Years of reading the Bay Area Interfaith Connect newsletter does nothing to quell my amazement at the multitude of interfaith activities reported here every month. So tempting, sometimes, to think of the San Francisco Bay Area as an interfaith one-of-a-kind! A week in Toronto last month completely banished my provincial temptations. - Paul Chaffee, October 30, 2010
Jan and I were invited to Canada’s biggest city by interfaith activists. Their work had been featured here at NAINConnect 2008. Now they wanted us to witness the interfaith ferment on the northern shores of Lake Ontario.
Our host was Scarboro Missions, a small Catholic order with decades of global social justice engagement. A strong and abiding commitment to interfaith activities led the Order to create a new department – Scarboro Missions Interfaith (SMI).
Paul McKenna, who leads SMI, is creator of the Golden Rule poster, the simplest and most powerful interfaith tool in the world today. Having hundreds of thousands of posters distributed in 20 languages (so far) is remarkable by itself. But the poster tells only a small part of Scarboro’s interfaith activity, in Toronto, in North America and the world.
Our first morning at Scarboro we watched 50 bussed-in 11th graders being introduced to world religions in a five-hour workshop by Kathy Murtha. It was a pure joy, actually astonishing to see how much fun they had, how much information and wisdom they absorbed, and how serious, still, and creative a rambunctious bunch of teenagers can become with a master teacher. (This happens four times a week; new students every time. They started the program for Catholic schools. Now public schools are sending busloads as well. The students’ favorite part of the workshop? Two sessions during the day given to meditation.)
Paul McKenna and his team organized a dozen meetings for us with religious leaders from all over Canada’s largest metroplex. They wanted Jan and me to see and hear what they are doing and in return to share a bit about the San Francisco Bay Area interfaith culture. We spent most of one day with two dozen young adults and their mentors from around the region. We met and broke bread with leaders from the Interfaith Council and visited the sites of a variety of multi-religious educational ventures and service providers. The historic and ongoing Jewish-Christian engagement and cooperation, with Muslims as full participants these days, is impressive and fully glocal (global & local) in focus.
We spent most of the last day at the University of Toronto, a subway ride downtown. Modeled on Oxford and Cambridge, UT has numerous theological faculties and religious studies programs along with 30 chaplains (two for most traditions, including Pagan and Humanist, and including LGBT representation). On top of this is a new Multi-Religious Building where prayer and meditation goes on most hours of each day in a variety of traditions. Everyone’s invited to the free talk-about-any & everything-tea-and-muffins party each Wednesday, and you can attend assorted interfaith programs each week. The day before we visited, they hosted the Dalai Lama. Strong on hospitality. Altogether, very high on the Wow!-meter. It sounded and felt like the 21st century happening in beautiful new ways.
At the end of the day, even those most involved in Toronto’s interfaith culture can’t keep up with all the multi-faith bubblings in their midst. Feels just like the Bay Area. That equivalency suggests the power and goodness of the multifaith relationships growing spontaneously, willy-nilly across North America. We may not know it, given the thousands of miles that separate these two remarkable global communities; but Greater Toronto and the Bay Area, each with about 5 million souls from all over the globe, share a new kind of interfaith culture, a vital source of hope and satisfaction for the glocal religious community-at-large in coming years.
We have all sorts of things to learn on both sides of a Bay Area-Toronto interfaith relationship. One thing, though, is absolutely identical in our communities – the best part of the work is the relationships which develop. The people we met in a week came from every tradition imaginable – gracious, friendly, wise, engaged individuals happy to interact as soon as you meet. They were just like the people here at the Presidio Chapel in San Francisco and the thousands who are involved in interfaith relationships around our beautiful Bay. Getting to know one another is not only the work at hand, but the reward. Makes for a joyful journey and a joyful homecoming.