Virtual Interview: Paul Chaffee of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio

January 5, 2005

Originally published in the InterfaithNews.Net e-zine

This is the first in a series of virtual interviews with interfaith leaders from around the world. We anticipate hearing stories of inspiration, heartfelt action, and inter-religious cooperation.

Rev. Paul Chaffee is executive director of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio. The Center is an umbrella organization of 20 Bay Area interfaith groups founded in 1995. The Interfaith Center makes its home in the Main Post Chapel (which it cares for) of the Presidio of San Francisco, the nation's newest national park. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Paul has been active in the United Religions Initiative (URI), North American Interfaith Network (NAIN), the Parliament of the World Religions, and local interfaith initiatives, and contributes to this magazine.

Q: Paul, could you tell us something about your religious background?

My parents were Presbyterian missionaries, first in China, then in Thailand, where I grew up. And I went to a boarding school in north India for high school. My parents were remarkably interfaith friendly, I'm happy to say. But it was clear to me by my early teens that most Christians professed a loving God they were convinced would condemn most of the Chinese, Thai, and Indian folk I grew up with. Why? Because they didn't abandon their history, family, and culture to become "Christians" like us. That didn't seem like loving behavior, and theological confusion reigned in me for years. When I left teaching to enter seminary in my late twenties, it was to see if I could define my own faith with integrity without making others wrong. Pacific School of Religion and process theology provided a wonderful context for such a quest.

Q: How did you first become involved in interfaith activities? Was there a specific person or event that motivated you to engage in dialogue and/or action with people from different religious backgrounds?

At the end of my confirmation class at Bangkok's International Church, I went to my Dad and said I couldn't be confirmed a Christian without knowing what other faiths propose. He got the point immediately, suggested I defer the decision for a year, and gave me a book on world religions and another on Christian sects. Years later in seminary I became an intern at the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, an intentional interracial, interfaith congregation founded in San Francisco by Howard Thurman and Alfred Fisk in 1944. The internship evolved into five years of pastoral ministry in an "interfaith" pulpit.

Dr. Thurman, an African American mystic and interfaith pioneer, had retired and returned to San Francisco during the years I served Fellowship Church. We didn't talk about mentors in those days, but being around him was an interfaith spiritual education. Thurman was a giant in matters of the Spirit, and he had the courage to claim, over and over again, that something is true because it is true, not because of where it comes from. He had a natural aptitude for embracing the Other, the stranger, and for recognizing goodness, beauty, and truth wherever he found it.

Thurman also was fond of saying, "You can't be at home anywhere until you are at home somewhere." In seminary I discovered my own spiritual homeland in the United Church of Christ, a tradition whose understanding and faith in Jesus results in a strong allegiance to inclusivity, peace, justice, the integrity of Creation, and learning daily what it means to be a loving person. I've felt nothing but support for my interfaith vocation from my brothers and sisters in the UCC.

Q: What do you find most inspiring about your work at the Interfaith Center?

That's easy. It's the people I come into contact with every day. If human beings are created in the image of God, which my tradition holds, and if human beings give their lives to embody the highest values and truths of their respective traditions, then sharing our stories and lives, our dreams and hopes, is constantly enriching. If all love comes from God, and I discover loving human beings who happen to be Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu, isn't the love connecting us from the same source, regardless of the different stories and truth claims that resonate deeply in us. In all sorts of ways I'm a better Christian because of what I've learned about the love of God from people representing dozens of different traditions.

Put more simply, interfaith relationship is about a sacred kind of friendship, about people who come to the meetings, the retreats, who take on challenging projects and get the word out, who invite strangers into the community and study the arts of hospitality. We share sacred space, pray together out of our different traditions, and treat our diversity as a gift to be treasured. We are not about changing each other but about healing the world and promoting respect and opportunity for every human being.

Q: You are involved in all levels of interfaith community – local, regional, national, international, virtual. Why so much activity in so many spheres? And what keeps you going?

The simple answer is that computers give us the means to do what we never could before. When the United Religions Initiative's formation began, lay and clergy were welcomed equally, not as representatives of their traditions, but simply as themselves. People with ancient creeds and those creating new movements received the same welcome. Anyone who agreed to the "Purpose" drawing us together, "to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religious motivated violence, and to create cultures of peace, justice, and healing for the Earth and all living beings," was invited to the table.

