When 3,000 people from 82 countries arrive in Spokane this summer, the city will have one chance to prove itself.
Prove it can be hospitable to a myriad of races, cultures and religions.
Prove it can handle one of the biggest, most diverse, and certainly the longest convention in Spokane history.
And prove it can hold its own in the lucrative field of international tourism - a market the city’s convention officials have long wanted to tap.
“As a community we have an opportunity to do something that we haven’t done since the World’s Fair,” said Mina Gokee, director of convention sales for the Spokane Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“How do you put a value on people from 80 different countries going home and telling their friends and families about Spokane?”
That’s why the planning for the 1997 Subud World Congress began two years ago. Preparations for the convention - which is expected to pump $6.5 million into the local economy - run the gamut, from arranging translation services in five languages to learning the intricacies of cooking Indonesian dishes.
Subud is an international spiritual organization with more than 12,000 members worldwide. The World Congress happens every four years and this is its first stop in the United States. It’s been held in such places as Australia and Japan. The 1993 convention was near Cali, Columbia.
Subud is an abbreviation of the Sanskrit words Susila, Budhi and Dharma. Together they mean follow the will of God with the help of divine power that works both within us and without.
An Indonesian man from the island of Java began Subud in 1924 when he is said to have had a spontaneous spiritual experience that brought him closer to God.
Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo - known to his followers as ‘Bapak,’ a respectful Indonesian term meaning ‘father,’ - began to teach others about this spiritual revelation.
Subud now exists in more than 80 countries. It is not a religion and its members are often deeply involved in their own faiths, including Christianity, Judaism or Buddhism.
Subud also is a nonprofit corporation with three branches - welfare, youth activities, and culture and the arts. The company runs social programs in many countries, including health clinics and orphanages.
The convention will be in Spokane Aug. 3 to 17, with attendees starting to arrive in late July.
Subud attendees will form a small international village in downtown Spokane for two weeks, with workshops and prayer sessions throughout the day. Special cafes set up at the convention center will remain open until 2 a.m. They will feature live entertainment every night, with performers from among the Subud attendees.
Convention goers will tour the city, host international trade and musical events, eat in city restaurants and shop in Spokane’s stores.
Site Coordinator Rifka Bullen helped write the proposal that landed the convention in the United States. Bullen moved to Spokane from California two years ago to plan the international event.
Spokane competed for the convention with Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Calif., and Tucson, Ariz. Spokane was chosen for a variety of reasons, Bullen said.
“It highlights aspects of American culture that we wanted to emphasize,” Bullen said, explaining that the site selection team found people in Spokane open, friendly and casual. Spokane’s connection to Native American culture also played a part, Bullen said.
The city has all the convention center facilities the group needs, but is small enough for people to walk to restaurants, Riverfront Park, the Spokane River and to events, she said.
“This really was the kind of site we’d envisioned, with a ring of hotels, a beautiful park and the river,” Bullen said.
Subud attendees run the gamut from two famous Parisian clothing designers to people who are being sponsored because they can’t afford to pay for the trip themselves. Attendees are staying everywhere from the presidential suite at the Red Lion City Center to campsites at Riverside State Park.
“You just better be aware that on our streets there are going to be people that look very different,” Gokee said. “We want the community to get united behind this.”
Many attendees also will bring their children - for whom elaborate entertainment programs have been planned. Children age 5 and younger will attend pre-school programs. Older children from countries such as Argentina, Israel and Portugal will go white-water rafting, to Silverwood and to the Cheney Cowles Museum.
“We’re trying to be prepared to take care of 500 young people,” said Harla Jean Biever, a tour manager for Group Coordinators. “It’s the biggest challenge we’ve had because folks are coming in from all over the world.”
Reserving rooms has become a full-time job for Ann Brand, a sales assistant at the visitors bureau. She’s been booking rooms for the convention since last year and has received some unusual requests. Some families want televisions removed from the rooms. Others ask that their beds face north or south.
Bovill, Idaho, held special interest for Oliver Bovill, of England, who asked for help arranging a visit to the town south of Coeur d’Alene that bears his name.
Explaining American beds has been Brand’s greatest challenge.
Things taken for granted in the United States become more complicated for international visitors. Many don’t understand what is meant by double, queen, and king-sized beds. “They’d request four beds in a room for a family of four,” Brand said.
To more precisely describe the beds, Brand measured them - converting from feet and inches to meters, because most of the world uses the metric system.
Brand’s most recent figures show that 847 rooms have been booked, accommodating 2,094 people from 59 countries.
Brand’s extra efforts are indicative of the entire city’s preparations for the international event.
Convention Center caterers have been refining meal plans for two years, trying to satisfy numerous dietary requirements, said Scott Middleton, director of Service America Catering.
Many attendees are vegans, who don’t eat any animal products. Others are vegetarians. There also are requirements specific to certain countries. People from India, for example, don’t eat beef. And several requests - for things like tofu, couscous, and endless pots of black tea - have been worked into the menus. The head chef is even learning to cook Indonesian dishes.
Middleton said his company is used to feeding large numbers of people. But the length of the convention poses a challenge. “We’re used to doing the numbers, just not over that period of time. I’m sure the chef will be pulling his hair out before the end of the conference,” he said.
The Convention and Visitors Bureau has begun holding sensitivity courses to teach people about cultural differences, including use of language, gestures, and eye contact.
The Spokane Symphony will learn a symphony composed by a Subud member and perform it at a benefit concert during the week. Subud will donate all proceeds to three Spokane charities - The Spokane Symphony Educational Program, the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center and the American Indian Community Center.
“The program itself is a big program,” said Jonathan Martin, director of the Spokane Symphony. “This is not the theme from Star Wars, intermission and then Stars and Stripes. These are complicated pieces. It will take three full rehearsals to prepare.”
Seafirst Bank will set up money exchange locations for converting numerous international currencies into American dollars.
Restaurants will put posters with the Subud emblem in their windows. Colorful flags draped throughout the downtown will welcome the convention participants. Name tags will have different colored stickers to indicate the languages people speak.
While the community is busily trying to prepare to be welcoming, Subud members also are planning to give back to Spokane.
International cultural events, including plays, art exhibits, speeches and trade shows scheduled during the two-week convention will be open to the public.
A 10-day international art show will be held at City Hall’s Chase Gallery. Architect Antoine Predock will speak at The Met about his work and will sign copies of his book. A trade show will feature business products from around the world and a “theaterfest” will feature international one-act plays.
“We looked at how we could give back to the community,” Bullen said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: See related story under the headline: Bridging cultural gaps