Saturday, March 9, 2013

URI Global Council Meeting 2013, Day 4 (part 1)

Friday, March 8, 2013 -- Today was a day of ups and downs, of fun and sorrow.

 Most of the fourth - 2012-2016 - Global Council of the United Religions Initiative

I got up early to do some research on the computer, then joined Audri & Sally Mahe at 8:00am for a breakfast meeting about the URI's Multiregion.  The Multiregion is the URI's 8th Region, after the ones that carve up the Earth's surface into geographic areas like Middle East & North Africa (MENA) or Southeast Asia & the Pacific (SEAPac).  (Read more about the Regions here:

The Multiregion is for Cooperation Circles 1) whose members are in more than one Region, or 2) that are dedicated to a concept that transcends Regional boundaries, like Women or the Environment.  The Multiregion (MR) has always been a sort of stepchild in the URI and at this Global Council (GC) meeting we were feeling the pressure to prove its worth.  Audri Scott Williams (Christian & Indigenous Cherokee / USA) is one of the three Multiregion Trustees.  The other current Trustee is Vrajapati Das (Hindu / India).  The third MR Trustee, Heidi Rautiounmaa (Lutheran & Indigenous Saami / Finland) resigned after only a few months in office.  Sally Mahe is the Staff person asigned to Regional suppport.  Vrajapati was meeting with other Indian Trustees, so it was just me, Audri, and Sally.  I am not a Multiregion Trustee, I am a continuing Trustee (kind of like an Emerita in CoG, continuing from the previous administration), but they have asked me to help out due to my long history with the Multiregion.  (In fact, Deborah Ann Light, Rowan Fairgrove, and I helped found the Spirituality & the Earth Cooperation Circle or CC, a Multiregion CC that was one of the URI's first CCs and the first ever to donate funds to the URI.)  And so, I akm part of the Multiregions Regional Leadership Team (RLT).  While Audri and I talked about the various ways the Multiregon has been shortchanged over its 12 year existence, Sally stressed the importance of us explaining how the Multiregion can serve its current and possibly new members.

Gathering in the meeting room, facilitator Diana Whitney said that this was International Women's Day.  Ravi Kandage (Buddhist / Sri lanka) read a passage from the Buddha.  URI Associate Executive Director Debra Bernstein and Africa, Great Lakes Zone Regional Coordinator Despina Namwembe (Orthodox Christian / Uganda) led us all in reading a prayer by St. Francis.  It was all very nice, but I couldn't help wondering why we were opening International Women's Day with a man reading a teaching by another man, followed by us all reading a prayer written by another man and directed to a male god.  I expressed my confusion to Monica Willard, URI's representative at the United Nations, who agreed with me and said that she was often confrinted with this kind of cognitive disconnect at the UN.

Monica shared a video from the UN, a song called "One Woman", sung by several women all over the world.  I highly recommend checking this out on YouTube (  This was well, and emotionally, received.

We returned to our work binder for a long reading aloud of "provisional" guiding documents for the Regional Leadership Teams that had been approved by the previous GC.  These addressed the Significance of Regions and RLTs in the URI's Organizational Structure; RLT Purpose; RLT Roles & Responsibilities; RLT Leadership, Governance & Oversight; RLT Fundraising; RLT Qualifications; Key Principles of Good Practice for Individual RLT Members; and so on, for several pages.  This is wonky stuff, and the non-English speakers were having a tough time following along.  I could tell from the way several people pronounced the words that they didn't clearly understand what they were reading.  The follow-up Q&A included a lot of clarifying of meaning.  Some folks talked about the difficulties of travel in their Regions, such as between India and Pakistan in the Asia Region, or between almost anywhere and Israel in the MENA Region.

We had a short break, during which Audri, Vrajapati, and I continued to work on Multiregion issues.  After the break, we heard/saw lengthy presentations on the URI's global initiatives.  A "global initiative" basically means that an issue has been deemed both global and sufficiently important to warrant having its own paid staff, and usually involves several related programs.  Basically, you can learn about these by going to the URI page (, finding the drop down menu "Action Areas", and clicking on each one.  These are:
       * Global Advocacy (or the URI at the United Nations) -- Monica Willard spoke about URI involvement in the International Day of Peace (September 21), International Women's Day (today), the Millennium Devedlopment Goals (MDGs), and more.  She was eager to see as many URI CCs as possible get involved.  GC Chair Kiran Bali (Hindu / UK), who had recently addressed the UN on the URI's behalf said that she had seen with her own eyes how well-respected Monica is at the UN.
       * Youth -- Matthew Youde (Christian / Wales) & Krithika Harish (Hindu / UK) talked about MANY URI related youth programs around the world.  I think that a PantheaCon program on opportunities for Pagan youth to get involved in global interfaith work would be a grerat program!
       * Women -- Debra, Special Projects Manager Michelle Clark, Despina, and Asia Coordinator Qutub Kidwai (Muslim / India) talked about programs addressing women's rights around the world.  However, "women's rights" meant things like "being allowed to got to school or even "existing".  Qutub reported that in India there are so many cases of pre-natal gender screening leading to selective abortion of girls that there are now only 896 women for every 1000 men, and it's getting worse.  Many families extend this to just killing girl children outright.  Despina made the point that "what is a given for women in one region, may be a privilege for women in another".  She thanked the African men in the room for their vision & commitment.  She said that at home in Uganda, she is called a "girl-man" because she speaks out with confidence.  "We need more girl-men," she said.  One of the programs in this Initiative is engaged in trauma-counseling and support for victims of gang-rape in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
       * Peace-building & Conflict Resolution -- Laurie Richardson, a consultant for this Initiative, said that we need to integrate our peace-building activities throughout the URI network.

