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Culture & Religion

NEW YORK/ An Unusual Encounter: Friendship and Meeting (1)

  Meeting and Friendship: two words which seem to be interdependent, but it is not so simple. At the New York Encounter, the two-day cultural festival held in the heart of Times Square one week ago, this was made clear through the witness of 30 years of experience at the Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples.    


Times Square in New York must be one of the strangest places on earth. The buildings on every side of the square loom so high that they are all one can see, and on every surface, electronic billboards display video advertisements that flash and jitter to capture the ephemeral attention of the crowds that jostle everywhere. During our two-block walk from the subway station to the Marriott Hotel where the first New York Encounter (a two-day cultural festival organized by members of the lay ecclesial movement, Communion and Liberation) was held, I am approached four times by people offering to sell me t-shirts, tours of the area, noisy toys, or tickets to a Broadway play.

Passing into the Marriott Hotel lobby, and up the escalators to the sixth floor, one enters an entirely new world. At the New York Encounter, no one seizes me by the coat to sell me anything. The only noise is of animated conversations – the sounds of friendship. Welcomed at the desk, the volunteer there, a woman I’ve never met before, pours me a cup of water from her personal bottle when she overhears me say that I am thirsty.

The exhibits consist of foam board posters propped on easels. Each one is the result of a long work of collaboration among friends. For the Los Angeles Habilitation House (LAHH), a non-profit organization whose aim is to train and find employment for adults with disabilities, the posters display photos of its founders and the people who receive their services. The faces in these photos have a strange quality: not merely happiness but the knowledge of belonging and of being happy together. Much information about the history of the organization and its daily operations is available, also, but the overall impact of the exhibit is that it documents a friendship.

Other booths, representing groups that have sprung from the life of Communion and Liberation, line the walls in two separate rooms: the annual Med Conference and Ed Conference, the Meeting at Rimini, Traces Magazine, and among them. Each of these is striking, not for its design or organization (some even use hand-lettered signs), but for the people sitting at each table. Though the faces are different, the expressions resemble those in the photos at the LAHH exhibit. While it is immediately evident that everyone loves the particular works that they represent, there is something more interesting to them. They want to know who I am, what brings me there, what I think, what I want. When I show interest in a book at the AVSI booth, the man there gives me copies of all three of the books there, without asking for a nickel in return.