Monday, August 19, 2013

Report from Catherine Starr on North American Interfaith Network Connect in Toronto Canada

My experiences at NAIN

When I first got an email from Rachel asking if I could represent CoG at the yearly meeting of NAIN that was happening in Toronto I started to go through the list of things I would need to do. Rachel was a bit surprised that I did not know about the event, especially since it was happening at the University of Toronto where I am the Coordinator for the Campus Chaplains Association (CCA), but I let her know that Toronto manages events a little different. I immediately contacted Richard Chambers, the Director of the Multifaith Centre at the University of Toronto and he filled me in on the details, and asked if I would be willing to assist with the event in any capacity. My next step was to re-arrange my schedule. I did not have any vacation days left, so I needed to get “creative”. This included working with my manager and arranging to be at morning and evening sessions (after 4:30). I also had to move a coven event from Sunday to Saturday – but that seemed to work better for everyone involved.

I was then contacted by Suraj Pasad. He is the Hindu chaplain on the CCA and he was supporting the planning committee to organize various worship activities through the conference. He asked if I would do a Wiccan ritual – not a problem. So I was now registered, listed as a worship leader and Richard knew I would be available to assist, even if only in a limited capacity because of work.

Then I got the good news – Rachel was able to make the trip to Toronto! We setup plans for meeting up and we were ready to go.

As with most things, the best laid plans always change – and what I’ve learned living in Toronto, prepare for things to be a bit fluid and just go with it. Rachel got re-routed through Chicago but her luggage went to Newark! She got to her hotel about the same time I did – but we just missed each other in the lobby. We eventually connected and she started to introduce me to her friends from NAIN. I finally got to meet Bettina – someone I have heard about for many years in listening to Don’s talk about the Berkeley Interfaith Council. While we were gathering in the lobby to go to dinner, Paul and Jan Chaffee arrived. NOTE to anyone flying into Toronto: do not take a cab from the airport to downtown. It took Paul and Jan 3 hours to get from the airport to downtown during rush hour traffic on a Friday. There is an Express Bus that hooks up to the subway system and costs $3.00 CAN. Also, there is a hotel express bus and someday (they say) there will be a direct transit train connection from the airport to downtown. Yes, I know traffic is bad in the Bay Area but Toronto is now the 4th largest city in North America and has major traffic concerns. During the summer, everyone is leaving town to go to the cottage, so it adds to the fun!

We decided to eat dinner at the hotel – the Marriott Courtyard. It was a nice dinner and the waitress was very concerned about ensuring that one of us who needed a gluten-free meal was especially taken care of. After dinner, knowing that Rachel, sans luggage, was okay, I headed home. Saturday would be my day with my coven, as Rachael attended the Board meeting. She will have notes on that.

On Sunday, I picked up Rachael early and we headed out for some sightseeing that included Niagara Falls and a search for clothing, as Rachael was still without luggage. We met up with Bettina and walked up Yonge Street to the Brownstone CafĂ© for a nice, late lunch before heading to the opening plenary meeting (what they did not know is that I’d always wanted to check out this restaurant, so it was nice to try it!). The Plenary Session was opened with a prayer done by an Elder from the Missasauga First Nation – one of the First Nations that called this area of Ontario home. After many introductions, including Richard introducing me as the coordinator for the CCA, there was a presentation on the Canadian perspective of diversity from three local interfaith and diversity champions, including the Diversity Officer from the City of Toronto.

I also got a surprise. Sitting in front of me was a man who arranged a day-long interfaith service that I took part in 3 years prior. He was going to have a presentation about this event and told me that I was in the video he had about the event. How cool was that?

Dinner was held at the Hillel headquarters on campus. This gave us an opportunity to meet more people. I met a man who organized an interfaith council in the Kitchner-Waterloo area of Ontario (the home of Blackberry). He is also involved with ISARC – a group of interfaith and social activists who network and influence the Ontario and Canadian governments to enact better laws to reduce the effects of poverty in Canada. We had several friends in common, as one of the chaplains in the CCA is very active in this organization and I have gone to several meetings.

