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Friday, March 3, 2000
Calling Mr. Gandhi
From selecting a theme to recruiting speakers, a 'behind the scenes' look at Religious Education Congress 2000

By Maria Torres

DURING A PLANNING meeting for Religious Education Congress 2000, the name "Gandhi" popped up Arun Manilal Gandhi, to be exact, grandson of the late M.K. "Mahatma" Gandhi.

"I'd heard Arun Gandhi speak before and I was impressed by his presentation, so I thought he'd be a wonderful speaker for Congress," Adrian Whitaker, Congress coordinator for the archdiocesan Office of Religious Education. She pointed out that Arun Gandhi founder of the M.K. Gandhi Institute Non-Violence routinely speaks at both religious and secular gatherings.

"Our people spoke with his people," said Whitaker, "and he agreed to be one of our speakers."

Dubbed the nation's largest gathering of Roman Catholics, the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in April is expected to draw as many as 37,000 people, according to Whitaker and Religious Sister of Charity Edith Prendergast, director of the Office of Religious Education. Congress 2000 themed "Awaken Hope - Shout Jubilee" will feature dozens of speakers presenting 260 workshops over a four-day period.

Preparing for Congress is a major undertaking, according to Whitaker, noting that Religious Education staffers and Congress volunteers work individually and collectively to organize the multiple-day conference.
"I can't emphasize the value of our volunteers enough," said Whitaker. "They're the greatest support system. They volunteer their time, their energy and their expertise to help us pull this event together."

That enthusiasm and expertise comes in handy from the onset, said Whitaker. To begin, three volunteer Congress committees are selected, targeting registration, liturgy and general Congress activities.

Once the committees are in place, the Congress "theme" is chosen in keeping with the weekend's Sunday readings. Liturgy committee members then select a musician to compose the official theme song for Congress. (An original song is composed every year.)

Next, committee members and Religious Education staffers jointly outline general workshop categories, which is followed by identification of specific workshop topics.

"We try to select timely topics for our workshops," said Sister Prendergast, "in order to address important issues as they happen."

This year's workshops offered in English, Spanish and Vietnamese will address a variety of issues, such as multiculturalism, spirituality, morality, liturgical, family and Jubilee-based themes.

From there, workshop and keynote speakers are discussed, with particular emphasis placed on successful past speakers and suggestions submitted by Religious Education staffers, past Congress attendees and others. Whenever a new or unknown speaker is suggested, at least one staff person will listen to an audiotape of their presentation before final approval is sought.

"We like to have speakers who are interesting, who are on the cutting edge," said Whitaker, "but who can also speak accurately on church doctrine and our Catholic beliefs."

This year's keynote address titled "Voices of Hope: Building a World of Communication and Justice" will be a trio presentation by Arun Gandhi, Craig Kielburger, a 16-year-old advocate for international children's rights, and Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a noted theologian.
Whitaker said the decision to invite Gandhi, Kielburger and Sister Johnson who are all well known on the "national speakers' circuit" was based on their mutual dedication to issues of justice and non-violence.

Gandhi who currently resides in Memphis, Tenn. lived with his grandfather as a youth and worked as a journalist and social worker during early adulthood. He moved to the United States with his wife in 1987 and established the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Non-Violence in 1991.

Kielburger has traveled to India, Nepal, Thailand and several other countries to document injustices against children and Sister Johnson has served as a consultant to the Catholic Bishops' Committee on Women in Church and Society and on the National Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue.

Whitaker said the keynote speech is intended to be an "interweaving" of international, intergenerational and multicultural voices, providing personal insights on matters of "justice and our hopes for the future."
According to both Whitaker and Sister Prendergast, speakers of various faiths and walks of life routinely express interest in speaking at Congress, a fact they attribute to the growing prominence of the annual conference.

"Almost everyone wants the opportunity to speak at Congress," said Sister Prendergast. "That makes it a win-win situation for everyone, for the speakers and for those coming to Congress [who get to listen] to a variety of subjects."

With just over one month left before Congress 2000 kicks off April 6, Whitaker is already looking ahead to future Congress gatherings.
"So much work and preparation goes into organizing this annual event," said Whitaker. "We usually begin planning for Congress as early as two- to three- years out."

Sponsored by the Office of Religious Education, Congress 2000 will begin with "Youth Day" April 6, followed by a three-day general conference April 7-9. This year's Congress will mark the 30th consecutive year the event will be held at the Anaheim Conference Center.

In addition to workshops and keynote presentations, Congress 2000 will present over 200 exhibitor booths, Eucharistic liturgies, prayer and reconciliation services as well as lunchtime and evening entertainment.
The registration fee for Congress 2000 is $60 per person and covers admission to all workshops, exhibits, concerts and liturgies. For more information or to register, call (213) 637-7348 or go to http://recongress.org.

Copyright 2000 The Tidings -- March 3, 2000


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