NAINConnect 2011 – Reflections from Young Adult Scholars

NAINConnect 2011 Young AdultsVanessa Gomez Brake, reprinted from the Bay Area Interfaith Connect

Last weekend, I returned to my home town of Phoenix, Arizona to attend the 2011 Connect of the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN). Since 1988, such gatherings have taken place across the U.S. and Canada to ‘build bridges of interfaith understanding, cooperation and service.’ Each year, a different interfaith organization hosts the three-day event. This year, the Arizona InterFaith Movement (AIFM) invited participants from across the continent to explore the theme: ‘Many People, Many Faiths, One Common Principle – The Golden Rule.’

From July 24th – 26th I journeyed with people of various faith backgrounds, as well as those of no particular faith tradition to explore the Golden Rule and take part in religious site visits. Together, we ventured to the Sikh – Guru Nanak Dwara Ashram and Hindu & Jain Temples in Phoenix, as well as the Latter Day Saint – Institute of Religion at Arizona State University in Tempe. All of these communities generously hosted us for a meal, discussion and/or service.

When I applied for the NAIN Young Adult Scholar program, I spoke of the Connect as a ‘homecoming.’ It has been many years since I have lived in the Valley of the Sun. Although I visit regularly, this was my first opportunity to engage with local interfaith-ers since I moved away in 2005. In September of 2001, I was a sophomore at Mesa Community College, majoring in religious studies. On September 15th of that year, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American, was murdered outside his gas station in Mesa, AZ. It was the first documented hate crime related fatality in the post-9/11 backlash. Sodhi was a member of the Sikh ashram in Phoenix.

In 2002, I visited my first synagogue; in 2003, my first mosque. In 2004, I would take part in my first interfaith dialogue at Arizona State University. Jump forward to July – 2011, and I am back on the university campus — speaking at an interfaith conference, on a young adult panel, at the L.D.S. Institute of Religion.The school where I received my first dose of interfaith engagement, would also be the venue for my first panel discussion on the strengths/weaknesses and relevance of the Golden Rule to interfaith work.

There are many experiences from this past week that I could reflect on. When it comes to workshops, I would point to Kent University’s Jeffrey Wattles as a resource on the topic of the ‘Golden Rule & the Ethics of Reciprocity.’  I would also recommend Jason Smith, and his thorough review of challenges facing the interfaith movement today. But what stood out for me most during the Connect was the betwixt and between. The connections made in the hallway, over meals or on the bus in transit to a site visit. The opportunity to network with other interfaith activists is invaluable. NAIN intentionally chose a networking organizational structure, to offer these opportunities for building relationships with those doing similar work and facing similar challenges.

On my last night with my interfaith peers, I had somewhat of a revelation. For so long I have felt a tension between my worldview and the work I am engaged in. In fact, as an outspoken interfaith enthusiast and secular humanist, I commonly throw people into a bout of cognitive dissonance. I have grown used to this creative tension, which I think, evokes a healthy discomfort in myself and others. Why interfaith?  — is a question both the religious and non-religious are quick to ask me. People may assume ‘atheists hate religion’ or that ‘interfaith work is only for believers.’ But the presence of atheists, agnostics, and humanists is not rare in the field. With the Pew Research Center reporting atheists as the highest-scoring group on their survey of religious knowledge; and the fact that I met several atheists in my religious studies college courses; I should have known I was not the only one on the interfaith track.

However, my revelation had to do with the fact I had more in common with my fellow young adult scholars than anticipated. Over dinner one night, the following question was asked of a small group of young adults: ‘How many of you identify with one faith tradition?’ No one raised their hand. It became clear that, while we may have a primary faith tradition or world view, many of us are inspired by different world religions. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reports:

“Millennials are significantly more likely than young adults in earlier generations to say they don’t identify with any religious group. Among Millennials, 26% cite no religious identity, compared with 20% for most members of Generation X (born 1965-1980) at the same ages, and 13% for most Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) at those ages.”