On Monday, I was up early and back on campus. The Sikh chaplain in the CCA, Guru Fatah Singh led the morning meditation. These meditations and worship services were scheduled for the “Quiet Room” at the Multifaith Centre. This is a special room designed specifically for silent meditation or prayer services. One wall is a “living wall”. My only complaint about this room is the shape – it is long and narrow – but I’ve done small group rituals in this space and I love that the living wall is on the north wall. During the school year, the space is actively used by students of many faiths.

After the prayer services, I checked in with Richard and Rachael, then headed to work for a bit. I wanted to get back for the NAIN Board meeting. Unfortunately, I got back a little late and the room was full, so I decided to attend the Hindu Punjab Fire Ritual. Two of the rooms in the Multifaith Centre are designed with special filtrations systems so that you can have fire in the room without setting off alarms. Suraj Pasad led this ritual. He does a Fire Ritual every Wednesday during the school year for the Hindu Student Association. The room was full and the ritual was very nice. Suraj included his grandchildren in the ritual, so it had a nice family-feeling. At the end, we were given a sweet treat.

The Toronto Interfaith Council had a very formal program planned for afterwards. Rachael and friends were heading to the Distillery District for dinner and I thought I should head home for a bit, hungry cats and all.

On Tuesday, I was scheduled to do a Wiccan ritual after the morning meditation. I got there in time for the morning meditation, which was done by a woman who practices Celtic Catholicism – basically taking the Catholic mass but using older Celtic prayers as part of the service. It was interesting for me, since I’m definitely on the Celtic Pagan side of things. As her presentation ended, an older man came in and just sat down in one of the chairs and closed his eyes. I wanted to set up for my ritual, but I did not want to disturb him, so I tried to be very careful and deliberate as I moved some of the chairs and setup a small altar. What I did not know, was he had one eye open, watching me as I move around the space (but more on that … latter). Shortly before I started the ritual, he left.

I started the ritual with a little overview of Wicca and what we would do – then I did a very simple ritual, blessing the elements, casting a circle, calling the quarters and the Goddess and God. Then I led the group in the Tree meditation. Then it was a matter of just closing everything up. They really enjoyed the meditation and I had a wonderful start to my day. Of course, I had to head back to my job, but I would be able to return for the dinner that night.

The dinner was held in the Great Hall at Hart House – one of the student community centres on campus. Hart House is a very old building and the Great Hall looks like it could be the hall of an old, medieval castle. I was a little early, so I took a seat at a table near the center of the room. The man who was meditating before my ritual saw me and asked if he could sit at the same table – of course! Then, things got really interesting. He introduced himself to me as Terry and he told me about how he watched me setup for the ritual. He then went to get some wine and asked if I wanted more water. I told him that I could get it and he said “no, please, let me.” When he brought it back to me, he handed it to me “as priest to priest.” We started to talk more and when he found out my name, we realized that we had met at the NAIN in Fullerton. I had only been there for an afternoon, but he had my business card! As dinner started, they called on Terry to give us the blessing – and yes, it was the Terry sitting across from me. He introduced himself as “Terry of Toronto” and talked about the First Nations people who lived near the Scarboro Mission where he works. He then talked about how the blessing he uses is similar to an older blessing – so he, a Roman Catholic priest and a Jewish woman blessed wine and bread, using their traditional blessings.

As it seems to happen for me – coincidences occurred. A chance meeting in Fullerton has come full-circle to this meeting in Toronto. And yes, Don, I found myself surrounded by the Roman Catholics again. I doubt it would be a true interfaith meeting for me without that! Dinner was great – fresh food from the Hart House Farm. Rachael’s video on the 25 years of NAIN was great and to hear from past chairpersons was nice.

And, I have a new friend in Terry Gallagher, aka Terry from Toronto. In a final note, I told this story of meeting Terry to a friend of mine – and she was amazed. Seems that he is a very old friend of her family and she has known him since she was 14.

Soon, the school year will start for us again. Also, I will need to re-join CoG as I let my coven’s membership lapse last year. When I am ready to fill out paperwork, I’ll ask for a couple of recommendations. Too bad Rachael had a meeting on Saturday; she could have attended our annual tradition of the Stone Soup ritual.

Thanks Rachael for letting me tag along on this! I’m sure you will hear more about my adventure in Toronto interfaith.

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