Founded in 1988, the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) “is a non-profit association of interfaith organizations and agencies in Canada, Mexico and the United States.” NAIN holds annual NAINConnect conferences for members and affiliates. These conferences, which are hosted in a different city each year, are a time during which members gather to discuss their involvement in the interfaith movement, engage in a series of events and discussions, and explore the religious diversity of the host city. NAINConnect 2010, held July 25-28, was hosted in Salt Lake City, Utah. Over one hundred registered guests attended conference events at locations including the Salt Lake City Buddhist Temple, St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral and Center, the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and the Jewish Community Center.
The theme of NAINConnect 2010, “Many faiths, one family, building a world of harmony,” sought to inspire productive conversation on the present and future states of the interfaith movement. The theme was drawn from Madeliene Albright’s book The Mighty and the Almighty, in which she posits the challenge “to harness the unifying potential of faith while containing its capacity to divide.” A plethora of panels explored various issues pertaining to the theme. The stories and experiences of individuals and their organizations were insightful and inspirational, as ideas were shared, and tales of success – but also of tribulations – told. In this way, the conference embodied the spirit of Albright’s quote and the conference theme.
Conference Program and Events
Day one of the Connect began with the live international broadcast of the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the Conference Center; this seemed to serve as an official and beautiful welcome to Salt Lake City. That afternoon featured the premier screening of “The Asian and Abrahamic Religions: A Divine Encounter in America,” a documentary that was shown by two of the three producers, Gerald and Adam Krell. The film, to be aired on public television, featured footage of religious traditions practiced in the American setting and interviews with experts on religious communities in the United States, including Dr. Diana L. Eck, Director of the Pluralism Project. A question-and-answer session following the screening gave audience members and Connect participants the opportunity to engage directly with the film and its producers, sparking conversations that lasted throughout the conference. The day concluded with evening events and dinner at the Salt Lake City Buddhist Temple, where the One Voice Children’s Choir, which was originally established for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, provided moving entertainment.
Monday and Tuesday mornings began with a time for devotions, with a few prayers said or hymns sung by members of various faiths. Talks and panels began each day shortly after that peaceful time of reflection together.
On Monday morning, keynote speaker Doug Johnston, founder and director of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, discussed faith-based diplomacy, employing Albright’s proposition. Johnston introduced several examples in which his organization has been involved in making “religion a part of the solution” in places wrought with conflict, such as Sudan, Kashmir, and parts of Pakistan. He explained that the Center’s approach to helping to establish solutions through religion in the midst of conflict involves collaboration with local leaders, though specific strategies are necessarily customized to the needs of each context. Johnston argued for this faith-based dimension to diplomacy because, in his experience, there is more progress when the heart, not head, is speaking. To demonstrate this, he said that internalized forgiveness is needed in order to end the cycle of revenge, and reconciliation, in his experience, comes through conversation and establishing respect for, versus tolerance of, members of the “other” faith. Johnston’s talk was remarkable and inspiring, and provided concrete examples for enacting his vision.
The majority of the conference was, appropriately, brought back to the North American context. “Digging Deep: Personal and religious motivations for interfaith work, and how they can help us hone outreach strategy” was the topic of the first panel discussion, which featured members of five religious traditions who have, in some way, been inspired by their faith in their work. One theme in this panel was the role and identity of the “other” in the interfaith context, and the expressed need to go beyond recognizing or tolerating those whose faiths are different from one’s own by establishing relationships, honoring the “other,” and working together towards collective goals.
Another panel, the “Golden Rule Projects,” included panelists who are involved in organizations that work to spread the message of the Golden Rule – the message of reciprocity that one should treat others as one would like to be treated – which is an ethic emphasized in the majority of the world’s religions. The panelists spoke of the incredible impact that their work is having on spreading the word of this common teaching between the faiths, including through the successful distribution of translated Golden Rule posters and books throughout the world. One organization, the Arizona InterFaith Movement (AIFM), has seen success in spreading the word about the Golden Rule since its license plates that say “Live the Golden Rule” were made an official themed license plate by the Arizona Motor Vehicle Department in 2007. The money raised through sales is used to educate new audiences on the Golden Rule through various forms of media, such as television advertisements.
