SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, CALIF. — OVER a crackling public-address system in an elementary-school gym, a monk from the Vedanta Society of Southern California is explaining the meditation schedule at the nearby Rama Krishna Monastery.
``Six of us meditate one hour in the morning, at noon, and in the evening,'' says Swami Viprananda, standing in Western dress before a crowd of about 80. ``But we're not cloistered.... We run errands, do some basketball, jogging, an occasional movie.''
Perhaps 100 yards away, in the courtyard of Mission San Juan Capistrano, Fawab M.S. Yacoob shows standing and bowing positions for prayer, exhibits a Muslim prayer rug, and demonstrates the Muslim call to prayer.
``I bear witness that there is no God but the one God,'' intones a colleague, interpreting Mr. Yacoob's Islamic prayer while standing on a makeshift stage before another crowd of perhaps 100.
In a room adjacent to the courtyard, the Rev. Gordon Moreland is exploring myths and persistent misconceptions about Roman Catholicism.
``Catholics stress sacrament and Eucharist while Protestants stress study and the word,'' says Fr. Moreland, director of the House of Prayer for Priests, Catholic Diocese of Orange County.
In approximately 30 different 90-minute workshops, 600 local attendees - lay and clergy alike - recently attended Orange County's first Religious Diversity Faire. Held on a recent Saturday within the ramparts of the oldest building in the state, the ecumenical enterprise was designed to promote understanding among the many faith traditions of this most conservative of Southern California counties.
``The whole point is to give people a chance to see about others' religious faiths and traditions,'' says Rabbi Allen Krause who set the idea in motion in mid-1993. ``I'm sure most of us have never seen a Muslim worship service.... If we could just see into one, we could get to understand one another better, and thereby appreciate each other more.''
Spiritual leaders from more than a dozen faiths - Buddhist, Hindu, Bahai, Islamic, Christian (both Protestant and Catholic), and more - were on hand to guide the public with introductory lectures and demonstrations. Each workshop concluded with questions on every aspect of belief and practice.
Do you believe in reincarnation? What is swami, and can a woman become one? What do you mean by ``realization''? What are your scriptures? Why do you face Mecca when you pray? How do you become chief rabbi? What is the infallibility of the pope?
On the premise that knowledge is the key to understanding one another, the gathering was the culmination of more than a year of planning by an ecumenical committee of clergy and lay people sponsored jointly by the National Conference (formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews) and the Alliance for Spiritual Community.
Rabbi Krause, chair of the Interfaith Clergy Committee of the National Conference, says the advent of the global village makes such gatherings more important than in the past.
``This is especially needed in Orange County where people tend to be very parochial about religion,'' he says.
The past president of his ministerial association in northern California, Krause says it was years before he was even invited to the Orange County chapter.
``I think people tend to be very much into their own thing down here,'' he says.
Attendance figures may undermine that thesis. Expecting about 250, organizers were thrilled when over 600 showed.
``It is very significant that on a beautiful Saturday in November, all the major faith traditions could be gathered in the spirit of education, not proselytizing,'' said Msgr. Lawrence J. Baird, director of ecumenical affairs for the Catholic Diocese of Orange. ``This is bringing together interested students but also catechists and educators volunteering in their synagogues, churches, and mosques to educate their children and children's children.''
The event was well received by the public. Many said their preconceptions about other faiths were shattered by seeing them through the eyes of practicing individuals rather than scholars, the media, or documentarists.
``I realized as I saw a priest talking that the church is not so monolithic as it appears from the outside,'' said Rose Kravitz, a Jew from Costa Mesa. ``As I heard the ideas, I felt there was more understanding and less dogmatism than I expected.''
``The Jewish service was so beautiful it made me cry,'' said Nancy Knipe, a Unitarian who quickly grabbed a prayer book to recite a Jewish prayer she discovered. ``I liked the emphasis on unity expressed here today ... that we are all part of the same thing. It makes me laugh to think I wasn't the first to think of that.''
Brahmachari Vedachaitanya, a Hindu monk from nearby Trabuco Canyon who spoke on Vendanta practice, says he has spoken at similar public gatherings and finds them increasingly necessary.
``I think we have a problem in this country because we are simply not tolerant of other religions,'' he said. ``But we don't know anything about them. The more we learn, the more we find that we are not so different.''
Vedachaitanya said the Orange County gathering brought about humility by forcing those of different faiths to rub shoulders in public.
``I think we all understand there is one underlying truth and that this is the basis of harmony,'' he said. ``Sometimes we think we know it better than others.''