LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. -- When you meet someone who is different, can you talk? How? And why should you try?
Ten years after the first Lake Junaluska Peace Conference was created under the theme, “Finding the Church’s Voice in a Violent World,” organizers of the 2018 event took another good look at the troubles around them before naming this year’s theme, “Meeting the Other: Can We Talk?”
Speaking on the first night to about 200 gathered March 1-4, 2018, at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer proposed an answer to the central question:
“Can we talk across differences in these very polarized times?” said Kreimer, associate professor of religious studies at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “The answer from Judaism is yes, but you must prepare."
“I think of entering difficult conversations something like going on a mountain trek,” she said. “We shouldn’t get into those challenging spaces without preparing ourselves, by cultivating the traits we need to do them well.”
Through speakers, leaders and musicians representing the “Abrahamic faiths” of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the Interfaith Peace Conference set out to tackle the problem of a society and nation divided into numerous identity groups -- cultural, political, economic, racial, sexual identity, and more.
“We are gravitating toward conversation only with those with whom we agree on issues,” according to the organizers’ program notes. The mission of the four-day gathering, they said, was to “demonstrate the art of building bridges of godly love and participation in holy conversation.”
Kreimer said that planned conversations among people who disagree often begin with ground rules, but she suggested four “grounding virtues”: watchfulness; humility; lovingkindness; and equanimity.
On watchfulness, she said, stay mindful of what is happening around us and inside us. “Most of us notice what we are feeling -- for example, fear – too late." Regarding equanimity, “remain calm in the midst of the storm. It’s not about losing it, it’s about recovering quickly.”
The way to cultivate these practices is through disciplines such as prayer or living in community, she said – “the disciplines that we do exactly when we least want to do them,” and also, “the disciplines that really help us show up for others.”
“I have learned over the years that this is probably where we as religious leaders have the most to teach our culture,” she said.
Kreimer referred to Abraham Joshua Heschel, an American rabbi who said his “feet were praying” while marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, and who also said, regarding interfaith work, “We must meet each other at the place where each of us is most frightened and most embarrassed.”
A key to peace is realizing that no one knows everything, regardless of faith tradition, about what it takes to live in this world, said Kreimer, founding director of the Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives at her college. “I want to come from that place of vulnerability,” she said.
Kreimer noted that a popular TED Talk by Brene' Brown on the “Power of Vulnerability” also teaches that people are best at connecting and leading while embracing their own vulnerabilities.
LOVE: NOT SELF-SEEKING
Other keynote speakers included Juliane Hammer, associate professor and Kenan Rifai Scholar of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Rev. Anthony Spearman, pastor at St. Phillip African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Greensboro, N.C.
Hammer explained why people are motivated to work for peace – to find ways to talk, listen, and share humanity with each other – by explaining insights into her own studies of Muslims Americans working against domestic violence. Her subjects were inspired to act because they had either witnessed or experienced domestic violence, she noted.
"The idea is the suffering is not from God. It’s not a test to be quietly accepted,” Hammer said. “It is something to resist, and it creates a responsibility to change society to ease some of that suffering.”
Spearman opened his session by noting that one of the musicians on the program, David LaMotte, was his cellmate in 2011. The two were arrested with five others for civil disobedience after the North Carolina General Assembly made drastic spending cuts to education and social services.
Spearman’s keynote focused on fear as an obstacle to striving for and manifesting the peace of Christ. “Fear has done and is doing a number on us … Where there is fear, there can be no peace, and where there is no peace, meeting the other becomes virtually impossible.”
Citing the church’s glaring failure to stand against segregation and racism, Spearman said that coming to Jesus means treating someone like a “brother” instead of an “other” … “always remembering that love, God’s love in us, does not insist on its own rights and its own way, because love is not self-seeking.”
“In these polarizing times, we must swallow our own fears of being ostracized and step directly into the waters of hate and fear,” said Spearman, president of the North Carolina Council of Churches and president of the North Carolina NAACP.
