When the Unitarian Universalist Association met for its 2012 General Assembly in Phoenix, Conference Services Director Janiece Sneegas hadn’t planned any events specifically supporting religious diversity. She got one nonetheless.
In the 1990s, the UUA had boycotted the city following Arizona’s decision to not observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Rather than shun Phoenix again—this time over conditions at Tents Jail, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s makeshift jail—the UUA committed for 2012 and chose to hold a witness ceremony outside the canvas lockup as a form of protest.
“We’re a group that very much walks our talk,” says Sneegas, who can tick off a list of causes the UUA often works into its activities wherever the annual meeting takes place. For Phoenix, Sneegas expected a modest but effective prayer vigil. Instead, a crowd of almost 2,000 people, battery-powered candles in hand, showed up to pray, sing and chant. For Sneegas, the surprise was not only the size of the crowd but its diversity, a religious rainbow of Baptists, the United Church of Christ and members of several other denominations and faiths. “It was truly inspirational to witness,” she says.
Religious diversity crosses all aspects of the meetings industry, regardless of whether the group or event is faith-based. The UUA experience, an offshoot of an ongoing major religious meeting, demonstrates how diverse faith-based factions can come together, using an event to effect change. To make religious diversity work in a secular setting, planners need to understand why attendees might want or need a spiritual element in their meeting and how to make that element fit into the program’s context.
Granted, challenges can still arise. The opening-night banquet features shrimp cocktail and pork loin. Your minister oversleeps for a Sunday morning service. The closing-night speaker makes tasteless jokes about priests and missionaries. While awkward situations can’t always be avoided, planning ahead for a more inclusive, educated environment can produce meetings that not only tolerate different beliefs but embrace them.
Adopting a pluralistic attitude toward religious diversity, if not toward religion itself, is a good beginning.