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October URI Executive Director’s Letter

Charles Gibbs, Executive Director of the United Religions Initiative, writes in his October letter about the International Day of Peace, celebrated on September 21st.

By Charles Gibbs

Dear URI Friends,

Greetings of love and peace.

I would like to share some reflections on the International Day of Peace observances I was privileged to take part in. You can find stories of many other URI observances on our website http://www.uri.org/CC_News/Global_News/IDP2005.html.

World Peace Festival: On September 18, I was in Amenia, NY for a wonderful peace festival hosted by the World Peace Prayer Society under the leadership of their director, Deborah Moldow, who is also a URI Global Council Trustee and convener of the URI UN CC. The festival was a powerful experience that supported people’s deep yearning for peace that rises from within each of us and is manifested through our lives and our communities.

One highlight was an interfaith ceremony offering prayers for peace from many different traditions. I find that these days whenever I am asked to offer a prayer or to speak I begin, as I have for years, by extending greetings of love and peace from the URI community around the world. Then I ask people to be mindful of the gift of life and to experience a deep gratitude for the miracle and mystery of each breath we take, which connects us with all live on this Earth. I ask people to experience gratitude that we are able to gather in safety in a world where so many live each day in fear; to gather in the midst of abundance when so many live each day hungry. And I ask people to invite into our midst our sisters and brothers all over the world who may live in fear or hunger that they may join us in a time of rest and renewal and that we may join them in a deeper commitment to work for a world where all can live lives free from fear about their survival and free from hunger

The other highlight of the day was the World Peace Prayer Ceremony, which began with a stirring message by Masami. Saionji, Chair of the World Peace Prayer Society, who invited all present to live into the fullness of their divine nature as lights of peace. Following her inspiring remarks, the flags of 191 nations and of communities of identity, such as Tibet and Palestine and the native peoples of North America, which are not formally recognized as nations, were paraded as those gathered prayed that the people of each nation live in peace and that peace prevail on Earth. The ceremony was deeply moving and is, I believe, a critically important tool in helping to create a global consciousness for peace.

International Day of Peace: Three days later, on September 21, I joined Monica Willard, URI’s UN representative, many members of the URI UN CC, UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, and Mrs. Annan, several UN Messengers for Peace, including Elie Wiesel and Jane Goodall, and 500 young people to observe the International Day of Peace at the UN. The URI is blessed with Monica’s leadership, and the UN has been blessed by all the work she has done over the years to build a powerful observance of the IDP within the UN.

As he prepared to ring the Peace Bell, which was cast from coins donated by children all over the world, the Secretary General reflected that this day is intended to grow into a day of global ceasefire where all people all over the Earth step back from violence and reflect on the practice of peace. He commented that people often say that 24 hours is not a very long time to devote to the practice of peace, but 24 hours is, he said, a long enough time for people to look across the barbed wire that separates them and ask what they might do to remove the need for the barbed wire. Having stood recently with URI’s Global Council and staff and many Korean colleagues looking across the barbed wire of the Demilitarized Zone in Korea, I have a heightened understanding of what Mr. Annan was talking about.

Following the ceremonial ringing of the bell in the UN’s peace garden, the action shifted to Conference Room 3 where 500 young people and a few selected adults (I was privileged to be among that number representing URI), gathered to hear UN Undersecretary General, Shashi Tharoor, Mrs. Nane Annan and several of the Ambassadors for Peace. The first two speakers read from entries about peace that had been submitted to the UN by young people from all over the world and can be found at www.un.org/Pubs/CyberSchoolBus/.

Elie Wiesel asked why we celebrate war and not peace. He said there is nothing beautiful or glorious about war. It is ugly and grotesque. Both sides suffer in war. It is time we found the words and the will to make peace seem more glorious than war, he said. Then he offered a gentle but clear challenge to the young people, It’s up to you to make sure that my past does not become your future.

A highlight of the program was the link, by internet video streaming, with young people in the Middle East and in Northern Ireland. The young people from Israel attend the Bridge Over the Wadi School where Jewish and Arab children study side by side. The school was founded in the midst of so much despair and violence by parents who believed it was their duty to give their children the opportunity to grow up differently, to create an experiential foundation upon which to build a better world. Based on the comments from the students, this noble experiment is working.

The young people from Northern Ireland attended the Hazelwood College (a high school) in Belfast where Protestant and Catholic young people study side by side. I was deeply impressed by the leadership of these young people, especially the young women, as they spoke of the power for transformation that comes with this sort of schooling. One person commented, “I’m a Protestant and I had never met a Catholic before coming here. Now I know many Catholics and I love them all very much. They’re my best friends.” Another remarked, “We’re not going to do what our fathers and uncles did before us, we’re going to break out of the mold.”

