The Interfaith Leadership Institute Embraces Attendees’ Differences

Attendees from different walks of life and faith were all in for the three-day annual Interfaith Leadership Institute event.

interfaith conference

Cara Doidge Kilgore, special events and evaluation manager for the Interfaith Youth Core and Brian Anderson, student leadership manager for IFYC, are veterans of planning large-scale interfaith events. Both work on the three-day annual Interfaith Leadership Institute which welcomed 400 college students and educators to Chicago this summer.

The ILI, first offered in 2010, has become the flagship event of the IFYC, Anderson says. The institute serves as both a capstone and a kick-off to some of the organization’s campus programming, including webinars and online workshops. IFYC works to de-emphasize the stigma of talking about religion and bridge differences to help people work together in their communities to make positive change, Anderson says.

To accomplish that mission, the ILI is carefully planned to provide space for conversations as well as opportunities for attendees to take part in and experience practices from a variety of faith traditions. Doidge Kilgore and Anderson share what goes into planning an interfaith program of this magnitude.

Building relationships

A critical component of the ILI is to build trust between attendees, especially since some participants miss the opportunity to engage with people of other faith traditions.

“We’re empowering people to step out of their comfort zones, to engage, and to see the stories and humanity of people who have been raised in a different culture,” Anderson says.

The ILI has incorporated a few critical components to its schedule to help attendees build relationships with one another. The first is an emphasis on storytelling, which allows attendees to better understand themselves and their worldview, Anderson says. The ILI reserves an hour on Saturday morning for its Storytelling Sessions, during which IFYC coaches and alumni share their personal interfaith journeys. The format is similar to The Moth, a popular NPR radio show and podcast, where storytellers hone their stories in advance of telling them live.

The event’s training tracks, like  “Foundations of Interfaith Leadership,” “Storytelling for Interfaith Cooperation” and “Tackling Challenging Conversations,” help to facilitate relationship building. Since attendees come to the conference with varying levels of awareness and training in interfaith cooperation, the tracks offer a more tailored experience that connects participants with others who have similar interests and knowledge of interfaith cooperation. Some tracks are open to all, while more advanced tracks require that attendees have attended previous sessions or trainings.

Participants are also able to observe their faith traditions and invite others to join in the event’s Interfaith Room. “Pagan students may opt for an afternoon or evening session and tell others to come by and see what paganism looks like and the diversity in it,” Anderson says. “The Jewish students may have a Shabbat service, and everyone is welcome to join them.”

Fostering conversation

Fostering conversation is a critical component of interfaith cooperation. One way the ILI accomplishes this is through its “Unconference,” a two-hour block of time allocated for participants to speak with one another about topics that are not covered in the training tracks.

Tables are assigned topics suggested to event leadership (the intersection of faith and gender equity is an example). Attendees choose where to sit and can talk about the work being done on their campus and their own interfaith leadership skills. Members of the event training staff serve as facilitators.

The ILI tries to build in downtime so that conversations can take place organically—think corner conversational settings for attendees to use to get to know one another.

According to Anderson, the ILI also takes special interest in providing different constituent groups the opportunity to bring their perspectives in plenary sessions and all participant spaces. “We definitely have an emphasis on unheard voices,” he says. “We’re trying to make sure people who don’t necessarily think they have a voice in this conversation recognize that we want that voice to come forward.”

The trust built through relationships created during the event becomes critical, as some of these perspectives may clash with one another. “You will find a common bridge that you can start a relationship from and build a sense of trust,” Anderson states. “Then when a tense moment comes up, you remember, ‘I really appreciate this person, and I can be an ally.’”

Planning for dietary restrictions

Accommodating faith-based dietary restrictions and food allergies is a complicated challenge when planning a menu, especially when attendees have multiple restrictions in tandem. Doidge Kilgore needs to provide options for vegetarians and attendees who are kosher, for example. How accommodating venues are with several dietary restrictions in an important factor in determining a site, Doidge Kilgore says.

Typically, food is served buffet-style, meaning that participants need clear direction on which foods they can eat. Doidge Kilgore requires all venues to include clear labeling with a list of ingredients in each dish and direction on whether the food is kosher-certified or halal. Serving utensils are kept separate to avoid cross contamination. Every meal served is modified to suit the needs of its attendees. For example, beef, pork and shellfish are never served, and any dish that typically has an alcohol-based sauce or cream is substituted.

Hosting an event in a city where you are familiar with vendors that can offer halal and kosher-certified meals is an advantage. Doidge Kilgore says for events in Chicago, she can reference the Chicago Rabbinical Council website for a list of caterers and restaurants that serve kosher-certified foods.

While the ILI’s registration form allows participants to indicate multiple dietary restrictions, planners need to be flexible since dietary information can be communicated late in the planning cycle, adding cost. When planning menus, it’s important to Doidge Kilgore that everyone’s meal options are comparable to one another and that each guest has a meal they can eat.

“I’ve had people hug me because they had not attended a conference where all their dietary restrictions are met,” she says. “It’s a way for an organization to show that they care about the people who come.”