Area conference teaches respect for all spiritual paths

For several minutes Sunday morning, about 85 people closed their eyes and chanted “shalom” over and over again.

Leading the group inside the spacious Hoytt Theater at the Marin Jewish Community Center was Rabbi Lavey Derby, spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. He explained that shalom means not only hello, good-bye and peace, but also wholeness, completeness, harmony and oneness.

The idea of the exercise, and indeed the entire gathering Sunday, was to promote the essence of shalom.

Titled “The Journey,” the event was an interfaith spiritual odyssey intended to bring together spiritual leaders from varied disciplines and religious affiliations. Included were Native Americans, Christians, Sufis, Buddhists, Hindus and, of course, Jews.

Conceived and organized by the MJCC education director Matt Biers-Ariel and Marin Independent Journal writer Karen Pierce-Gonzales, the event explored commonalties as well as differences among religions and to tried to help participants along their personal paths.

With plenty of strategically placed artificial greenery and tables bearing fruit, coffee and tea, a lone upholstered armchair sat center stage, awaiting the spiritual luminaries scheduled to speak at the event.

Derby delivered the opening remarks to the group; his message was that no single belief system has cornered the market on truth.

“We live in an era where people are thirsty for deep meaning and spirituality in their lives,” Derby said. “They differentiate between religion, which has a negative, rigid connotation, and spirituality which is rich and overflowing with meaning.

“Most of us are brought up to believe that if my spiritual path is right, yours must be wrong. That is a pernicious ideology and teaching that needs to be defeated. We may have different melodies and different dances, but in the final analysis, it’s all one. And if we can learn to do it together, that is very important to me.”

He added that “Jews have always believed righteousness and redemption is not for Jews only. That is not a part of what we believe — that God doesn’t hear others.”

That is just the type of thing participant Joan Andrews of Greenbrae was hoping to hear at this conference.

Andrews attended because the conference’s concept “really gels with my overall belief that there is an element of truth in all faiths. This embraces unity, which is what I think the world needs to achieve to incite love and understanding — rather than war and hate, something religion has traditionally and too often been used for.”

To illustrate their belief in many paths to righteousness and spirituality, the organizers of the event tried to have representatives of as many groups as possible at “The Journey.”

Among the spiritual leaders on hand were the Lama Surya Das of Boston, Avram Davis of Berkeley’s Chochmat HaLev and the Rev. Cecil Williams of San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Church.

Sessions included a Japanese tea ceremony, healing music, Sufi “dances of universal peace,” a presentation on the Coastal Miwok Indians and Hindu dancers.

Viola Tamarkin, a participant and San Rafael resident, already tries to make interfaith work more than a one-day event in her life. “We’re members of the interfaith discussion group because I think that’s the way life has to be — we have to respect others as you want to be respected.”

Participant Harold Abend of Petaluma said he attended because he was interested in the speakers and workshops “and because I promised my wife I’d experience it with her.”

Pierce-Gonzales, the religion reporter for the Independent Journal, said the conference originated in a conversation she had with Biers-Ariel.

“The subject of the people I had run across in my capacity as religion reporter came up.” The pair got to thinking how exciting it would be if diverse spiritual leaders could be brought together in one place.

Pierce-Gonzales began making calls. “No one turned down the invitation,” she said, “even though some of them, people like the Rev. Cecil Williams and Lama Surya Das, are booked up a year in advance. It’s been a real coup.”


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