After an internet facilitated interaction with students from these schools, we heard from several young activists who are committed to inspiring and practical projects of transformation. One of the most stirring moments came when a young Israeli Jew, Yaakov “Kofy” Sadan, spoke of his experience in Seeds of Peace, a program that brings Jewish and Arab young people together to live and learn with and from each other in the US. Kofy spoke of how he hadn’t known that he would have to work so closely with Arab young people and sleep in the same room with them. He was terrified when, having grown up with the warning to never turn your back on an Arab or you’ll be stabbed in the back, he suddenly realized that he was to sleep with a Jordanian on one side of him and a Palestinian on the other side. “I didn’t sleep much that night because I was so afraid,” he said. But his fear passed as he came to realize that the “other side” are just human beings. He acknowledged that the conflict is complex, that peace is hard work and will take a long time, but he was clear that peace was much more possible because the seeds of peace were planted, a conviction shared by his Palestinian colleague, Ahmad Mamdouh Medhat.

Following these presentations, we participated in the World Peace Prayer Ceremony, led by Deborah Moldow. The ceremony began with the ringing of a peace bell forged from metal reclaimed from weapons. Nane Annan was invited to ring the bell on behalf of the nations of the world. I was honored to join her, on behalf of URI, representing the world’s religions. As it had two days before, this ceremony created a powerful field of prayer and global consciousness for peace.

Our next stop was across the street from the UN at the Isaiah Wall, so named because it bears the famous quotation from the prophet Isaiah, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war any more.” Joining with Heidi Kuhn, founder of Roots of Peace, we participated in a ceremonial planting of a grapevine, celebrating her organization’s removal of 100,000 landmines in Afghanistan and the harvesting of 80,000 tons of table grapes from the newly freed fields.

Finally, we journeyed to the lower end of Manhattan near the site of the World Trade Center to St. Peter’s Catholic Church, which, with St. Paul’s Episcopal Chapel, served as centers of spiritual support in the horrifying and yet hopeful days following the September 11 attacks. Fr. Lyndon Harris, who led the ministry of St. Paul’s Chapel, urged those gathered to focus not on September 11, but on September 12, which marked an extraordinary coming together of countless people from all cultures, races, religions and walks of life to begin to build a new tomorrow out of the smoldering ashes of yesterday. He spoke compellingly of the need to plant gardens of forgiveness all over the world, not to excuse the evil that has been done, but to create visible expressions of our need to move from the experience of that evil into a different life based not on retribution but on transformation.

Marianne Williamson spoke eloquently about the human connection with the divine. She challenged all present to commit ourselves to the spiritual practices that will allow us increasingly to manifest the divine qualities of love, compassion and peace within ourselves and through our actions in the world for the good of all.

Following Marianne’s remarks, Deborah Moldow, for the second time that day, led a World Peace Prayer Ceremony. It was thrilling, in this church whose roof had been pierced by a piece of metal during the collapse of the Trade Towers, to see the flags of all the world’s nations waving, each distinct and beautiful, and together creating an inspiring whole that celebrated our distinctness and uplifted our underlying unity.

Having been given the honor, on behalf of URI, to offer the closing prayer, I noted that members of URI all over the world were joining with us in observing the International Day of Peace, and I commented that our prayers for all the nations of the world had filled the church with over 6 billion people – in that moment we were one. One not only with those we loved easily, but with those we didn’t like and may have found it excruciatingly hard to love. I prayed that we be guided in our work to see divine love manifest within us and through us as we lived into our call to be light to the world.

It is a joy and a privilege to share this journey with you. Let us, together, be light to the world.


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One Response to “October URI Executive Director’s Letter”

  1. » On March 13th, 2006 at 8:39 am Dr. Jacobus Schoneveld Said:

    Dear Canon Gibbs,

    As former general secretary of the International Council of Christians and Jews (at the Martin Buber House in Heppenheim, Germany) and, until recenly, as scholar-in-residence at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies in Jerusalem I am very interested in the acivities of URI. Please send me your information and news letter. I have been working as academic consultant with the Israeli organisation “Center for Educational Technology” in Tel Aviv and with the Palestinian organisation “Ă„rab Educational Institute - Open Windows” in Bethlehem on an educational project “Living in the Holy Land” that develops material for Israeli and Palestinian education on the three monotheistic religions.
    I look forward to hearing fromm you.

    Yours sincerely
    J (Coos) Schoneveld
    Ocarinalaan 172, 2287 RE Rijswijk, THe Netherlands
    Tel. +31.70.3969798

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