisanship, the age gap within interfaith, facing the fact that exclusivity and negative biases exist in the interfaith movement – which prides itself in being inclusive and accepting – was difficult for many people. Some progress was made as people put courage into their words when trying to understand their peers and honestly share their own views, but it remained clear that the interfaith movement has a long way to go.
As program co-chairs, Sari Heidenreich and Megan Anderson suggested at the closing ceremony, this should be considered an opportunity for growth for the interfaith movement. “We all have negative biases and exclusory tendencies within us. It’s part of being human. To deny this harms not only others, but ourselves and the movement as well. But acknowledging these darker parts of ourselves is an invitation to seriously reflect on their underpinnings and take the steps – steps not always easy or comfortable – necessary to our goals and values as interfaith activists.”
No panaceas at our disposal here, but every meaningful dialogue that produces some positive result is a step in forging a better tomorrow. Only by uplifting our siblings in destiny can we meet them at a common ground to share our values, our influences, and our struggles to make a comprehensive solution possible.
Interfaith PILGRIMAGE of the heart
by Johnny Martin
During NAINConnect 2018 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada July 31-August 3, 250 participants, in various settings, explored the concept of pilgrimage, along the way providing leadership skills, networking, and inspiration.
The first morning we gathered on a grassy lawn next to MacEwan University for a prayer and smudging ceremony. Led by local First Nations elders, it served to bless our activities and help us recognize and honor our debt to the land and to our fellow creatures. We stood in a circle as the elder prayed in his native tongue over a pipe and tobacco, which was passed around the circle.
This year’s NAIN scholars and youth participants dove deep during this Nainconnect, participating in a Young Adult Summit. Facilitated by Salima Versi, an Ismaili Muslim scholar and feminist, we talked seriously about the pilgrimage theme. Our discussion included the plight of migrants and refugees, who are often fleeing violent persecution or unlivable conditions in their home countries. We also talked about what each of our respective traditions calls us to do in response to such crises.
Dr. Marie Wilson, one of the three Commissioners of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and her husband Stephen Kakfwi, former Premier of the Northwest Territories and residential school survivor, gave the keynote the opening night. Dr. Wilson talked about what it’s like to work for six and a half years on a Commission dedicated to exposing the long history of indigenous children being physically and psychologically tortured by the Canadian government’s practice of forced residential schooling. Intermittently, her husband Stephen Kakfwi would play the guitar and sing heartbreaking songs about the trauma he experienced in these schools. For each of them, confronting this reality and learning to cope with it had been a pilgrimage of the heart.
During the evening banquet on the second day, Shachi Kurl, the executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, gave a keynote address during an evening banquet. She talked about the importance of the “religious left” in combating intolerance from both the religious right as well as the militantly secular left. After her speech, NAIN scholars went on stage for a panel discussion that bridged Ms. Kurl’s talk with the theme of pilgrimage.
More than Talking
Attendees also got to experience the beauty of Edmonton, including a trip to the University of Alberta Botanic Garden, a beautiful and serene 240-acre property that includes a Japanese Zen garden and the newly established Aga Khan garden. The peacefulness emanating in this natural space engendered deep conversation and relationship building. Other sites included a traditional First Nations sweat lodge – including optional participation in a sweat lodge ceremony. At a large Presbyterian church attendees heard Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire (Ret’d) spoke about his time serving in the Canadian military during the armed conflict in Rwanda. His story and the brutality he witnessed was jarring, but its conclusion offered us a great deal of hope. We were reminded that sometimes a pilgrimage is born out of great tragedy and the struggle for survival.
As a whole, this year’s NAIN experience was a pilgrimage of its own. Things learned and people met left tremendous marks on the lives of those who attended. We discovered new friends, new lessons, new experiences, and a new relationship to the world, learning that, ultimately, pilgrimage is always a journey of discovery.
Header Photo: Pearlston Center