Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Network of Networks: Spreading the Awareness of MetroDetroit’s Increasing Intercultural competency

2013’s first meeting of the Michigan Professional Communicators with interest in religion and cross-cultural issues (MPC) started the year of interfaith networking with great foreshadowing of the Detroit area’s future of cultural competency. The host venue chosen for its regional cultural and religious significance was the Bharatiya Temple in Troy.

The Bharatiya Temple, a place of worship and community life for Troy's substantial Hindu community, had a busy weekend—in addition to its regular daily schedule, it hosted the MPC on Friday morning, and the 14th annual World Sabbath for Religious Reconciliation on Sunday the 27th.

MPC meetings start with a one-hour guided tour of the host venue, and it was helpful to get an idea of the layout of the complex before the Sabbath event, especially since the place is big enough to get lost in. Padma Kuppa, Executive Council Member of the Hindu American Foundation and co-founder of the Troy Interfaith Group, gave us a tour of the main sanctuary, briefly described the Temple's history, and answered some of the most frequently-asked questions about Hinduism.

Following the tour was the two-hour roundtable discussion portion of the meeting. One of the major themes was cultural and religious competency, which starts with knowing how to separate truth from stereotypes, which I wrote about in more depth here.

Cultural Competency

Helping to create this understanding and thus improve relations among different faith groups in Michigan is one of the primary purposes of the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit (IFLC), which also happens to be the parent organization of the MPC.

The IFLC is currently seeking media professionals—including college students—to assist with various interfaith and intercultural directory information projects that have been requested from various institutions, such as school districts, to assist them with developing their cultural competency to best accommodate the increasing diversity of their workplaces and classrooms.

Robert Bruttell, Chairman of the IFLC, reported receiving a request from a local school district for a calendar of fasting days, and information about food restrictions, for the different faiths their students represent. He realized the IFLC does not currently have such a list. “The IFLC refers to itself as a civic organization,” Bruttell said, “and that is the kind of civic duty an interfaith organization should fill.” So, he determined to see what kind of record could be created of this information, and how it could be shared with schools and other organizations in a more contemporary format than simply mailing out a printed piece of paper.

It’s important not to reinvent the wheel, he said, but instead find out what media these types of information are collected in, vet them for accuracy (for example, information about Ramadan aggregated in 2012 would not be valid for 2013, since the dates of Ramadan change every year), and package them in the most user-friendly and up-to-date format.

If you’re interested in helping out, you can contact the IFLC by clicking here. Much of the work for the IFLC can be done by remote (as opposed having to work from the IFLC office).

Also on the subject of cultural competency, Joe Grimm presented about his new intercultural competency class he teaches in Michigan State University (MSU)’s School of Journalism. The goal for the class is to create a new cultural competency guide each year, to answer about 100 questions regarding a particular group.

The decision for the 2013’s topic population, East Indians, was prompted by the news that Consumers Energy, a major natural gas service provider, intends to bring over a few hundred East Indian IT workers to staff its Jackson, Michigan facility. Until now, Jackson has experienced very little cultural diversification, so citizens of this small south-central Michigan city need all the help they can get for learning how to coexist with their new neighbors. The IFLC has been a valuable resource for helping the students gain access to credible sources of information about the groups they seek to write about.

This guide will be the first in a series of cultural competency books. Read the Spirit and Joe Grimm are also planning revisions for a cultural competency guide that Grimm co-wrote previously regarding Arab-Americans. He and David Crumm, MPC’s facilitator and co-founder of Read the Spirit Books and, are also in the process of acquiring publishing rights from the Native American Journalism Association to a Native American guide produced by the Wichita Eagle, to revise and incorporate into the series. To learn more about the cultural competency guide series created by Joe Grimm and his team of MSU journalism students, please click here.

These cultural competency pioneers are aiming for a national audience, which is a realistic goal after the fast success of their 2012 release, The New Bullying (which I discussed in my post about the July 2012 MPC meeting, located here). The promotion for that book, with which Joe Grimm’s students pulled off the amazing feat of going from initial concept to published book in about 100 days, took off after someone in the popular media noted the words “MSU School of Journalism” on the back of the book, and called MSU. MSU was more than happy to claim the project and promote the book.

David Crumm pointed out that, though it wasn’t Joe Grimm or Read the Spirit the press contacted, it’s best not to make an issue of who or how many people claim credit—the more people who claim it, the more people there are promoting it.

Another great resource for accurate information about different religions is Read the Spirit’s “Religious Holidays and Festivals” column. Written by Stephanie Fenton, this column is the only consistently-supported resource of its kind for actual articles, not just dates and a descriptive sentence, about holy days around the world. The articles even sometimes include a description of how a holy day is observed in different places (for example, how a particular Muslim holy day is celebrated in Iran versus how it is observed in Indonesia).

There are aggregator software programs that compile information about holy days around the world, but even if this information is correct, it’s only a list, and doesn’t help a person who knows nothing about it really understand how to accommodate an employee, student, or neighbor during the time of that observance.

Personal narratives from Michigan’s diverse religious landscape

Other recent Read the Spirit publishing highlights include Debra Darvick’s This Jewish Life: Stories of Discovery, Connection, and Joy, and Heather Jose’s Every Day We are Killing Cancer.

Darvick is a local Michigan writer whose book was originally published years ago and went out of print, and she worked with Read the Spirit for over a year to get the manuscript polished up and re-published. This Jewish Life features 54 people’s stories about their personal connection with their religion, arranged to show the progression of Jewish festivities, rites, and other Hebrew cultural and religious markers throughout the calendar year. 

