Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Using standard communication channels in nonstandard ways: New frontiers in interfaith community-building and networking

The August 2012 meeting of the Michigan Professional Communicators with interest in religion and cross-cultural issues (MPC) was held at Christ Church Cranbrook, an amazing Episcopalian church built in the 1920s in Bloomfield Hills. The church is on the grounds of the huge Cranbrook Educational Community, a 315-acre major cultural and historical landmark in southeastern Michigan. Established by Detroit News founder George Booth, it was pointed out that Cranbrook was a very apropos choice of venue for a gathering of communicators interested in sharing news and connecting newsworthy events and initiatives with the media.

Of particular note during our guided tour before the meeting’s main discussion was the main church itself, and two smaller chapels on the lower level. The intricacy of the artwork and carvings in the place is amazing, and I felt like I was standing in a historical monument of medieval Europe. Many people don’t realize there are places like this in Michigan, places that look like they’ve been here for a thousand years, when they actually date back only about a hundred or two.

From the perspective of my interest in women’s empowerment, Cranbrook is particularly noteworthy to me for its “women’s window,” a stained glass window at the rear of the main church which features depictions of about 70 women, many rendered from actual photographs, who were considered noteworthy as of the 1920s, such as Florence Nightingale and Jane Austen.

Representatives from various interfaith and intercultural initiatives attended this meeting, and a major theme of all these initiatives is connection—connecting people with each other and with organizations and projects they’d like to support. Our dialogue, as always, also served to educate people about the important positive news that’s routinely left out of the mainstream media.

New ways to visualize interfaith and intercultural relations

An intriguing topic at this meeting was the resurgence of interest in comics, and their growing use in exploring important cultural and religious issues. I never considered the omission of comic strips as having a role in the decline of newspapers. Comics can help convey messages that reading objectively-worded text about might be too uncomfortable for many people, such as about religious difference as a reason for bullying or the growing role of homosexuality in our culture.

Reading about fictitious characters discussing these issues or going on some kind of quest to help resolve them may go farther in helping many people truly empathize with those who face these issues first-hand than reading two-dimensional news accounts about the victimization of such people. Some things are easier to grasp and loosen our ambivalence about when introduced with some artistic subjective storytelling rather than reliance on blunt and so-called objective shock-value approaches.

In response to this resurgence of interest in comics, Read the Spirit (the publishing company co-founded by MPC facilitator David Crumm) will publish its first-ever graphic novel later this year, exploring the topic of adolescent bullying. The book was described as a follow-up to The New Bullying, one of Read the Spirit’s new releases I discussed in my previous entry. Another comics-for-the-greater-good project brought up at the meeting is a series being written by Detroit News columnist Neal Rubin, called Gil Thorp. As a special guest at the meeting, Rubin described how he’s currently working on a comic that explores important socio-cultural issues, which we’ll hear more about at a future meeting.

As I listened to the discussion about comics and graphic novels, I remembered that the Bahá’í Faith published a short graphic novel exploring contemporary application of some of its core social principles, and I think this would be a great method for other religious groups to supplement their standard self-presentation to seekers as well as to people who simply want to know what their religion is and why it’s relevant today.

I also got to thinking about how we’ve been conditioned to think “picture books are for children,” and that this opinion probably had something to do with why people didn’t realize the importance of newspaper comics before it was too late. Holding on to this notion is rather absurd in a world where more and more public signs, menus, etc. have to be printed in pictures because there isn’t enough room for expressing the message in three or more languages. People who are illiterate or who don’t read the language a graphic novel is published in can probably understand the main concepts just by the pictures.

From that perspective, it’s easy to justify the enthusiasm I saw expressed at this meeting about using more visuals in getting peacemaking and reconciliation messages across. The first expressions human beings created of their thoughts and their perceptions of the world were in pictures, so there’s probably some deep and primal value in using more imagery in mass communication, regardless of potential language barriers.

Other new and upcoming releases from Read the Spirit were also announced. One of its specialties is pop culture tie-in books that explore spiritual messages or implications in such diverse works as Ian Flemings’ 007 novels to the Twilight series. Read the Spirit’s Web site includes shorter commentaries on stories ranging from The Hunger Games to Alice in Wonderland.

A few guests at this meeting were authors who recently finished or are currently working on books exploring various spiritual perspectives. Former Detroit Free Press reporter Jack Kresnak is writing the biography of Father William Cunningham, Catholic priest and co-founder of Detroit’s Focus:HOPE, who worked to alleviate poverty in the city through job training and other programs.

Another writer, Nancy Groves, described her new release Facing Illness, Finding Peace, which is what she calls a “life review book.” As a medical social worker, Groves sought to help people who are living with (or dying of) serious chronic illnesses reflect on their experiences through the lens of their lives and their faith rather than through the lens of their diagnosis and treatment. Groves did extensive research on Catholic saints, finding one for each life stage to serve as a sort of patron for the person’s reflection as they write and answer questions in the book. The book can then become a treasured keepsake for the person’s survivors.

Margaret Passenger’s new book is about women in the Bible. Other books have explored the topic of women represented in Christian Scripture, but Passenger has sought to cross denominational and even religious lines, connecting Christians and Jews through the stories of women in the Old and New Testaments. She expressed that she’d like to see the book used in an “interfaith, interdenominational Bible study,” which would “break the box” of the traditional Bible study model.

Another antidote to mainstream media-induced “mean world syndrome” was the work of award-winning television journalist Audrey Sommers, who developed a passion for “more proactive, positive reporting,” after becoming disillusioned with the reactionary and sensationalistic news we’re constantly bombarded with as though that’s the only thing that’s going on in the world right now. Instead of “standing with the gunman at the barricade,” she now seeks to capture “stories of the common man,” and has branched out from that to “the stories of people in the pews.”