Yes, the Millennials continue the trend of being less religious than previous generations; however, they remain fairly traditional in their beliefs and practices. Make of these survey results what you will, but I am happy to report that nonetheless, Millennials and other young adults are deeply engaged in the interfaith movement. We are ready to build upon the foundation NAIN members and other interfaith leaders have laid before us.

In her welcome letter to Connect participants, Bettina Gray, Chair of the NAIN Board of Directors, spoke of the entity as a supportive structure for the ‘newly emerging vision of interfaith community.’ If I had to venture a guess as to what that community will look like in coming years, I would say it will continue to uphold the Golden Rule as a guiding principle. However, in addition to focusing on shared interests and similarities across faith traditions, the next phase of interfaith relations will emphasize civil discourse around differences and the challenges that accompany them. The interfaith field will also dig deeper into political issues of shared interest (LGBTQI, Immigration, etc.), and continue the trend of community service activities.  As I bid Phoenix farewell, I felt grateful for the opportunity to spend time with my peers in such a creative space, and to dream with them the next steps for the interfaith movement.

Angela Butel

Being relatively new to the interfaith movement, I applied for the NAIN Young Adult Scholarship hoping that attending the Connect might help me be better informed and more energetic in my interfaith work during the coming school year. I could never, however, have imagined the level of inspiration I would gain during those few brief days in Arizona. My time at the Connect exponentially increased my acquaintance with the different kinds of interfaith organizations that are doing important work all over the country and the world. Even more importantly, it gave me the chance to connect with the people who are making that work happen. I feel honored to have had the opportunity to meet both experienced and much-recognized interfaith leaders as well as other Young Adult Scholars who are just beginning to make their mark on the interfaith world. Most of my previous interfaith work had been mainly with young adults, and my time at the Connect helped me to see the importance of including a range of ages and experience levels in the conversation, because of the possibilities it raises for building on a foundation that already exists. One of the most important discoveries I made at the Connect was that no one interested in doing interfaith work needs to start from scratch; there is a wealth of information and resources available if you know where to find it.

Another important discovery was more of a personal one. In addition to hoping to gain more knowledge at the Connect, I was also looking for some time to reflect on my own commitment to interfaith work. I didn’t want to let the whole summer pass without doing some intentional thinking about my involvement in this work and what role that might have to play in my future decisions, and I hoped that the NAIN Connect would allow me the space to do that thinking. It certainly did that, and I came to the realization that the moments when I have felt most moved, most excited, and most hopeful about our world’s future have been in the context of interfaith dialogue and cooperation. As one of our presenters wisely stated during the closing session of the conference, we must “be about the business that our hearts have set before us.” Although I still have many decisions to make about where my future will lead, I have had the chance this summer, thanks to the NAIN Connect, to think about the business that my heart is setting before me.

Josh Cook

The Connect was a very different kind of interfaith experience for me. I appreciated the emphasis on networking with groups and individuals from across the continent (and even from other continents in some cases). While I deeply empathized with the theme of “living the Golden Rule,” I also liked the constructive criticism offered by many folks regarding this banner’s tendency to universalize a single moral teaching of many religious/philosophical traditions and downplay important distinctions between the various faiths’ teachings. The continual call for more inclusion of secularists and conservatives was wonderful; although I think there needs to be more work done at asking: How do we create a space that is both inclusive and spiritually safe? Further, I asked several folks while I was there why there were so few scientists, so few people who approach religiosity in entirely novel ways outside of traditional religious structures. I can understand the goal of seeking unity-in-diversity and the draw of such lovely maxims as the Golden Rule. But perhaps NAIN should seek to complexify its mission a bit. When I first heard of it, NAIN sounded like a place for diverse peoples of many worldviews to come together around a series of questions: How do we relate to one another, we who see pluralism as a foundational aspect of our being in the world? How do we make peace with each other, foregrounding humanity over particular religious systems? How can we work together on common interests without disrespecting those for whom distinctiveness is essential? What ethical framework can guide our meetings? When is it appropriate or not to do a joint religious “service” or liturgy? What can we learn from each other? I saw much of this kind of work going on and I hope it continues to blossom in NAIN’s work in the future. Sharing fellowship with the other young adult scholars was a wondrous experience, as was meeting the interfaith veterans and “superstars” populating the Connect. I made many new friends, connections, and opened new avenues for learning and exploration. For this, I am deeply grateful for my experience and hope to return again in the future. Blessings to all advocates for peace among all humanity, including our religions.

