NOTE: The Charter of the United Religions Initiative was signed in June 2000. Today URI has 185 Cooperation Circles in 46 countries networked with each other and jointly committed "to promote daily, enduring interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence, and to create cultures of peace, justice, and healing for the Earth and all living beings."
Like the German chocolate cake they serve at the Hotel Gloria in Rio de Janeiro, the 2002 United Religions Initiative Global Assembly was a many-layered splendor. The sweetness of the August gathering, with its theme of Sharing the Sacred - Serving the World, came from dozens of one-on-one and group conversations we each had with new and old friends, gathered from 37 countries and approximately 50 religious traditions.
Even more than in past years, the 300 participants were grassroots leaders from around the world engaged in creating and developing interfaith groups in their home communities, usually using a URI Cooperation Circle format. Rather than one-time conferees, they came to Rio as the eyes, ears, and voice of hundreds, sometimes thousands of others. And they brought remarkable stories.
Sheik Musa Fhalil, 43, comes from Gulu in northern Uganda. We met getting on a bus for the peace-march at Copacabana Beach. Tall and slim in soft cotton robes and turban, Imam Musa is the spiritual leader or "District Kahd" of 50,000 Muslims in his region. A glowing smile unlocks his reserve, and his occasional public words always quieted the room, catching the Assembly's attention. He flew to Rio as spokesperson for himself and three other leaders, Anglican and Coptic bishops and a Roman Catholic archbishop, members of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative CC.
In 1996 these leaders and their colleagues stepped beyond their differences to see if they could become interfaith peacemaking partners against what is now a 17-year-old civil war. They live in communities where, day and night, people are dispensable pawns caught between tanks and machine-gun warriors. Any kind of travel is particularly dangerous, coming to Rio a risk. Yet six years since the pact their peacemaking role has assumed national dimension, casting them in the role of negotiators.
When Sheik Fhalil and I stole a couple hours to talk in one of Hotel Gloria's restaurants, negotiations towards a significant breakthrough were going forward a continent away. A phone call earlier in the day said Ugandan newspapers had reported the rebels' decision to kill religious leaders. "But I think it is a false report," said Musa softly. The rebels are as desperate for real peace as the government, and the religious leaders have earned the trust of both sides.
Conversations with Sheik Fhalil, URI trustee Ms. Despina Namwembe from Kampala, and other Ugandan participants suggested the possibility of creating a relationship between the Interfaith Center at the Presidio and URI circles in Uganda. Everyone in Rio was doing the same thing - sharing concerns, dreaming about collaborative opportunities, sharing addresses.
Along with the stories, historic markers emerged at Sharing the Sacred - Serving the World, signaling a coming of age for the organization and its role in a growing global interfaith movement:
§ For the first time URI left the United States to hold a global assembly, and the spiritually interfaith, artistically rich, indigenous-appreciative organizing energy of the Brazilian host team was breathtaking. Simultaneous English-Portuguese translation into English, with individual translators for Spanish, was largely successful in plenary sessions, and a team of translators fanned out to small group discussions and kept people communicating. Equally impressive was the multi-program interfaith engagement with Rio's harsh poverty and the grace and imagination that bubbled up as our hosts shared their mission efforts with us.
Anyone supposing that the Charter-writing URI gatherings at Stanford in the late 90s were fuzzy-wuzzy feel-good sessions would have been disabused of this notion in Rio. In a country with the world's most complex human DNA, URI in the aggregate seemed totally at home with itself. Rio's complexities and attractions inspired us to think in new ways about living creatively into the global challenge of huge, multiplying megalopolises around the world.
§ At Rio the long-serving URI Interim Global Council gave way to a newly elected Global Council, a transition that signals better global representation and less dependence on northern California participation. Symbolically, having a Russian circle represented in the Assembly for the first time was also important. URI headquarters remain in San Francisco. But nearly a dozen trustees stepped down, replaced by a much more geographically distributed class of leaders, including a Muslim woman from Tajikistan. With this shift, URI has clearly established its international bona fides.
§ Following four years of Charter-writing summits, the Charter-signing celebration in 2000, and regional assemblies this past year in Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe-Middle East, North America, and South America, URI was finally ready in August 2002 to pay more attention to the second half of its Charter. On those pages a broad action agenda is outlined foreseeing global URI activity generated around (1) sharing wisdom and cultures of faith traditions, (2) nurturing cultures of healing and peace, (3) rights and responsibilities, (4) ecological imperatives, (5) sustainable just economics, and (6) supporting the overall URI.
Each of these tracks was introduced and given time at Rio, though it was mostly tip-of-the-iceberg stuff at this point, sharing stories and initial dreams as a way to begin.