This egalitarian posture is geographical as well as theological. To live up to URI's high purpose, reaching out meant being global as well as local, especially with computer power coming to our aid. How can we consider healing the Earth without connecting locally, globally, and any other way possible?

URI's organizational architecture offers another clue to your question. When institutional structure, accountability, and responsibility came up during URI's formation, the organizational design group was asked to design a new kind of community. People asked for a non-hierarchical network rather than the traditional pyramidal kind of organization that typifies most corporate life these days, religious and secular.

We didn't want power to devolve to the top. We wanted the power and decision-making to stay at the local level. At the same time, we wanted the community to be inclusive geographically as well as religiously. People suffering a thousand miles away, or ten, deserve our care as much as those across the street. Until recently, distance was an insurmountable barrier in people-to-people relationships. Technology and transportation changed that for good.

What keeps me going? My faith, my wife Jan and our family, and a personal commitment. As a teenager in India in the early sixties, the staggering poverty and my inability to do anything about it forged a sense of purpose in me. To the best of my ability, I would dedicate my life to making the world a place with a little less poverty and a little more joy and satisfaction for as many as possible. That hasn't changed.

Q: I recall from URI's annual planning summits in the nineties how many people were worried about the potential overlap between the United Religions Initiative and other interfaith organizations, particularly the Parliament of the World's Religions. I presume from your participation in both arenas that you find the two organizations complementary rather than exclusive. Could you explain your vision of how these organizations – and perhaps others – complement each other, be it through collaborative action, unity of intent, or other means?

The interfaith movement needs as much collaboration, growth, and multiple opportunities as we can generate. The combined budgets of the world's international interfaith organizations are a fraction of the annual income of a single Fortune 500 corporation. But what we lack in financial power can be mitigated by the capacity building and generative relationships that come from collaboration. Interfaith-friendly folk need each other and all the help we can get. Being on purpose means complimenting rather than competing with each other.

Naturally religious folks are tempted to do what the world does, to fight over turf, power, and income sources. But if we are serious about our mission we can't afford that kind of conflict. That's why a Bay Area group created a URI Cooperation Circle "The Bridge" dedicated to supporting the Parliament of the World's Religions and promoting collaboration between URI and the Parliament.

That same sense of cooperation is becoming infectious, I'm happy to say. Last summer NAIN (North American Interfaith Network) and NAEIS (North American Ecumenical and Interfaith Staff) met jointly. This August 12-14 NAIN and URI-North America will meet together in Las Vegas. And the grand-daddy of interfaith organizations in this country, Religious for Peace - USA, is reaching out to grassroots interfaith groups in a number of new, creative ways. All of this cooperation is good for what we call "the interfaith movement."

Q: Similarly, what advantages do you feel accrue from the Interfaith Center's affiliations with multiple interfaith groups?

Cooperation is the most important tool we have in building relationships and creating worlds of peace. Twenty Bay Area interfaith groups are sponsoring organizations of the Center; we relate to dozens of other local groups; and the Center and its board are engaged nationally and internationally.

Along the way we've learned how important it is to tend the home fires. One is easily drawn into global relationships to the point of neglecting the local community you serve and its institutional sustainability. Inner strength and outreach are both important, so it's a day-by-day balancing act.

Q: Finally: anything else you'd like to add for our readers? Speaking personally, this work is an unending series of gifts, surprises in so many cases, strangers stepping forward to say yes and begin making a difference. For a Christian, these are gifts of the Spirit, and I encounter "Jesus" in people, encounter love and commitment in people, that makes me catch my breath in humility and say thank you God.

I also want to thank those who study how the Spirit works in community and have provided new strategies for creating vital organizations. A new approach to community called Appreciative Inquiry guided the formation of United Religions Initiative, and its tools generate multiple blessings. The best book on the subject is The Power of Appreciative Inquiry (2003). Authors Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom are both local-global interfaith activists.

Charles Gibbs and Sally Mahé recently published Birth of a Global Community – Appreciative Inquiry in Action (2003), a case-study about Appreciative Inquiry guiding URI's formation process. These books are a treasure for anyone focused on the transforming influence of vital, healthy faith and interfaith communities.

To return to where we began, it's been a blessing to have my parents smile on their son's interfaith work. Equally important is the joy of doing this work married to a full partner in the vocation, a financial whiz, and a woman without whom my work at the Interfaith Center could never have happened. It's all finally about appreciation.