Katherine Allen King

As the plane descended into Phoenix Saturday evening, I looked out my small window at the brilliant grid of lights illuminating the dessert.  It was a clear evening.  I felt excitement about what awaited me at my first NAIN annual conference.  Right away I felt that I had wandered into a new world – this dry heat – although approximately the same horrible temperature – felt light compared to the heavy, humid air of South Carolina.  The differences in organization and leadership at NAIN were immediately apparent as well.  I was struck by how eager the leaders were to get to know the young adults and to find ways to immediately integrate their talents into the work of the larger interfaith community.  I felt for the first time that I was watching a method of leadership by consensus that worked well.  It respected all voices at the table while marginalizing none, and it continued to move the group forward in action instead of becoming mired in committee details.

When I had considered the topic of the Golden Rule, initially I felt that there wouldn’t be much to say – or hear – on the topic.  It felt simple, clear-cut, and obvious.  Naturally, I had discussed and dissected the rule from a more philosophical perspective while studying Kant and Nietzsche in school, but it always struck me that the main issues that philosophers took with the rule came from the fact they were always trying to apply it as a logical principle instead of how it is intended as a virtue or ethic.  Evaluating it in this philosophical, rights-based context limits us to viewing it within a deontological approach. This constricts our lens to only consider rules of behavior from which duties and rights in society can be logically derived.  After studying these critical evaluations of the golden rule within philosophy, I realized that the reason it works well within an interfaith context is because various religions ask us to look at it through the lens of an agent-based ethic of reciprocity.  Therefore, the value of the “rule” is as a virtue to be embodied instead of an inflexible law to be enforced.

There were varying opinions and feelings about the usefulness of the Golden Rule at the conference, but when I reflect now on the week, I believe the best warnings about the limitations can be found in the writings of Kwame Anthony Appiah.  In assessing the validity of the rule, he provided the example of a Jehovah’s Witness who will die should she not receive a blood transfusion.  If I were to apply the Golden Rule to this, I would want to be saved with a blood transfusion, and therefore I would give to her what I would want in that situation.  This is a tricky issue, though, in that a Jehovah’s Witness would interpret Leviticus 3:17 (“This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live: You must not eat any fat or any blood”) as a prohibition against blood transfusions.  A simple solution would be to use “The Platinum Rule” instead and do unto someone as they would want to have done to them – which requires a certain level of education.  We must understand what the Jehovah’s Witness would want in order to know what they would want done.  As Appiah correctly concludes, “the idea behind the Golden Rule is that we should take other people’s interests seriously, take them into account. It suggests that we learn about other people’s situations, and then use our imaginations to walk a while in their moccasins. These are aims we cosmopolitans endorse. It’s just that we can’t claim that the way is easy.”

As I think about what will stay with me from this experience, I realize that this amazing leadership by consensus, the love and the interest that people showed in each other, and the emphasis on really getting to know each other is the application of the Golden Rule in practice.  This is what it really looks like to love your neighbour as yourself; NAIN is what it looks like when we do unto others as they would like.  As my plane landed back home in the hot and heavy air of the Deep South, I am inspired by how I can apply this model here.