After a short break, we met as Regions to discuss how to integrate these Initiatives into our Regions.  Again, the uniqueness of the Multiregion came up.  All of these Initiatives started as projects of or were rooted in Multiregion CCs.  We don't need to integrate them into the multiregion; they ARE the Multiregion!  We realized that we live in the Hub Office's shadow... once a Multiregion project is recognized as having global significance, the central office steps in a funds it and it becomes much more high-profile, and people forget its Multiregion origins.

(BTW, when I said in an earlier post that the URI Trustees carriy reponsibility for over a million people, I was operating with old data.  Aas of this meeting, there are over 2.6 million people involved in the URI!)

Lunch was taken up with a scheduled meeting to discuss a complicated Initiative - the Indigenous Initiative.  This has always been complicated, tied up with URI unceratinty about how to relate to the various Indigenous groups in the URI, and fluid and shifting administrative structures among the Indigenous CCs.  The meeting included Executive Director Charles Gibbs (Episcopal / USA), me, Alejandrino Quispe (Quechua / Peru), and about 10 others. I don't want to say too much about who was there or what others said, because this was a very emotional meeting.

There was agreement that the URI very much needds and Indigenous Initiative, but that it needs to be a global Initiative.  Charles acknowledged, thanked, and honored the Latin American Indigenous people for leading the way in bringing indigenous concerns to the URI. We went around the table and each person told their own story of being indigenous or connected with indigenous people or sprituality in the URI.  Almost everyone had a lot to say.  Almost everyone was moved to tears, by their own experiences and by the words of others.  Almost everyone had stories of being discriminated against or made to feel devaslued. Almost everyone went on much longer than our meeting structure could allow, but exceedingly important sharing and healing was happening.

Just as we got to me, Charles apologised deeply, but said that we would have to cut things short.  I said that Charles and others all knew me as "the Bylaws guy", someone who sticks to the rules and follows the program, but that he was going to have to indulge me as in this gathering I needed to speak the truth of my heart, things I had never said before in the URI, even if it took longer.  This is what I can remember...

"I am a Wiccan Priest.  Even though we're the 4th largest religion in the US, people know little about us.  Wicca comes out of the pre-Christian indigenous religions of Europe, sepcifically out of the mixing of Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Roman religions that happend in Britain.  Like my Indigenous brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, I speak to my ancestors and they speak to me.  I speak to the wind and the waves and to the Earth, and they speak to me.  I speak to my Gods, and they speak to me.  This has been just too strange for this country to deal with.  Witchcraft is still illegal in parts of this country.  Even where it isn't illegal, Witches have had to worry about losing child custody or losing jobs or suffering violence if others found out they were Wiccan.  I have been blessed with living in the Bay Area, where it has been safe to be public.  I have always felt that as long as any of us had to saty in the closet, those of us who could be out had an obligation to do so.  This led to my involvement in interfaith.   Even in the URI, I have been wary of speaking to much of about my spirituality for fear of being seen as just too strange.  Even here, in the URI, we had to push our way in.  There was resistance to our being here.  I am happy to say that once people got to know us, we were quickly welcomed.

In 1998, at one of the planning meetings for the URI at Stanford University, Deborah Ann Light and I noticed that all the decisions seemed to be being made by the "big" religions in the center of the room - Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. - while there were a lot of other religious and spiritual people sort of "stuck on" on the outer edges of the group.  We realized that these people all had something in common: a reverance for nature at the center of or spirituality.  And so we organized a lunch for all of us, not in the cafeteria, but out on the lawn, on the Earth.  The Wiccans were there.  The Hindus, Taoists, and Shinto practitioners came.  The Indigenous people form North, Central, and South America came.  The traditional African practitioners came.  And we were surprised that the scientists came -m saying that they didn't know if they had a religion, but that they DID feel a connection with the Earth.  We looked around and realized that our circle held 15% of the delegates at this conference.  The rest of the conference saw this too.  we went from being a bunch of stragglers to being a "way" of being religious or spiritual.

We stayed in touch, and when the URI Charter signing happened in Pittsburgh in 2000, we formed the Spirituality & the Earth CC, to make sure that there would always be a voice for the Earth in the URI.  We didn't know it, but the Indigenous people of Latin America were organizing at the sme time, but the language difference kept us apart.

