Monday, July 5, 2010

United Religions Initiative 10th birthday (& a story shared)

On Saturday, June 26th, the United Religions Initiative ( celebrated its 10th birthday.  Members of the URI’s 490 Cooperation Circles (or “CCs”) celebrated in over 70 countries.  The URI’s Global Council, meeting in Amman, Jordan, celebrated in an event that can be seen on YouTube.  And in San Francisco, home of the URI’s Global Offices (or “Hub”), about half the Hub staff (those who didn’t go to Amman) and several of us who had been there for the URI’s founding gathered at the Interfaith Center at the Presidio to eat cake, sing songs, and share memories.

In the photo below, the gentleman in the middle in the blue jacket is Paul Andrews, Executive Producer of “Improbable Pairs” (, collecting stories of friendships in spite of violently devisive issues in war-torn parts of the world.  Sitting in front of him is Rita Semel, a leader in the San Francisco Jewish community and widely acknowledged as the “godmother” of both the United Religions Initiative and the URI.  She’s been doing interfaith since the mid-1960s and was a cub reporter when she covered the signing of the United Nations charter in SF in 1945.  Over Rita’s shoulder is me.  ;-)

In the next photo, the man sitting in the center in the gray suit is Rev. Paul Chaffee, the Director of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio.  At the back of the photo is the Rev. Dr. Heng Sure, a Buddhist monk with the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery who once spent years walking the length of California, in complete silence, making a full prostration every third step.  He has a great voice and can be found lecturing on Buddhism and singing in many YouTube videos.  Heng Sure has been a prominent figure in Bay Area and global interfaith.  Sitting at the table in a turban is Dr. Meji Singh, a Sikh who has been an organizational design consultant for several interfaith organizations, including the URI.  Arrayed against the wall on the right are many URI staffers and CoG Nat. Interfaith Rep. Rachael Watcher.

Heng Sure, on guitar, led us in singing “the URI song”, followed by “Happy Birthday” as I brought in a cake.  Rita blew out the candles and we all circled together to share a favorite story of the URI.  I told a story about one day at the 1998 Global Summit, at which we were working on drafting the URI’s Charter.  I reported on this day at the time to CoG’s e-list, but this Interfaith Blog gives me the opportunity to share the story with a wider audience.  Here’s my original report, with a few added parts to the story…

<< Hi Folks!

Deborah [Ann Light] and I are at a 7-day interfaith conference, the United Religions Initiative Global Summit III.  There are some 200 delegates here from over 50 countries.  We are working on the Preamble, Purpose, Charter, and organizational structure of the soon-to-be United Religions.  It has been (as always) exciting and exhausting, tedious and rewarding -- and we still have 2 more days to go!

(Note the Pentacle on the center flag!)

Something amazing, possibly historic, just happened and so I take advantage of the conference computer room to tell you all.  For years, groups like ours have been sort of at the edges of interfaith, hanging on at the fringes of the populous, mainstream core of revealed religions.  While we have been present at the conferences and have participated, we have had little interaction with each other.  That changed over lunch.

There have been conferences on the environment, but most attending have still seen a split between spirit and nature, and so the spiritually inclined scientists have felt left out.  There have been conferences of tribal peoples, but many of us live in societies that are no longer tribal.  There have been conferences of indigenous religions, but many of us now live far from the lands of our ancestors.  Today we held a gathering of indigenous, Earth-centered, and nature based religions that brought together many of these groups for the first time.

25 of us (13% of the delegates here!) met sitting on the Earth in the central courtyard of the conference facility, in full and dramatic view of the rest of the conference participants, including URI founder Bishop Swing.  There were two Witches, several practitioners from North, Central, and South American tribes (some speaking through interpretors), a practioner of Shinto, two Taoists (one from China, the other from the US), a Hindu from the International Association of Hindu Temples, and several folks whose environmental science is informed by a spiritual regard for the Earth.  (There was also a priestess of Candomble who wished to attend, but couldn’t.)

We shared food, prayers, and personal stories, with each other and the Earth.  We discussed our belief systems and found (not unexpectedly) amazing similarity.  We even knew the same songs, but in different languages.  (We also expressed the same frustrations with the relative marginalization of Earth-religion at these conferences.)

And very important... we shared contact info and agreed that this is the start of a coordinated pan-Pagan presence in the world of global interfaith.  Many of us plan to go to the `99 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa.  We plan to accept Madame Nana Appeadou’s offer to join with traditional African Elders in pan-Pagan ceremonies and programs.

The presence of the scientists in so visible a meeting of Pagans made a big difference.  It lent considerable credibility to what otherwise might have been dismissed as “flaky” or “primitive” or both.  Further, for the rest of the conference, the scientists would say to representatives of the other religions present “If you are serious about concern for the environment and resacralizing the Earth, then you HAVE to listen to what the Pagans are saying.  Their message could be the most important one leading into the next Millenium.”

This was a development that I certainly welcomed, but never anticipated.

It is quite possible that a new day in interfaith has just dawned for us.

After the Pagan lunch, I took the collected food offerings from our group to the site of the Pacha Mama ceremony to give to the Earth.  On my way back, I was stopped by a Catholic priest from Africa.  He said that he had been unable to come to the lunch, but would like to be included in our networking.  I thought that there might be a translation problem and explained that the group was for practitioners of indigenous, Earth-centered, and nature-based spiritualities.  “I may be a Catholic priest”, he said, “but I still do the ceremonies of my people, with one difference... they do them naked and I don’t.”  I leaned in close and said, “That’s okay, many of us do them naked, too.”, and we both laughed.

When I got back to the central courtyard, several Muslims were unrolling their prayer rugs.  Iftekhar Hai, President of the United Muslims of America, grabbed my arm (he tends to do that) and said “We are going to do our afternoon prayers.  We all are aiming towards the same divine.  Come pray with us!”  I explained that I did not know what to do or say.  Iftekhar said “Don’t worry!  Just follow me!”  And so I found myself with Muslims from Uganda, India, and Pakistan, answering the call to prayer just minutes after offering food to Mother Earth.  Allahu akbar, indeed!  This was typical of the spirit of fellowship that pervaded this event.  When I told Iftekhar that I had just returned from the Middle East where I was looking into Sabian roots of the Craft, Iftekhar was overjoyed.  “But they are in the Quran!” he exclaimed, and gave me a big hug.

When the conference reconvened, there was an open-mike session.  I reported on our Pagan lunch and thankd Bishop Swing for making it possible for the world’s Pagans to come together.

As I left the tent, I was stopped by Valentine Mokiwa, of the Christian Council of Tanzania...

VM: Excuse me, I heard what you said about the Pagans.
DHF: Yes?
VM: And I have seen your pamphlet. (“Witchcraft: Commonly-asked Questions...”)
DHF: Yes?
VM: And I saw you praying in the courtyard.
DHF: Yes?
VM: So... I am very confused.  What kind of Muslim are you?

I laughed and explained that I was a guest at Muslim prayers and this led to a pleasant discussion of interfaith worship. >>

As usual, get one of us started telling stories about interfaith experiences and we go on and on, and so I have, and so did everyone else as we remembered the first 10 years and more of the URI and looked forward to the next 10.

Blessed Be,
Don Frew
National Interfaith Representative

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