Anne Marie Roderick

The 2011 NAIN Connect caught me at a moment of transition in my own life.  I just graduated from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and I am preparing to begin a yearlong editorial internship at Sojourners, a monthly Christian magazine in Washington, DC.   As I prepare to make this move from the Midwest to the Southeast, I am realizing that there is a much more challenging journey ahead.  This journey is not just about leaving school and joining the work force; it is about transitioning from learner to doer, from receiver to applier.  I have been passionate about interfaith work for a long time, but as I move into the “real world” I get to think big about how to put that passion into practice.  How do we do effective, meaningful interfaith work?  How do we communicate across cultural and doctrinal lines?  How do we nurture a society in which learning about and cooperating with people of different religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions is commonplace?

The NAIN Connect in Phoenix last week presented some compelling answers to these questions.   First of all, there is no one effective model for interfaith work.  In plenary sessions and workshops we heard passionate advocates for the effectiveness of the Golden Rule, the conference theme, as a universal precept for interfaith cooperation; we heard others point out the many limitations of assuming that all traditions give equal, if any, value to this ideal.  In some cases, the Golden Rule might serve to bridge our differences, and in other cases it may further divide us by oversimplifying our distinct beliefs and practices.  Even without a standard for engaging in interfaith work, however, the Arizona Interfaith Movement (AIFM), which hosted the conference, demonstrated what some might argue is a universal ingredient for effectively bringing together difference—sincere hospitality.

As I reflect upon and process what I learned at the NAIN Connect, and as I continue to imagine what shape interfaith will take in my life, I know that the Connect leaves me feeling hopeful about the future of this work.  Interfaith work isn’t only about reconciling tension between the world’s largest religions; it is a radical willingness to engage with the full spectrum of human diversity.   The application of interfaith work stretches far beyond religion and spirituality to include issues of race and gender, generational difference, nationhood and ethnicity, economics, politics, war, and peace.  At the NAIN Connect I met people from spiritual traditions I had never heard of before; I learned of creative interfaith initiatives in both the public and private spheres to address pressing social and political needs; I built inspiring friendships with people like me and people different from me—this is the essence of interfaith. Back to Contents

Sana Saeed – NAIN: An Interfaith “Rock Festival”

I was told during the young adult introductions earlier on Sunday morning, that while at the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN), I’ll be amongst “interfaith rock stars”. Well that was as close to a description as you could get about what NAIN is and what it meant to me, it was a three day interfaith “rock festival” that broke down paradigms of assumptions and introduced a plethora of interfaith initiatives, not just based around the Golden Rule- the theme of the conference, but based on expanding knowledge of grassroots interfaith initiatives taking place globally.

When I jumped on the Tempe School Bus to head to the local Sikh Gudwara to observe their service, I was excited to compare my earlier experience at one of the largest Sikh Gudwara’s on the East Coast, in Queens, New York City. This year I took ten youth from the Interfaith Youth Action Group (IYAG) to the Sikh Gudwara in NYC as part of a spring break service trip. The service in the Sikh Gudwara in Phoenix, was a spiritually deeper experience, I loved singing the songs and speaking with local community members. I want to thank Arizona InterFaith Movement for standing in solidarity with the Sikh community against misguided discrimination and violence after 9/11. The field trip to the Hindu temple the next day left me with nostalgic memories from England. The last time I had been to a Hindu Temple, before the one in Phoenix, was 14 years ago!

The last field trip, at the LDS institute on the Arizona University Campus, was the most memorable as I spoke on a panel with 10 other young adults. We responded to questions that were prepared for us, but I think we as young adults highlighted more important issues that we are thinking about and those issues which are affecting us. We touched on gay rights, immigration laws, interfaith events, the Golden Rule, race issues and spirituality. This is important to note, because too often older generations assume that youth and young adults aren’t thinking about these issues, hence, we aren’t opinionated about social issues impacting us. Well there’s the key word, youth and young adults are impacted by these issues, so if we are asked about these issues we will respond.