Equally important, thematically, was an emphasis on positive peacemaking skills and the introduction of a new URI global program, "Visions for Peace Among Religions." Professor Mohammed Abu-Nimer, a Palestinian Muslim doing pioneering work in positive peacemaking out of Washington DC's American University, received more lecture-time with the Assembly than any speaker in URI history. His three sessions surveying new approaches to making peace received a standing ovation.
§ On several occasions the need for intrafaith (relations within a tradition) activity to support interfaith work emerged as a significant theme. As Professor Abu-Nimer said, "If as a Christian you want to respect me as a Muslim, the first thing is to go back and work within your Christian community about issues of respect." Indigenous participants in URI have already come together as a community within the community, and similar intrafaith activities seem likely to be sprouting up soon, particularly as more interfaith educational materials are developed. It may well be that generating respect and peace within faith families is more difficult than doing so between traditions.
§ Leaders of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions and United Religions Initiative have always been friendly, but Rio witnessed a developing partnership between these two relatively young international grassroots organizations. Earlier this summer, before the Assembly, members of the Parliament's Council visited Charles Gibbs, URI's executive, and talked about new kinds of cooperation.
The Parliament subsequently double-staffed Rio URI with executives Josh Borkin and Travis Rejman. They came with Parliament news on the tip of their tongues and were clearly happy to be full participants in the Assembly. Thursday evening was a 'free' night for exploring Rio. But about 70 conferees, including URI's president, the Rt. Rev. William Swing and his wife Mary, attended a specially scheduled 8:00 p.m. session on the Parliament. Plans were shared about the July 14-21, 2004 Parliament in Barcelona. URI circles were encouraged to plan their own Barcelona meetings in conjunction with the Parliament. Various partnering possibilities were envisioned in an hour of discussion.
Just prior to the Assembly, at the Interim Global Council's last meeting, trustees were joined by the soon-to-be installed newcomers in the Global Council. Their shared agenda concluded with finances and fundraising. A challenging financial picture and an ambitious fundraising report both were sobering. But the morning's meeting concluded with an appreciative exercise: in small groups people shared with each other best stories about successful attempts to meet challenging financial needs.
The buzz from these conversations led Deepak Naik, continuing trustee from the United Kingdom, to call an ad hoc breakfast meeting at seven o'clock the next morning. A dozen showed up the first day, and the session moved to a separate dining room as the week progressed and 20 folks braved the early hour to be involved.
Outcomes of those meetings include a new, still-to-be-named philanthropy cooperation circle. And a three-year 14-member international fundraising policy group aimed at long-term financial sustainability will be chaired by Bishop Swing. Grimness about paying our bills gave way to a measured enthusiasm as the ad hoc committee's work was summarized each day for the Assembly.
Finances were not ignored, in other words, in Rio. But the vitality of URI will always be the power of women and men of faith and practice who revel in their diversity and differences while embracing an activist's posture toward creating a world where the broken are healed, where respect, safety, and opportunity are normative for the whole human family and our wounded home, the Earth. Working one person at a time is not a problem for this movement, or the fact that the work has only just begun. We left our stories with each other and headed home to share them with our families, magnify them, and create new ones.
Charles Gibbs' mother, Ruth, goes back to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to start a grandmother's cooperation circle. Trustee Yehuda Stolov returns to Jerusalem to lead the astonishing Interfaith Encounter Association, successfully sponsoring interfaith dialogue in half a dozen 'impossible' contexts. A group of URI South Asian leaders returned home talking about a peace pilgrimage connecting India and Pakistan. Our hearts, prayers, and a few checks went home with brothers and sisters returning to recently troubled countries like Argentina and Venezuela and the many returning to countries suffering war, wracking poverty, and environmental degradation.
Brazil offered a unique library of stories and learning experiences for each of us attending Sharing the Sacred - Serving the World. It was a healing, generative place, safe in spite of a sometimes-overwrought reputation for muggers and pickpockets.
The charming side of Rio's reputation - its beauty and music and wonderful cosmopolitan people - made the week a five-star event. Our official hosts, the Rio Interfaith Movement, the Sao Paulo CC and Viva Rio, with URI trustee Andre Porto chairing the host committee, presented their community as a living example of why interfaith cooperation is so important and how it can succeed in difficult circumstances. For that we say Thank-you! Or as we learned to say in Rio, Obrigato!
Paul Chaffee, who wrote this account of the August 18-25, 2002 URI Global Assembly, is contact person for the Interfaith Center at the Presidio Cooperation Circle in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about URI, visit http://www.uri.org.
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