She started Stories of Faith, which highlights human interest stories regarding the religious life of inspiring individuals, which can help balance our news coverage to show the full spectrum of human experience in the world today, rather than continue perpetuating the apathy our so-called “informed” public develops as an emotional defense against the despair of seeing bad news constantly over-represented.

New ways faith communities are using social media

Another fascinating new spin on current communication trends is, a “closed-loop version of Facebook,” as it was described by co-founder Howard Brown. CircleBuilder is a social networking tool created primarily for faith communities, to avoid the lack-of-privacy pitfalls of responding to messages on public social media sites. “Many conversations do not belong on Facebook,” Brown explained, so one of the benefits of CircleBuilder is that the moderator controls privacy settings, determines whether events are private or open, and can monitor discussions and activity.

CircleBuilder is already being used by several churches and synagogues to connect their leadership with their congregations, and may attract the interest of other faith communities as well.

Another new tool for connecting people via social media is the Web site, which is currently in the beta-testing stage and will be online soon. Rather than being a social media page in the sense that CircleBuilder is, or a people-directory, Unbucket connects people around what they want to do, or around an idea, by providing a forum for individuals and groups to post things they would like to do in their lives. (Think “bucket list”). They can then invite others with the same interests or goals to join in.

The site will also feature a page called Unbucket for Good, on which people can post their lists of charitable services they’d like to participate in or contributions they would like to give. Charitable and community-building organizations can then look on the lists and contact potential volunteers or donors.

Expanding the discussion about recent interfaith and intercultural initiatives

In my post about the last meeting, I described the Hospitality Initiative, which focuses on the role of intercultural hospitality in religious and cultural reconciliation, as well as in peacemaking in general. This meeting took that discussion further, and news and introductions from other fascinating initiatives, organizations, and individuals made this proverbial snowball bigger. Some of their efforts are aimed at entire communities, and others are more personal in scale, such as the writing of spiritual reflection books and biographies of local community-building peacemakers.

Three representatives of the Hospitality Initiative were present, and told the group more about the project. As I previously discussed, the idea behind this initiative is religious pluralism rather than religious homogeneity. The difference between the two is that pluralism is about respecting and preserving the unique features of each religion, while acknowledging that the essential core spiritual truths they all have in common enable them to work together to meet the needs of humanity through their cooperative coexistence.

One thing of particular note was that the Initiative isn’t just about building toward a big interreligious summit to be held in southeastern Michigan in 2013. The goal is to hold smaller gatherings as well, to build momentum toward creating a sustainable movement. David Crumm pointed out that while having big annual interreligious events, such as interfaith Thanksgiving celebrations and the World Sabbath for Religious Reconciliation, is important, what’s needed to move peacemaking initiatives forward is dialogue and gatherings throughout the year to bring people together. The first such gathering will be a “Suburban-Urban Unity Picnic” on Belle Isle in Detroit at noon on Sunday, August 5.

Another long-term goal expressed by the Hospitality Initiative is the formation of some kind of institute regarding hospitality, where individuals and groups can meet to educate each other and share ideas and information about projects already underway, as well as allow representatives from each religion a forum for speaking about how they plan to fit into and work to support the movement.

Another guest at this meeting was Len Coombs, representing the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The Bentley Library is noteworthy not just because it contains and welcomes acquisitions of any and all records relating to the history of Michigan, but because it is currently looking to expand its collections regarding Michigan’s religious heritage.

Coombs explained that it is “very unusual for a large public institution to collect records on religion in any depth,” and the Library’s archives are already impressively diverse, from mainstream Christian denominations to Detroit’s Shrine of the Black Madonna to Dearborn’s Islamic Center of America.

The Bentley preserves records in their original forms, which means what’s submitted electronically is maintained electronically, and what has been submitted on paper is maintained on paper. It’s good to know that old-fashioned research isn’t a completely lost art, as many people fear it has become in the age of electronic library databases and so many archives and organizations going “paperless.” Anyone can register as a researcher at the library.

The MPC is part of the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit, so the IFLC always gives an update. The IFLC’s scope is encouraging the interfaith movement in southeastern Michigan. For initiatives and events of broader scope, the IFLC can provide contacts to other organizations that can assist with hosting international guest lecturers, for example.

Two big initiatives the IFLC is currently promoting are literacy and energy self-sufficiency, and it has recently expanded its financial and other resources for helping to meet these needs in the community. There are currently two or three new job openings, including a new COO to handle the increase in funds the IFLC is handling.

Another regular at the MPC is WISDOM, Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in MetroDetroit, for which I am now a member of the board of directors. Upcoming event announcements included the third annual A-OK (Acts of Kindness) volunteer event on September 9, and a forum about faith-based bullying on September 13. Check out WISDOM’s Web site for more information about upcoming events hosted and co-sponsored by WISDOM.

Loosely connected with WISDOM is a youth initiative called Face to Faith, which facilitates dialogue among youth who otherwise might have difficulty with or no other forum for asking questions about each other’s faiths. The outcome of Face to Faith’s meetings has always been surprisingly candid while respectful at the same time, with teens asking questions people are often too shy or ambivalent to ask, such as if Muslim women can go swimming (and if so, what do they wear), and about how teens of particular faiths handle not being able to engage in social activities their peers in more mainstream traditions take for granted.

All these efforts the MPC represents, big and small, when added together, will have a synergistic effect on helping southeastern Michigan reach the critical mass needed to help spark a true paradigm shift toward what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the Beloved Community.

Illustration by Karla Joy Huber, 2004; marker, colored pencil, watercolor, metallic gel pen, flower petal

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