Furthermore, I realized during NAIN the importance of the Golden Rule, but I don’t entirely agree with how it is being taught to youth based on some of the curriculums and lessons I learned about during the conference. In particular I’m thinking about communities of youth I work with, some of them have had experiences with racism, some are victims of bullying because of their sexual preference and some that are going through teen pregnancy. These are life-changing events for youth that impact their future, hence, these particular youth rapidly develop a different level of maturity and aren’t a sheltered youth. If the Golden Rule is to be taught to youth through curriculums or lectures, I believe that there shouldn’t be generalizations that all youth are at one level of maturity or come from backgrounds of privilege and are sheltered, but rather it should be taught in a way that allow youth to have ownership and responsibility of the lesson and have a more adult-like mature slant to curriculums with youth input.

I left the conference with an eagerness to get more involved with NAIN and diverse interfaith groups, with hopes that I could have an impact and expand NAIN’s work to more youth communities. I’m hoping to shed light on how multi-generational interfaith work is important especially to spread the message about the Golden Rule. I would like to get involved in the endeavor to create an online interfaith magazine that highlights interfaith events and work globally. All in all, I’m glad that I got to rock out with some interfaith rock stars who challenged me to think more about my interfaith work and the Golden Rule.

Peter Womack [NAINConnect 2010 Scholar]

Love and Peace, Friends.

Shalom.  Namaste.  Sama.  Pax.  Salaam.

It is good to see the many of you with whom I interact during the NAIN Connect a week ago.   I also thank you, and all our friends with the Arizona InterFaith Movement, for allowing me to participate in the Connect events, and for all the work that each of you provides in organizing and convening the Connect.

Whilst  this is only my second Connect, I am gaining a better idea of some of the intricacies involved within NAIN and specifically the InterFaith Movement within the Northwest quadrant of Earth.  Based upon this modest experience (and whilst, admittedly, having yet to renew my individual NAIN membership  dues), and based upon the aggregate of my experience with the InterFaith Movement as well, there are some thoughts that I am interested in sharing with you specifically regarding the NAIN Connects.

NAIN Young Adults

I very much appreciate NAIN’s considerable investment and expansion with respect to including young adults, particularly over the past 2 years, and the commitment for proceeding years.  I think this provides a substantial benefit to NAIN and to the participating young adults.  And I personally appreciate being included within this initiative a year ago, and being included within the young adults dialogue this year, as well.

One idea for the young adult scholars, participating in proceeding Connects, is to include an “open mic” night (spoken word, music, songs, additionally), perhaps on the second evening of the Connect.  I think that the afternoon orientation and the subsequent evening discussion during the first night of the Connect are beneficial.  And I think that a rather informal event on the second night can be increasingly effective in the young adults building rapport, appreciation, and friendships with each other.  I remember this type of event being included during an IFYC conference a few years ago and being rather popular amongst the participants.  This also seems to coincide with the significance of sharing each other’s personal stories, something that Ralph and Bettina and others emphasize during the Connect a year ago.  I know that the days of the Connect are jam-packed from morning until evening, and motivated young adults already find a way to socialize, however, having such a pre-planned event seems to better facilitate that process of relationship building.  Just an idea.

Expanding Diversity of Network

In attending the NAIN Connects for the past two years, I appreciate the considerable diversity with respect to the event venues:  Buddhist Church, Jewish Community Centre, Hindu/Jain Temple, Sikh Gurudwara, LDS Headquarters, and Christian Churches (I also recognize substantial generosity that many of our Christian friends provide in foregoing Sunday Worship services to participate within the Connect events on Sunday afternoon).  And I recognize a certain amount of diversity amongst the participants.  However, aggregately, there still seems to be a considerable amount of homogeneity within the Connects.  This is meant in an ethnic manner and a religious manner;  however, this is even further intended in an ideological manner.

One of the suggestions that is specifically made during this year’s Connect is the consideration of including additional participants who are religiously and/or politically conservative.  It seems that by doing so, we further remove ourselves from the potential criticisms of these conferences being self-congratulatory, “kumbaya” fests.

