Last Friday, June 25th, I did a three-hour class for The Chaplaincy Institute (www.chaplaincyinstitute.org/) here in Berkeley. They train interfaith chaplains who go on to serve in hospitals and other institutions. My class was on the "Nuts & Bolts of Interfaith Work". This was the first time I had given such a class to a non-Pagan audience and also the longest time-slot I'd had to fill with such material. I rewrote my handouts to be a bit more generic and went to work. The result was teaching materials that will become part of CoG “succession planning” to help new people get involved in doing interfaith work.
The class opened with a meditation by one of the program coordinators, then I was introduced by another, Rev. Jan Thomas, as someone who “brought over 25 years of interfaith experience” to their program.
The class had already been told the deep history of interfaith in the US by Fr. Tom Bonacci of the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County. (Tom and I have served together on the Board of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio.) However, the national and global interfaith scene has changed so dramatically over the last 20 years that I opened with the story of the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions and how it changed the world. I continued the history of the modern interfaith movement through the North American Interfaith Network, the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, and the United Religions Initiative.
I explained how Appreciative Inquiry has become a commonly used technique in the design and execution of interfaith events. I illustrated this with an exercise involving an appreciative interview, in which the students formed into small groups of six and then paired off with someone they didn’t know to do interviews. Over the course of half an hour, the pairs asked and answered the following questions:
1) What is your name? Where are you from? What is your faith tradition, if any?
2) Have you ever had an experience that confirmed for you that your spiritual path was the right one for you? What was that like?
3) Can you think of a time when you were experiencing a crisis of some sort and your faith tradition helped you through it? What was that like?
4) What unique gift, skill, or knowledge does your faith tradition bring to the world community at this time in our history?
At the end of the allotted time, each person introduced their partner to their small group, based on their conversation. The questions encouraged each person to share their own faith tradition through stories about which they are enthusiastic. The fact that you would be retelling your partner’s story encouraged each person to truly listen.
After the exercise and some more discussion about AI, I explained my own theory of the “Stages of Interfaith” based on my own observation of persons and groups over the last 25 years. It’s still really a draft for an article, but I had enough for a handout and for discussion. The basic idea is that persons and groups doing interfaith work go through identifiable stages, each of which have their own strengths and challenges. There can be tension when persons and groups at different stages interact in the same group or event. We discussed these stages in relation to each student’s experience.
After a short break, we continued with a discussion of “How to do effective Interfaith Work”, based on programs I have given at PantheaCon. The accompanying handout includes useful tips ranging from the obvious – “Be present and helpful!” – to the not so obvious – “Avoid discussing any previous religious affiliation (if any) until you have a solid relationship based on your current religious affiliation.”
Towards the end of the calls I handed out lists of interfaith resources to help folks make connections in their own areas, and gave an overview of the “major players” in interfaith, i.e. the individuals who are most connected and tend to turn up at most interfaith events.
I closed by returning to the idea of Appreciative Inquiry. “Appreciative” means being friendly and open. “Inquiry” means reaching out and asking questions. I urged these new interfaith chaplains not to reinvent the wheel. Rather, they should use the resources from this class to find and make common cause with others who share your interests and goals.
The class and the organizers seemed pleased with the materials presented and I was asked to continue to give it to future classes. I hope that the materials I assembled will help prepare more CoG members for doing interfaith work in the future, and I’ll continue to give a condensed version of the class at PantheaCon and other Pagan events.
Donald H. Frew
National Interfaith Representative