REVIEW: “Do Unto Others . . . A Conference on Animals and Religion” by Interreligious Voices for Animal Compassion

A New Kind of Conference

I’m departing from the usual topic for this column to provide a review of  a conference I attended on Friday, April 24, 2009.

Hosted at the Fish Interfaith Center of Chapman University, the event was entitled “Do Unto Others . . . A Conference on Animals and Religion”. This conference—the first of its kind in Southern California—was put together by a group of scholars who have taken on the name of “Interreligious Voices for Animal Compassion” (or just “IVAC”), including Zandra Wagoner, Beth A. Johnson, and Ronald L. Farmer.

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The conference was a wonderful experience, and I sincerely hope that this one will be the beginning of an annual (at a minimum) tradition.

Some Highlights

The facility itself, particularly Wallace All Faiths Chapel, was certainly conducive to the kind of thoughtful discussion and contemplation that the day provided. Beginning at 9:00am, this hall was filled with wonderful harp music that began the day and was interspersed between speakers for the first hour.

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Introductory speakers provided some background regarding how the conference came about as well as quotes and a series of personal statements pertaining to animals in the context of spirituality. These speakers were followed by a first keynote speaker, Jay McDaniel, Director for the Steel Center for the Study of Religion and Philosophy at Hendrix College in Arkansas and author of numerous books, including the classic Of God and Pelicans: A Theology of Reverence for Life.

Jay’s talk not only set forth a number of powerful intellectual insights regarding animals and how they are viewed in the world’s major religions but also allowed glimpses into his personal experiences related to animals and how these experiences have shaped his own world view of the value of life. Jay has a knack for being able to address high philosophy and self-effacing humor simultaneously, which made his presentation a delight that went by too quickly.

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Beth Johnson and Jay McDaniel prepare for a vegan dinner.

In between the morning events, participants mingled with representatives from a number of different animal-related organizations, including Animal Acres founder and Farm Sanctuary pioneer Lorri Houston

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Shelley Harrison and Lorrie Houston take a break between sessions.

The Christian Vegetarian Assocation had a display providing a wide variety of literature, as did Peta, and the conference organizers also provided display copies of about forty key books in the field.

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After breaking for a vegan lunch, conference-goers chose two out of six different one-hour workshops to attend consecutively during the afternoon. I personally attended a session called “Inside the Trenches: An Evangelical Looks at Animal Compassion,” which was led by Presbyterian Minister Reverend Mark Bruner, and “Schweitzer and the Animals”, which was led by Dr. Marvin Meyer, Chair of the Religious Studies Department and Director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute at Chapman. Both sessions were excellent, and I wished I had been able to attend all six.

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Thereafter, the conference reconvened as a single group for a panel discussion featuring McDaniel, Johnson and Wagoner. This portion was one of my favorite parts of the day, since the flexibility of the format allowed for a great deal of spontaneous discussion and Q&A between the conference-goers and featured speakers.

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That evening, we all gathered for a vegan feast in a different location on the Chapman campus. The dinner was fabulous, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to meet the people at my table. We shared light-hearted stories regarding being vegan in a world that eats dead animals as well as discussed strategies on how to get the word out about the pervasive cruelty in our culture. I found it encouraging and uplifting to be around like-minded folks.

Batting clean-up hitter for the day was the vivacious Karen Dawn, author of Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals, which has received numerous accolades, including that of being among the “Best Books of the Year” according to the Washington Post. Like Jay, Karen is somehow able to discuss grave–and sometimes heartbreaking–matters and yet remain fun, witty and charming while doing it.

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 Karen Dawn discusses her fowl friends at the evening banquet.

Overall, the event was a smashing success. I hope there are many more to follow.

For more information:
http://www.chapman.edu/chapel/animalConference/

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(Original pub date: 5/15/2009 (Cruelty-Free))