Topic of the Golden Rule

I also very much appreciate this year’s emphasis on the Golden Rule, and Mussie’s address on this topic.  My experience in doing interfaith work is that the Golden Rule is an effective gateway to introduce people to the concept of interreligious dialogue and cooperation.  I think that it is also helpful to progress from the general, intellectualization of the Golden Rule, and begin to delve into some of the challenges of the Golden Rule.  Some of the presenters seem to provide some discussion starters in this respect, however, the subsequent conservations seem to continue being rather abstract and ambiguous.  I remember when one participant poses a rather challenging hypothetical, the presenter somewhat shies away from addressing how that challenge may be reconciled.

Much of the “meat” within the Golden Rule exists within the “third party” consideration of the Golden Rule (what to do when person 1 is doing unto person A something other than what person A would do unto person 1) and the principled differences between respective religious communities.  Such very basic examples include graven images, vegetarianism, charity, asceticism, and additionally.  The consideration is providing a venue for people who are so inclined to further pursue this “advanced” interreligious dialogue.

Including Opportunities for Pragmatic Action Involvement

In a similar respect, there is the consideration of providing increased opportunities for Connect participants to directly dialogue and organize with each other around specific, pragmatic issues.  One of the frustrations that I experience within this year’s past Connect is the limited amount of opportunity to speak and directly contribute to the discussion.  The events are primarily structured in a presentation format and then participants tend to compete for the final 5 minutes, or so, for Q&A.  This may be beneficial for people who are new to NAIN and/or interfaith work, however, there is also the consideration of providing pre-planned events where participants can directly dialogue with each other and build accordingly.  There is also the consideration of concentrating these pre-planned events specifically upon very pragmatic, action-oriented issues.

I am aware that NAIN generally abstains from taking a stand on political issues; however, is NAIN amenable to facilitating fora (forums) whereby such political/social/economic cooperation and actions are discussed amongst participants?  In this respect there is the consideration of NAIN members and Connect participants forming ad hoc work groups that focus on specific issues (such as socioeconomic cooperation, immigration, civil/human rights, education, environment, and additionally).  I am aware that NAIN already has committees and chairs that are designated for some of these topics, however, there seems to be an opportunity for increased horizontal cooperation where people “on the ground” and even new-comers to NAIN can readily contribute and take initiative in cultivating such projects.  One of the considerations is that these fora can simply be an in-person conduit of continuing dialogue and cooperation that continues throughout the year.  Perhaps such dialogue can be facilitated immediately through the auspices of a NAIN page on PeaceNext or through the emerging initiative of the InterFaith Observer, and/or additionally.

Within his presentation, Bud Heckman briefly mentions the practice of “scriptural reasoning.”  This seems like another beneficial practice to include within the NAIN Connects for those who are so inclined.  Perhaps this can be within the format of a roundtable discussion that can be viewed by participants, with the potential for questions and commentary.

Carbon Neutral, Money-Free NAIN Connect in 2014

One idea that is communicated is organizing a carbon-neutral, money-free Connect, perhaps in 2014, whereby participation within the Connect is maintained with the most proficient of environmental protocols and exactly through economic cooperation that abstains from directly utilizing any money.  Too much?

Ahimsic Civil Disobedience

Just in case you are unsatisfied by the verbosity and eccentricity that I already communicate, I am also interested in sharing with you an additional consideration that is being developed within an interreligious context.  The consideration is enhancing social cohesion within humanity by emphasizing the principle of “personal wellbeing over personal ownership,” and involves the propensity for ahimsic civil disobedience within the ideals of the Golden Rule and Universal compassion (building from Gandhi and King).  I can explain further if this interests you.

Questions

In the meantime, I pose these questions to you, and additional family and friends:  what does your boss think about interFaith?  What do your professors, customers, and shareholders think about interFaith?  What do your parents, spouses, children, religious leaders, neighbors, friends, and family, and additional people think about interFaith?

I appreciate your patience and consideration.

Love and Peace, Peter

1 Comment
  1. Terrific set of responses. Something is going very well. NAIN’s ‘young adults’ are quickly morphing into wise members and wonderful new contributors. Thanks for gathering these remarks together.