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Interfaith Groups Find An Oasis in the Desert

Blistering weather reports from Las Vegas notwithstanding, 140 interfaith leaders from Canada, Mexico, and the United States gathered in southern Nevada on August 12. For four and a half days the group explored a complex set of themes – “Hospitality, Generosity and Sharing – Interfaith Action in Our World.” The weather turned out to be dry and kind, the heat tempered by passing storms. University of Nevada Las Vegas is beautiful and proved an exemplar of the hospitality we were discussing.

Editor's note: this appears to be the second of two parts, with the first part unrecoverable during the restoration of InterfaithNews.Net. -SFUQUA Dec, 2021.

By From Paul Chaffee
Interfaith Center at the Presidio

Reprinted with permission from URI-NA Briefings

More than 30 ‘how-to’ workshops were presented, with “The Rise of Christian Fundamentalism and its Impact on Interfaith Work,” “Southern Sudan Education Project,” and “Community Foundation Fundraising” popular enough to bear repeating. Peacemaking, community, and creation each were explored in a series of sessions that ran throughout the conference. A site visit the first day took a busload to Child Haven, a state-supported center that works with 9,000 abused and abandoned children a year. We saw how faith communities can participate in this historic work.

Content rich, in other words! Some thought we ran a day too long. Most, though, were energized rather than exhausted by the smorgasbord, and few left before the end.

In the evening…

Evening programs were the highlight for many, unexpected and deeply moving events. An opening banquet was set in a ballroom. Over 300 attended, the conferees sitting down with several dozen Muslim families from southern Nevada who had prepared the feast. They brought enough food to have fed us all twice and still have leftovers. We were warmly welcomed. At each table hosts shared stories and pictures of the different countries they came from on the way to citizenship here. After we ate, a Moroccan concert on drums and the oud, a plucked Middle Eastern instrument, was astonishing. Muslim hospitality set the tone for the whole conference.

Very few knew the name Sister Jose Hobday when the community gathered the next night to hear her speak about gratitude. But we fell in love. An American Indian Roman Catholic sister with an outrageous sense of humor, Sister Jose, 76, had recently fallen, breaking an arm and bruising her ribs and ‘tailbone.’ Counseled to stay at home, she said she could be miserable and stay at home, or miserable and come to the conference, so she couldn’t see any good reason to stay at home. Her stories brought tears, punctuated with hilarity and even cheering, as she unpacked the often neglected, powerful gift of thanks.

At the final banquet, graciously prepared and hosted by readers of the Urantia Book, Dirk Ficca of the Council for the Parliament of the Worlds Religions spoke from a prophetic stance. He wondered why the aggregate religious community in the United States is unable to mobilize itself against an ill-conceived and unjust war, unable to halt environmental degradation in our own backyard, unable to make a significant difference in opposing poverty. As his speech developed, and during a panel response, the evening’s theme became resolute hope in the midst of darkness.

Dirk’s speech troubled some in the group, still flush with the high energy and richness of the four days just shared. It seemed incongruous in an arena where up-front politics is particularly uncomfortable for some traditions. But the observations of at least three Canadian participants tempered that evaluation, at least for this participant.

In their own gentle way, these Canadian brothers expressed relief that an interfaith leader from the host nation of this event is finally calling the current administration to account. “How can we, as religious people, neglect talking about these matters,” asked one, “if we care about overcoming poverty and healing the earth and making peace?” In the e-mail discussions which followed the conference, Kay Lindahl, a leader with both sponsors of the conference – NAIN (North America Interfaith Network) and URI (United Religions Initiative-North America) – wrote, “the burning question for interfaith these days – how do we speak as a moral voice in the world?”

The complexity of spiritual relationships

The conference’s spiritual context grounded and inspired the dialogue and relationship-building. It was developed through multiple, voluntarily attended expressions of  prayer, meditation, ceremony, and ritual led by different traditions, a “Spiritual Immersion,” as host chair Gard Jameson put it. Muslim Friday Prayers, a Jewish Shabbat service, and a Christian Eucharist were part of a much longer list of events, including various indigenous ceremonies.

These sessions were comforting and meaningful to most, though troubling to some. At least one participant noted that his constituency of more conservative religious leaders would disappear in a flash with shared religious practice. Others acknowledged that some of the shared ritual stretched them and would be difficult ‘back at home.’

At one evaluation session, shared practice was affirmed with the caveat that sensitivities, protocols, guidelines, and learnings regarding the matter deserve more reflection and discussion as future events are planned. Blessings before meals were appreciated. At the same time, members of the young adult caucus suggested that discussing the distinction between pluralism and syncretism is overdue in the interfaith movement.

Who came?

The remarkable content and the yeasty differences of opinion at NAIN/URI-NA 2006 in part came from a partnership among interfaith leaders from Las Vegas, from NAIN, and from URI-NA. They are grassroots networks that had never joined hands in a convocation before; like-minded strangers from across the continent met in Las Vegas and quickly became friends.

In addition, leaders came from major organizations such as the Council for a Parliament of the Worlds Religions, the Interfaith Alliance, Interfaith Youth Core, Religions for Peace–USA, Temple of Understanding, and URI’s Global Council, altogether an unprecedented set of connections. Twenty of 140 participants were 35 years old or younger, mostly newcomers, adding imagination, new energy, and provocative questions. Dozens of individuals across the continent volunteered in the planning, making the whole effort a collaborative, capacity-building exercise.

NAIN holds annual “connects” and will be gathering again June 23-27, 2006, in Vancouver, BC, to explore the theme of peace. The interfaith conference will be held in conjunction with Vancouver’s World Peace Forum, expected to draw 7,000 people from around the world with a passion for making peace. Put it on your calendar!

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