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Keeping the faith

Locals working hard to plan national interfaith conference

Thursday, July 31, 2003

ThisWeek Staff Writer

By David Rea/ThisWeek

The Interfaith Association of Central Ohio will be hosting the North American Interfaith Network's annual meeting Aug. 9-12. Members of the local organization are, from left, Dr. J.S. Jindal, Donna F. Hamilton and Les Stansbery.

Members of the Interfaith Association of Central Ohio have been jumping through hoops lately, making arrangements for the North American Interfaith Network's annual conference, to be held Aug. 9-12 at Ohio State University.

Call it a leap of faiths.

The locals will be kept hopping since their major annual event will take place in the middle of the national conference.

The Interfaith Association of Central Ohio, according to a brochure promoting the NAIN event, seeks to:

* "Create an inter-religious community based on understanding, friendship and trust;

* "Educate adherents and the public about customs and practices of faith traditions;

* "Provide interfaith public worship and ceremonies expressing local and global concerns; and

* "Promote social justice, peace and human dignity."

The North American Interfaith Network is a nonprofit association of more than 60 interfaith agencies and organizations throughout Canada, Mexico and the United States.

NAIN's Connect 2003 Conference will take place at various venues in and around the OSU campus under the theme "Journeys of Faith, Freedom and Justice." An estimated 400 people are expected to participate.

Conference leaders include author Rita M. Gross and Paul Knitter, professor of theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati.

Knitter, a Christian, will speak on the topic "Bringing Interfaith Work to Bear on World Conflicts" at 9 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 11.

Gross, a Buddhist scholar-practitioner, will be the featured speaker for the Interfaith Association of Central Ohio's main event luncheon, set for Sunday, Aug. 10, at the River Club-Confluence Park Restaurant, 679 W. Spring St. Her topic will be "Learning How to Live in a Religiously Plural World." Following the 1 p.m. buffet luncheon, there will be a panel discussion beginning at 3:30 on "The State of Interfaith Relations in North America."

The cost of the luncheon is $25 a person.

For additional information about reservations, call Donna F. Hamilton at 849-0290.

More information about the NAIN conference also can be obtained by contacting Hamilton, who represents the Buddhist faith on the Interfaith Association's governing council and is serving as the staff member for the national conference.

One of the most challenging aspects of planning the North American Interfaith Network's annual event has been finding ways to blend local residents with those coming from other parts of the country, according to the Rev. Les Stansbery, a past president of the Interfaith Association of Central Ohio and moderator for the local planning committee.

This is part and parcel of what the association seeks to do all the time, he said.

"People by nature go in flocks," explained J.S. Jindal, a retired dentist from Dublin who represents the Hindu faith on the council and is moderator of the education committee.

"I am from India," Jindal continued. "I would like to sit at the table with Indians."

But part of the mission of any interfaith effort is to promote exchanges between people of different religions, so the local group tries to spread representatives of different faiths around at events, a task complicated all the more by the addition of out-of-town NAIN representatives.

"So we'll have two or three different mixes," Jindal said.

Getting people to be involved in interfaith activities at all is not an easy matter, Stansbery acknowledged. The retired Presbyterian minister from the Bexley area admitted that people devout in one faith tend to devote the religious aspects of their lives fairly exclusively to their church or synagogue or mosque or temple or whatever.

Getting them to find the time for ecumenical activities can be a struggle, he said.

"Everybody is busy," Jindal said.

Those who do embrace interfaith efforts, however, see a wider understanding of spiritual matters as vitally important.

While it is probably true that nothing in human history has led to more conflict than religious differences, those involved in the interfaith movement hope that bridging these differences can lead to a wider understanding of one another.

"You realize we have a connection point that we all have in common," said Hamilton, who is also moderator of the interface committee for the Interfaith Association.

Learning about another's beliefs can help increase respect for that individual, she said.

"We are raised in one religion," Jindal said. "I'm talking in general. We learn about our faith at home, from our family. But to know other faiths is also important.

"It makes us stronger in our own faith."

The Interfaith Council, which governs the Interfaith Association, includes as many as three representatives from eight faith traditions. They include Al-Islam, Baha'i faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism and Sikh faith.

In addition, representatives of the local Native American community participate in Interfaith Association activities and efforts.

The Interfaith Association of Central Ohio began as the Cold War was ending. It started, according to Stansbery, with a suggestion from a staff member of the Ohio Council of Churches that a service be held to pray for success at the Reagan-Gorbachev Geneva peace summit.

Stansbery was approached to help put the prayer service together, and he suggested broadening its scope to include other faiths.

This was unexplored territory at the time, Stansbery recalled, and some expressed doubts that any common ground or even common language could be found to help pull in other faiths. In the end, representatives from Judaism, Hinduism and Islam also agreed to participate.

The service was held at a mental health center on North High Street in order to avoid any identification with a specific faith, Stansbery said.

More than 300 people attended, leading some to think a continuing effort should be explored. Stansbery scheduled several meetings in subsequent months and the Interfaith Association was incorporated in July 1986.

Five faiths were represented initially, with Sikhs and those of the Baha'i faith subsequently being added, Stansbery said. Jainism was included a year and a half ago and the Native American community is now represented.

"I just kind of stumbled into it and keep trying to do what I can to help," Stansbery said.


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