The Jewish Christian Muslim Association (JCMA) Eighth Winter Conference will be held from 3-6 July 2011. Its theme is The Hand of Welcome: Hospitality in our three faiths.

This year’s chair is the Rev Dr Coralie Ling. She explains that the four-day residential conference will provide an opportunity “to practise hospitality, to live it, and learn it, in the context of the three Abrahamic faiths.”  The program will include studies of texts and traditions and presentations on issues of practical hospitality in our faiths and the wider community. “We will consider,” Dr Ling continues, “some of the difficult issues to do with the limits of hospitality as practised in our faiths. We will also have the opportunity to observe and celebrate each others’ prayer traditions. Sharing our stories, culture and concerns will also be a feature of the conference program.”

For Dr Helen Gardner, a member of the conference committee and a former conference chair, this will be her eighth winter conference. She is one of only three people who have attended every one since the first.  She admits that the first time she participated, in 2004, she was “very nervous”. “I was anxious about spending four days together with Muslims, unsure that I knew enough about Judaism to have anything to offer, just generally uncertain about the whole interfaith enterprise,” she says. “But I left enthused.”

JCMA conferences are not formal academic affairs.  However, as Helen explains, “There are presentations on aspects of each of the three faiths so that we can all learn more about them. A prime aim is to provide us with opportunities to interact with each other. Apart from the small and large group discussions which follow every presentation, a daily small group session allows us to reflect on what we have seen and heard during the day’s activities.  This is a vital part of the program.”

Bro Lindsay Rust is a Catholic brother, based at Pallotti College in the beautiful Yarra Valley near Warburton.  The college has been the venue for the JCMA’s Winter conferences ever since 2005.  He is also a member of the conference committee.  Bro Lindsay considers that JCMA brings together people who are “on their own faith journeys, each answering personally and in the sense of their own tradition the call of this Abrahamic God.”

“Our simplest of ideas,” he says, “can allow us to misunderstand the other unless we do enter into dialogue:  to see what we share, to tackle the common questions posed on specific issues and I think most importantly to experience the sacredness of prayer to this God whom we worship in our traditions and yet is universally beyond them as well. And to realise too that our query may be yours also: those moments of questioning we may each share and that we may each learn from one another, humbly before our God.”

Rafiq Clarkson is one of the younger members of the conference committee. The chairmanship of the conference rotates annually around the three faith communities, and he was the chair when it was the turn of the Muslim community two years ago.  He welcomes the wealth of ideas that JCMA conferences present, their family-friendly spirit, and the friendships that grow among the conference participants.

“I’ve been to three conferences,” he says, “and they have explored diverse topics such as holiness, faith in a secular society and protection of the environment. Each topic has given me an opportunity to learn more about my own faith and the faith of others. I’ve been surprised and excited to discover the common themes and differences between the faiths and the respectful and thoughtful way the topics have been prepared.

“I’ve brought my family twice and they have enjoyed excellent childcare – and seeing the tame local kookaburras that visit Pallotti looking for scraps.”

Dr Paul Gardner, Helen’s husband, has also attended every JCMA Winter Conference.  For him, the central value of JCMA is the way in which brings together people of the three faiths in an atmosphere of friendship and mutual respect.  “All over the world,” he says, “we see bitter and violent conflicts, sometimes faith-based, sometimes ethnic, sometimes political, as various people struggle for power and supremacy.  JCMA reminds us that Australia is different, that it is possible, even in troubled times, for Jews, Christians and Muslims to sit and talk together, eat together, learn about each other and build harmonious and respectful relationships.”

Rafiq Clarkson points to the longer-term consequences of these interactions. For him, the highlight of JCMA conferences has always been the friendships that continue after the conference finishes. “When topics of concern hit the newspaper or TV,” he notes, JCMA involvement means that there are people I can contact, ask my questions and hear my concerns and even organise action if required. It offers real, practical and ongoing support to me and others interested in dialogue and practical action among the three Abrahamic faiths.”

Details of the conference and a brochure containing an application form can be downloaded from the JCMA website, http://jcma.org.au/jcma-annual-conference-for-men-women It is also possible to register on line here: http://jcmawinterconference.eventbrite.com/