In 2002, at the URI's first Global Assembly in Rio de Janeiro, Charles told me and Rowan Fairgrove that the Indigenous people were wondering "What is this 'Wicca' thing?"  We had a dinner with we two Wiccans, about eight Indigenous people - including Alejandrino, Raul, Rosalia, Fany, Sofia, and others - and spent hours explaining about the Indigenous religions of Europe, something they had never been told ever existed.  At the end of that dinner, Alejandrino said to me, "I will go home and tell my children that the Wicca are people just like us."

We realized that what we share in our spiritual paths can be the bridge over our differences.  I may speak to Mother Earth the way Alejandrino does, and she may tell me the same things, but I don't have to worry about land rights, child education, or the loss water access destroying my crops.  We can share with our brothers asnd sisters and provide needed assistance.  One of the things that atrcated me to the Latin American efforts was that they were organizing within the larger interfaith community.  All previous efforts had organized in opposition to other interfaith groups.  The Latin Americans were recognizing the need to be part of a larger family of well-meaning people of faith.

The power of that connection was driven home to me by a story told to me by Mussie Hailu (at the Parliament Assembly that took place at the monastery of Monserrat in advance of the 2004 Parliament of the World's Religions).  Mussie told me that in Ethiopia there is an indigenous, ethnic group called the Tabebe.  The Tabebe possess the power of “tenkwe” – literally “far seeing”.  The Tabebe speak with nature spirits.  People go to the Tabebe to have their fortunes told, for charms, for healing, etc.  So far so good.  They sound a lot like Gypsies, or Witches.

However, if a member of your family falls mysteriously ill, you figure out which of the Tabebe must have cursed the person… and kill them to break the curse.  The government turns a blind eye to this.  In fact, the Tabebe are considered so disreputable that they are not allowed to settle in cities, their children are not allowed to attend public school, and they are not allowed in the hospitals.

When Mussie and his interfaith partner Sr. Laetitia Borg set out to create the first interfaith organization in Addis Ababa – a cooperation circle of the URI – he said that they should reach out to the Tabebe.  Sr. Laetitia, like most people, didn’t see the Tabebe as a religious group and didn’t see a need to include them.  At the next Global Summit of the URI, in Stanford CA, Mussie came up to me and (without any of this back story) told me that I needed to tell Sr. Laetitia all about Wicca.  We had a long conversation over lunch, ended up friends, and did a blessing ceremony together with Charles at the end of the conference.

Mussie and Sr. Latitia went back to Addis Ababa and founded a URI group in Ethiopia.  They included the Tabebe and for their logo they used a variation on an early URI logo that included a pentacle among its religious symbols.

As they expected, religious reps in Ethiopia asked why they were including the Tabebe, and they asked why they were using this symbol (the pentacle, associated with magic).  Mussie and Sr. Laetitia explained that the pentacle is the symbol of Wicca and that Wicca is an international religion that speaks with nature spirits, looks into the future, does magic and healing… just like the Tabebe.

As lightbulbs lit over the heads of religious rep after religious rep, the Tabebe were accepted in the interfaith community, and this acceptance led to changes in government attitudes.  It is now against the law to kill a Tabebe and such crimes are prosecuted.  They can live in cities.  Their children can go to school.  They have access to health care.

All of this directly followed from one group learning about another, and sharing that knowledge, to the benefit of indigenous people half a world away.  THIS is why I believe in the URI and why I think that a truly Global Indigenous Initiative is vital to fulfilling the mission of the URI."

There were tears all around, but Charles said that we really had to get to the next GC session.  He promised that we would continue this conversation at this GC meeting, before we split up and went home.

There was much more this day, but it's late and I'll have tomorrow to write part 2.  Everyone else will be sightseeing in San Francisco.  I don't need that and I'd rather rest up before the big Circles of Light fundraising dinner tomorrow night (  See you tomorrow...

Blessed Be,
Don Frew
CoG National Interfaith Representative


  1. Thank you very much for your summaries about the meeting, it is very nice to be informed of how it went.
    Matthew is really doing an amazing work in with the Youth Program, I would have actually enjoyed a bit more of focus on it: Last youth meeting in Bulgaria, Ambassadors program, the incoming European Youth CC, etc :D
    URI Netherlands is also planning its anniversary event in April :)

    1. Thank you for your comments. There are just so many programs being discussed that I don't have time to squeeze them all into a report before getting 5 hours sleep. Also, I am sensitive to not saying TOO much about what any one person said without their permission. This is not a public meeting and folks have a certain expectation of privacy, which lends it self to more open and heartfelt discussion. Please go to for more about the Youth Initiative's activities
      Blessed Be,

    2. Completely understandable! :) But, you know, we tend to miss more info of those topics that concern us particularly. I understand the privacy issue as well.
      Thank you very much again for the summaries! :)