Mini presentations on “Spreading the Vision – Increasing Involvement” brought light to specific ideas or projects that have worked. After brief introductions of each project, the conference separated into smaller groups for more intimate discussions of the topics, each led by the presenters. This setup allowed for those who were interested in very specific issues to network with those who have already found solutions that have proven successful, offering potential models, or at least inspiration, from which to work.
Monday’s events concluded with a catered Indian dinner and Young Adult Scholar panel, which highlighted the perspectives and experiences of the younger generation present at the conference. Specifically, the six scholars featured on this panel offered insights into the current state and future of the interfaith movement.
On Tuesday, the morning devotions were followed by the panel “Practical Application: Harnessing the Unifying Potential of Faith While Containing Its Capacity to Divide,” a direct look at one of the prominent themes of the Connect. Panelists approached this topic from a variety of backgrounds, including scholarly and civic perspectives, and then encouraged audience members to contribute, particularly with ideas on the “unifying potential” dimension of the concept.
A panel entitled “The New Hi-Tech Media: Implications for NAIN Organizations” highlighted in a new way the skills of the Connect participants. While one aspect of this panel was to educate older members of the group on the potential of current technology, it also looked to the future and ways in which organizations can make the most of online technology to further the impact of their group.
Tuesday afternoon was packed with two “breakout sessions,” in which smaller groups were formed to convene in a more intimate setting to engage in specific topics. The subjects included the following: “Five Women, Five Journeys: How Different Are We?”; “Refugee Resettlement Programs”; “Awaken the Dreamer – Be the Change”; “Our Challenges; How to Build a Global Family”; “Can Faith-based Work Really Make a Difference? Getting Beyond the Quick Fix”; “Respectful Contestation of Irreconcilable Differences”; “Changing the Narrative: Using Stories from Our Traditions and Music to Build a More Compassionate, Engaged, Pluralistic Society”; “Teaching Children and Youth Respect for Others.” The day concluded with a live band that had the majority of conference attendees dancing to Arabic, Jewish, Turkish, Persian and Greek music.
Young Adult Scholars
Twelve NAIN Young Adult Scholarship recipients were selected to receive funding from the NAIN Board that enabled them to attend and contribute to the 2010 Connect. While in the past there have normally been six NAIN Scholars, this year saw a three-fold increase in applicants, and the Board generously made it possible to increase the number of Scholarship recipients. By engaging young adults (18-35 year-olds), it is the hope of the NAIN board that they will offer a fresher perspective on some of the ideas concerning the interfaith movement, and, perhaps more importantly, will become actively involved in NAIN in the future. As board members continually emphasized, “NAIN is whatever you want it to be;” it is hoped that younger members will continue to contribute to that future.
Salt Lake City & NAIN
The entire city seemed to embody the theme, “Many faiths, one family, building a world of harmony.” Participants experienced the dynamic and diverse religious scene of Salt Lake City in several ways. The home-stay program, in which several families in the area kindly opened up their homes to those who chose to participate, allowed guests to establish meaningful connections and relationships with local members of the community. A talk, “Connecting: The power of genetics and genealogy in bringing people together,” by a genealogist from the Family History Library, addressed a landmark of Salt Lake City and the concept of genealogy that is so fundamental to Mormon belief and identity. Opportunities for musical entertainment – the broadcast of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, for which seats were reserved for NAINConnect attendees and the One Voice Children’s Choir – showcased the region’s phenomenal musical talents while demonstrating the transformative power of music. Finally, the conference rotated locations between religious points of interest, including a variety of the houses of worship in Salt Lake City that served as hosts for the NAINConnect.
NAINConnect 2010 was officially hosted by the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable, a group that was established for the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. The incredibly detailed planning on the part of members the Interfaith Roundtable was evident in the smooth running of events and the enthusiastic engagement of the city’s many vibrant religious communities.