Ari Ballaban — In Conversation
2020 Festival of Faiths Goes Virtual –By Penny Pensak
Penny Pensak is a Past President and current board member of JCRC. She is a passionate advocate for the power of interfaith relations and celebrating our diverse faith traditions in Greater Cincinnati. Below, Penny reflects on her experience with the 2020 Virtual Festival of Faiths. –Jackie
By Penny Pensak, JCRC board member
Little could we predict when we began to plan the third annual Festival of Faiths, the signature program of EquaSion, that we would be living in the midst of near dystopian times. EquaSion, an interfaith group, strives to make our world a better place through a commitment to equality, spirituality, and inclusion, and the festival has given folks an opportunity to lean into that. However, this year the obstacles seemed almost insurmountable: a pandemic that disenables people from coming together and a fractious political climate that challenges civil discourse.
Yet, the festival steering committee was undeterred. They proved that if you put a virtual roomful of folks who believe, through their own individual faiths, that by working together we can begin to heal our world, coming together really is still possible. Learning from the movie A Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come,” indeed more than 2,000 did come—to watch zoom programming that reflected the festival’s theme of “Compassion Through Action: 20/20 Vision for Hope, Healing, and Justice.”
While an in-person Festival of Faiths lets attendees move, shoulder-to-shoulder, from one booth to the next to learn about other religions than their own, and enjoy music and dance reflective of various religious traditions together, the virtual festival actually afforded a more in-depth exploration of numerous faiths. Panel discussions considered what the new normal would look like in houses of worship as participants virtually experienced religious celebrations. Through JCRC Associate Director Justin Kirschner’s leadership of the “Faithful Citizenship: Fulfilling our Essential Civic Duties” webinar, JCRC helped panelists unpack the question of how faith communities interpret and actualize civic engagement in their own communities. Daily opportunities for reflection were shared by numerous faith leaders, and the concept of healing through storytelling even provided an interactive opportunity when participants were sent to small break out rooms for conversation. The music was inspirational as well. I’m still in awe of how individual videos, recorded in the musicians’ respective homes, became a choir that sang together. It literally gave me chills and a concurrent feeling of optimism for our future.
Optimally, we wanted to be in one space, not looking at each other through computer screens; we wanted to be able to physically embrace one another and experience the in-person, joyous atmosphere that has always been present. However, not to be prosaic, this year’s festival turned the proverbial lemons into lemonade. We offered great programming and learning opportunities. People took the time to register, and most showed up. Panel participants took their roles seriously and shared openly about their faiths and themselves. Chat boxes reflected thoughtful questions and comments. We also learned some lessons about what works virtually and what we should try to sustain between festivals. For me personally, I’m still amazed that the festival represents 13 thriving world religions in Cincinnati—who knew? All in all, I would say we filled a 2020 space that’s aching to be filled, one that showcased compassion, unity, and diversity of spirit. What an incredible tapestry that has been woven in our community—one in which to wrap ourselves during challenging times, and breathe deeply.
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