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.
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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.