EVANGELISTS OF PEACE
In what was a first in 10 years of Peace Conferences, participants traveled off the Lake Junaluska campus for a panel session at the University of North Carolina in Asheville on March 2. The Rev. George Thompson, chair of the Interfaith Peace Conference Planning Committee, said he hoped participants could be “evangelists of peace” while interacting in the “culture of Asheville and culture of young people.”
Participants were also invited to join two worship services in Asheville, located about 30 miles east of Lake Junaluska. The Jumu’ah prayer service at Asheville Islamic Center was offered at midday. After the panel session, some participants joined worship with the congregation at Beth Ha Tephila synagogue.
Seven workshops were offered on Saturday:
“For the Healing of the Nation: A Biblical Vision,” led by the Rev. Russell Pregeant, professor of religion and philosophy at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts
“Understanding the Muslim Rage,” led by Sajjad Hussain Changezi, activist associated with Alif Ailaan, a campaign for education reforms in Pakistan
“Moments of Truth: Building Relationships, Building Community,” led by Charley and Pam Rogers, environment and social justice activists based in Henderson County, North Carolina
“Interfaith Creative Dialogue,” led by Billy Jonas, David LaMotte, and Dawud Wharnsby, musicians from the three Abrahamic faiths who form the band, Abraham Jam
“Inclusive Conversations: Getting Brave and Talking about Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity,” led by Helen Ryde, southeastern regional organizer for Reconciling Ministries
“When Hate Groups Come to Town,” led by Seth Levi, director of marketing at the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Alabama
“How to Talk Across the Political Divide,” led by Kate Weinman Fisher and Julie Gordon of Better Angels, a bipartisan citizen’s movement to unify the nation
ONE AND THE SAME
Abraham Jam shared music throughout the four-day gathering, including a Saturday evening concert. Jonas, LaMotte, and Wharnsby played songs created together, with each one leading and teaching music influenced by their respective faith traditions.
Deviating for a moment from their original music, the band brought the concert audience in Harrell Center to its feet with, “Let’s Get Together,” the mid-1960s anthem for peace and brotherhood recorded by The Youngbloods.
Closing worship was led by Rabbi Philip Bentley, senior scholar at Agudas Israel Congregation in Hendersonville, North Carolina. “What God wants of us is to remember we are all one and the same, and it is up to us to work for that universal understanding of love and unity,” he said. “That is a vision that every tradition has, in one way or another.”
Bentley referred to the Old Testament, the Quran, the Talmud and Torah as he spoke of the oneness of people all made in the image of God. “It is essential that we go through our days encountering other people and recognizing them as just like us, even though everyone is unique,” he said.
After the benediction, LaMotte confessed his tears at seeing participants dance when he sang, “And though we may not all agree. Let us sing in harmony. Different notes make up a chord. Drink deeply when the wine is poured.”
LaMotte offered his caution at the inclination to frame the unity and brotherhood experienced at Peace Conference as unrealistic. “I want you to strike the phrase ‘Going back to the real world’ from your vocabulary, because it does not get more real than this. This is real,” LaMotte said. “Take this reality out to the rest of reality.”
Peace during polarization: 6 tips for bridge-builders (The Call, 4.30.18)
The next Interfaith Peace Conference, under the theme "Peace and Arts," is scheduled Nov. 21-29, 2019.
Contact Annette Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos below -- (1) Panelists from left to right: Julie Gordon, Juliane Hammer, Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer. (2) Abraham Jam. (3) Discussion group. (4) Women praying at Asheville Islamic Center. (5) Sajjad Hussain Changezi leads "Understanding Muslim Rage" workshop. (6) Rev. Anthony Spearman. (7) UNC-Asheville panel discussion. (8) Rabbi Philip Bentley.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.
LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. -- Can we talk? Connecting with people we don’t know, agree with, or understand is not easy. Yet, Christians are called to love their neighbors and live in community. The 11th annual Interfaith Peace Conference, held March ...