Sunday, July 31, 2011

Rachael's NAIN Conference Report

On the 22nd of July I headed out to Phoenix to attend a North American Interfaith Network "Connect". I was gone five days and those days were packed. Up at 6 or 6:30 to take advantage of a delightfully warm swimming pool and get some kinks out then to breakfast. At 9 meetings started. The first two days were filled with board meetings which (with breaks of course) lasted until 9pm. Then there were informal talks at night, until I staggered to bed to begin again in the morning.

As Don Frew has faithfully reported on the happenings of the Connect, I will give you an overview of my time there rather than over saturate you with details. I did not mention specific names where I had less than positive things to say of someone for the sake of their privacy.

On the 24th with the yearly board meeting behind us the conference got under way. The theme was "Living the Golden Rule". As a member of the program committee I might have protested more vigorously about such exclusivity of terms, but this group stepped in when we were totally without a plan for the next year and had just published a book of days with a short meditation from every religion that they could find that had anything connected with a Golden Rule type of philosophy and wanted to showcase their work.

The programming results were predictable; one saccharine sweet talk or panel after the other touting the "Rule" as a universal panacea for a perfect world. Two major concerns arose for me when I realized that the first plenary speaker, who was introduced as the leading academic expert on world religions and the Golden Rule knew nothing of almost any religion except the Abrahamic faiths. He was not even aware that Wicca (currently listed as the fourth largest religion in the US by more than one reliable poll) existed, and had no clue what Rastafarian tradition was (which is arguably among the Christian faith groups). As the days passed and I had an opportunity to speak with him personally I realized that his knowledge was woefully lacking in just about all areas including Jainism and huge chunks of Hindu practice. Worse he has written books on the subject that are pointed to as the authority on why the Golden Rule is universal and teaches college courses in it. Heavy sigh!

The other major speaker was probably a bit more informed but spent most of his time quoting Confucius and using phrases like "All Gods Children" (a phrase that the Inquisition used to distinguish between Christians and all those whom they persecuted). Neither of these men, in personal conversation, were in the least willing to consider that they were not as fully informed as they believed and were being insulting and exclusionary to religions who did not have any such philosophy.

Fortunately two speakers, Rabbi David Kunnin, and Elder Donald Frew, stepped forward to point out the flaws in such thinking and, surprisingly, were well received, most likely because they were both well educated, excellent speakers whose points were pretty much irrefutable.

Not every religion has the Golden Rule, most specifically those closer to indigenous and/or pagan practice

Post colonial occupation either translated and re-worked native doctrines so that they looked more like the Golden Rule or..

Post colonialized populations re-worked their own ethical systems so that they looked more like the Golden Rule in order to be more accepted by their "new friends".

By stating that the Golden Rule is universal we are saying that any religion who does not have an ideology that might be tooled to apply is, by definition not a religion.

Such exclusionary terminology is detrimental to the practice and idea of interfaith.

For me, however, the topics and themes were only of secondary interest as I had just been promoted to the Chair of Internal communications, an office that had here-to-fore been held by one person who handled both the internal and external communications for us. She was falling behind in both technology and time and wanted to focus on the Newsletter and other forms of communication with the broader community of interfaith practice. Unfortunately I inherited a web page woefully out of date and an internal communications network that was totally unworkable.

She had been trying for ages to get the board to release us from a program that was really not designed for our needs but only this year were she and I able to convince the board to drop it in favor of easier and free programs for calendar and list serve processes. However she had proven reticent to release design of or make any changes herself, to the web page. I spent most of the time during the day being collared by members of the board who wanted me to do something about the web site. As it happened I made some excellent connections with the younger contingent who were a part of our young adult program and had received scholarships to attend this year's Connect. They managed to hunt me down when they discovered that I would be doing the new site and volunteered their services.

This was, almost in full, the work of a young intern who had been on the board with the chair of the communications committee for the past year and who was very aware of the need for change and the reticence of the chair to relinquish responsibility. It was she who recruited the "volunteers" for me and helped me formulate a plan to acquire charge of the website rebuild without hurting the person involved. She will be continuing to work with me on this project as a volunteer herself as her time with the board has expired. She is also, though it makes no difference to the process, of a neo-pagan leaning and had a long conversation with me on the history of Craft in general and the various traditions which have come out of it.

I did realize that there might be some generational disconnect while visiting with the younger folks when they started to throw out strings of letters such as LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, transgender) and then added even more letters which I can't begin to remember. I told them I had enough trouble just remembering BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism) which had taken me years to figure out. They laughed and we had a good time discussing all of the latest issues and agendas around such things. I didn't learn much but I did learn what they are calling it now days and, interestingly, what the academics are saying. I can't be certain but I think that they were a bit surprised and delighted to find that older people in a religious setting were open to and interested in such conversation. (Not to mention World of Warcraft, South Park, and Family Guy.)

Another advancement that I believe was very important was that every board member decided to completely endorse the use of Adobe Connect for meeting purposes. We had had two members who were dead set against any further advances in electronic usage, but Paul Chaffee, one of the previous hold-outs finally allowed me to show him the program and was so enthusiastic that along with my plea to curb our carbon foot print and set a cutting edge example to other organizations that even the most resistant member finally came to me and told me that he was moved by my sincerity and offered me his commitment to work to familiarize himself with the program and use it.

In fact I may have done too good a job on sales as they began to discuss the possibility of a future connect that was all electronic offering plenaries and workshops on line that were totally interactive. Exciting, I have to admit but.... Don't ever think that people over sixty can't get with the idea of a world in the clouds.

By the end of the Connect I was able to report back to all of those who had spoken with me about the web that we were moving ahead. We have a site for our Connects for the next two and possibly four years, and have commitments to better communications both internal and external. We have committed to having ten scholarships available for youth participation and two intern positions for young adults. We determined that every committee chair will have a co-chair to help with work and international communications, and we founded an ad-hoc financial group to help bring back lapsed members and seek new ones along with asking organizations for more financial support. All of the board members and in particular the Chair left feeling very optimistic about our growth and headway and despite the topic of the gathering I felt very good about the general outcome.

At the end of the meeting, at dinner, the Producer asked that anyone who had a brief comment on the time we had spent together or next year's connect should stand up and speak up. I stood and suggested politely that, as we had focused on our similarities this year perhaps we might focus on our differences in the love and safety of our gathering next year. I saw a very large number of people nodding in agreement. Who knows, perhaps we will finally get down to some really interesting conversations next year.

In Her service and yours,

R. Watcher, National Interfaith Representative

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