Jose’s book is about her personal experience with cancer, in which she derives strength from her practical application of her Christian faith. Another significant feature of her experience is it brought her and her husband closer together—whereas more often than not this particular struggle has opposite effect. Jose enlisted her husband’s help in her treatment and recovery by being her information manager: She told him to tell her only what she needed to know, so she wouldn’t be bogged down with more details to worry about.

Also in Read the Spirit news, I noticed that the first book in the series regarding spirituality and caregivers, which I blogged about in my entry for the August 2011 MPC meeting, has been published. The book is Guide for Caregivers: Keeping Your Spirit Healthy When Your Caregiver Duties and Responsibilities are Dragging You Down, by Dr. Benjamin Pratt.

Interfaith news and events

The MPC is a great source of news about events the mainstream media ignores. Three major interfaith events were discussed at this meeting: the 14th Annual World Sabbath for Religious Reconciliation held at the Bharatiya Temple, the 2014 North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) conference to be held in Detroit, and the Hospitality Initiative summit to be held this upcoming May 2013 at Oakland University.

The World Sabbath was founded fourteen years ago by Reverend Rodney Reinhart, who was present at the meeting and described what led him to create it. Reinhart created the World Sabbath as a response to the hypocrisy of religious support for wars, and to help build solidarity between religious groups by giving us all a shared holy day. Please click here to read more about Reverend Reinhart’s inspiring comments from this meeting.

The second major upcoming event discussed was the Hospitality Initiative summit scheduled for May 3rd through 5th, 2013, which you can read about here

The third major interfaith event described in detail at this meeting is the 2014 conference of the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN). Detroit will be hosting the 2014 gathering, to be held Sunday through Wednesday August 10-13. The conference will include site visits to different places of worship around the Metro Detroit area, in addition to seminars in which local organizations invited by NAIN will present on interfaith themes.

Organizers of the 2012 NAIN conference in Atlanta were impressed by the report given by Gail Katz and Paula Drewek--past present and current president, respectively--of WISDOM (Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in MetroDetroit) regarding Detroit’s interfaith activities, and as a result Detroit was suggested as a good site for a NAIN conference. The conference will place a big emphasis on youth, including college students. Scholarships for conference attendance will be available. “Building bridges and breaking down barriers” are the big themes, Katz said. “Detroit is one of the most segregated cities in the U.S.,” and we want to show “what we are doing to build bridges.”

To tie NAIN in with the cultural competency discussion from this meeting, an organization like NAIN, though small, will be very important to help recommend and filter authenticity of resources for information regarding different religions—like a version of the IFLC at the continental level. 

Striving for the critical mass needed for mainstream awareness

Dr. Olaf Lidums, one of the Hospitality Initiative’s founders, pointed out that this work is not taking place in a vacuum, nor is it the only of its kind. “We’ve tapped an aquifer,” Lidums pointed out, drawing on the concept of quantum physics to describe how we’re all connected at some deep level and drawing from the same well. This well is what Carl Jung referred to as the Collective Unconscious.

These concepts may sound very cosmic and far-out, but they are really quite accessible when we know where to look. David Crumm spoke about the development of “a network of networks,” the gradual convergence of all these different interfaith and intercultural initiatives and activities springing up in southeastern Michigan.

If it’s happening here, it’s likely happening in other states, too, and eventually they’ll reach the critical mass for mainstream acknowledgement—meaning, a time will come when we’ll actually hear about them on the news, and people in the mainstream will be able to say they’ve heard about them, rather than “How come we never hear about any of this?”

We’re not hearing about this phenomenon in the mainstream because it simply hasn’t reached that critical mass yet.

There is a tendency to dismiss community movements that are based on cooperation and peacemaking rather than on the old models derived from conquest and control. The environmental conservation movement was originally not taken seriously by governments and other people in power, and look where it’s at now.

David Crumm pointed out that these intercultural and interfaith events are being created, organized, and attended by many diverse professionals, from different disciplines within the communications, community-building, and even technology fields. As their work progresses and gains more attention, people will realize that, just because this is all happening at the grass-roots level, it isn’t being done by a bunch of low-tech or disorganized hippies with a lofty idea they can’t sustain.

The interfaith and intercultural work being done in southeastern Michigan (and wherever else similar movements are developing) will eventually achieve the critical mass required for the wider society to notice and take it seriously, and be drawn to it as a more humanity-friendly alternative to our current “us-versus-them” thinking, and campaigns for “tolerance” which often feature an undercurrent of condescension rather than a sincere interest in integrated coexistence.

Additional resources for interfaith bridge-building

There were also some brief mentions by both regular attendees and newcomers to this MPC meeting. Kari Alterman of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) spoke at the meeting about a site dedicated to fostering understanding and better relations between Jews and Arabs. The AJC Web site includes a link to it (which is in Arabic), and also features a descriptive article in English by Kenneth Bandler of the Jerusalem Post about the Web site.

Another newcomer to this MPC meeting was Brad Seligmann, who is working within the University of Michigan’s Ginsberg Center (Service Learning Department). For more information about the interfaith work he is helping to coordinate with U of M students, please contact him here.

Reverend Roger Mohr, Minister of the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Detroit, spoke of an upcoming interfaith event to be held at Henry Ford Community College, April 5-6. He is in the process of developing the Web site for the event, and more details will be forthcoming. In the meantime, you can contact him at his email address here.

As always, thanks for reading, and I am honored that the members of the MPC are reading my posts about the meetings now, thanks to David Crumm faithfully posting a link to my blog in his follow-up e-newsletters about the meetings.

Image: "Earth Woman" by Karla Joy Huber, 2007; Colored pencil, gold gel pen, crayon, planet Earth stamp

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