Reflections on MountainTop with Aline “Macha” O’Brien

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On June 17, 2013, religious leaders from around the country met in Nashville, Tennessee at the very first MountainTop Summit. Held at the Vanderbilt Center for Better Health, the three-day event “uniquely focused on exploring the shape and priorities of this nation’s multifaith movement for justice in the 21st century.”  MountainTop was founded and presented by Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School, Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, Imaginal Labs and Synthesis Corps.  In a press release, they explain:

In sessions designed to discuss organizing, collaboration and new media, among other topics, the summit [equipped] leaders with the tools, methodologies, and relationships to inform their work on a range of issues — from immigration to marriage equality.”

MountainTop was attended by over 80 participants who are “working in the sectors of education, media, research, community organizing, arts, and culture [and] whose work is rooted in their faith and values.”

In attendance at this unique and progressive event was Aline “Macha” O’Brien known to many as M. Macha Nightmare. In February, she was invited to attend the event by way of friends and her association with Auburn Theological Seminary. Macha said, “anything that would foster collaborative efforts towards social, economic and environmental justice among different religions was something I’d like to participate in.”  So on June 17th, she packed up her bags and headed for Nashville.

I had the pleasure and the opportunity to speak with Macha about her experience at MountainTop. Our discussions will be posted in two parts over two Sundays.  First, Macha answers general questions about the event itself.  In part two, we’ll discuss the content and the meaning behind its title “multifaith movement for justice.”

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Part I:  The MountainTop Summit

Heather:  How was MountainTop different or the same as other multifaith events?

Macha: I’d say it had a more intense focus on working together to identify and implement collaborative projects.  However that might manifest in this particular assemblage more than most interfaith or multifaith efforts I’ve experienced.  Most of my experience working with those of other religions, regardless of what it’s called, has been local and regional rather than national. MountainTop included people from various parts of the country.

H:  Was there a specific goal, aim or theme for the event?  

M: Goals were not specific.  The process, the people, and their creativity determined the specific goals. We were asked to reflect upon three questions in preparation for our time together:

  1. What are the capabilities and aspirations that your organization, or you personally, bring to the multifaith movement for social justice?
  2. What is your theory of change?
  3. What are the challenges that we face?

As a representative of a religion(s) with a smaller demographic and specifically as a representative of CoG [Covenant of the Goddess], an organization that has far more grass roots than the institutions of mainstream religions, I felt that whatever I might bring to this effort would be more spice than stock.

MachaH: How many Pagans participated in total? 

M: Four, all women, three arising from the same “matrix,” if you will, of Reclaiming Craft.

H: What was the reaction to your inclusion? Did participants already have experience interacting with those in Pagan or Heathen religions?   

M: We were accepted.  I didn’t notice any particular reaction.  I think some were more or less familiar with Wiccans, if not other forms of Paganism.  For others meeting a Pagan was a brand new experience. Everyone took care in how we interacted.  We weren’t tiptoeing, but we were sensitive and respectful.

Actually, I think that some of the more conventional people there might have been a wee bit put off by meeting someone from a religion so different from what they know.  In any case, I experienced the overall spirit of the gathering as one of goodwill and commitment to service for the commonwealth.

H: What other religions were represented?

M: In addition to people from faith-based justice projects, there were others not specifically identified with a faith, such as media and leadership consultants, philanthropists and people from the financial community, and immigrant rights and day laborer activists.

As you might expect, religious professionals were mainly Abrahamic  (Islam, Judaism, and Protestant Christianity) and Sikh.  Perhaps there were other [religions represented] that I didn’t identify as being different.  In three days’ time of focused work, we didn’t get the opportunity to meet and become better acquainted with every single other person there.

[While] there were two people who were Catholic-reared, I was surprised there was no one [representing] any Roman Catholic organization.  In my experience sisters and priests are often among the most committed to justice efforts.  In my own home interfaith council, I cherish my friends among the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael and appreciate their unwavering support of social justice concerns.

The other religious persuasion noticeably absent was Buddhism.  Again, in my local work I collaborate with people from several different Buddhist sects.  They work on issues of food and nutrition for the hungry, teens, worker justice, peace, and the like.  [In addition] no Hindus participated. Hinduism doesn’t represent a huge demographic, but in my experience they are strong activists and allies to Pagans.

I know that many more people were invited than were able to attend.  When I mention what to me are glaring omissions, I am not criticizing the organizers.  I was not privy to that process and am confident that they intended to be as inclusive as possible.

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Vanderbilt Center for Better Health at Vanderbilt University Health Center

Interview to be continued….

You can read more about the specifics of how the conference was organized and structured on Macha’s own blog or on Patheos’ Pagan Channel’s new blog Wild Garden. In that article Macha emphasizes MountainTop’s focus on new and innovative technology. She talks about the implementation of the DesignShop process and its three phases which include: Scan, Focus, and Act. She also mentions that one of “the strongest and most helpful phrases used [during one specific workshop] was “collaborative intelligence,” a form of understanding that arises from the interactivity that digital communication fosters.”

Next week I will post the second part of this interview that examines MountainTop’s focus on social justice. Macha will also share the event’s personal impact as she continues to process an experience that was packed with spiritual and social significance.