Monday, July 28, 2014

NCLC CoG hosts reception for new URI Director

Yesterday, the Northern California Local Council of CoG hosted a reception for the new Executive Director of the United  Religions Initiative, Victor Kazanjian.

This was an opportunity for him to meet the Pagan community of the San Francisco Bay Area and for us to meet him.  A reasonable sample of the many groups of the Bay Area attended.  The Fellowship of the Spiral Path graciously donated their monthly time-slot at the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists (BFUU) hall as a welcoming space to hold the reception.

I opened with a brief history of CoG's interfaith work, leading up to the URI and our connection with Victor...

"Welcome, everyone!

My name is Don Frew.  I’m a Gardnerian priest with a coven here in Berkeley CA and I am also a Trustee of the United Religions Initiative.

This reception is being hosted by the Northern California Local Council of the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and I am one of the Covenant’s five National Interfaith Representatives.  Three more of the five are also in this room – M. Macha NightMare, Michelle Mueller, and Rachael Watcher.  With four of its five National Interfaith Representatives in the Bay Area, this gives some indication of how important the SF Bay Area has been for the history of CoG’s involvement in interfaith work.

That work started in 1975, when Glenn Turner joined the Berkeley Area Interfaith Council (BAIC).  At that time, and for many years thereafter, the BAIC was the only interfaith council in the US that was inclusive enough to include Witches.  Macha and others participated in those early BAIC events.  When I joined the Council in 1985, I was immediately welcomed and accepted based on peoples’ fond memories of Glenn and her fundraising work on the Council’s behalf.

In 1992, when people started talking about the upcoming the Parliament of the World’s Religions, I heard about it through the interfaith grapevine and convinced CoG’s Grand Council that we needed to support the Parliament and attend.  CoG became a sponsoring organization – along with Circle, EarthSpirit, and the Fellowship of Isis – and planned to send me and two others to represent our organization.

Over 40 CoG-members ended up attending at their own expense.

The wonderful, marvelous, magical story of what happened at the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions has been told in other places – a long account is on WitchVox – and any one of the 9,000 people who were there (including me, Rowan Fairgrove, Allyn Wolfe, and many others) will gladly talk your ear off about it, but suffice it to say that the Parliament was a turning point in the history of the Craft and the broader Neopagan movement.

The media called it “the coming out party for the Neopagans”.  One Wiccan writer said that it was “the most important event in the history of modern Wicca since the publication of Witchcraft Today in 1954”.

It was an historic moment of transformation for the interfaith movement as well, in three critical respects:

1) Before the 1993 Parliament, interfaith had been about official representatives getting together and speaking in a weird form of “diplomat-ese” about the official positions of their organizations.  With 9,000 people showing up for the Parliament, it was about everybody talking to everybody.  Interfaith transformed from official relationships to personal relationships.

2) Before the 1993 Parliament, interfaith work had been almost exclusive between various forms of Christians and Jews, with the odd Muslim or Buddhist included here and there.  People would look at the broad inclusiveness of the BAIC and say, “Well of course you can do that… you’re Berkeley!” 
          But everyone showed up to the Parliament… followers and practitioners of almost every religious and spiritual tradition on Earth!  Including us.  And we all had a great time talking together, eating together, listening to music together, and being in ceremony together.  After the Parliament, every interfaith council was asking the same questions: “Who’s not here?” and “How can we be more inclusive?”

3) The first Parliament was in 1883.  The second in 1993.  One hundred years later.  At the time, there were no plans for a third Parliament.  Many folks were saying “I don’t want to wait another hundred years!  I am excited now and I want to do something!”

Into this pregnant vacuum stepped the United Religions Initiative (URI), offering opportunities for ongoing, local interfaith work, welcoming everyone, and reaching out to provide empowerment to a grass-roots membership.

The URI was created over the course of many annual Global Summits in the 1990s, culminating in the signing of the URI Charter in the year 2000.  CoG members participated in the creation of the URI’s core Preamble, Purpose, and Principles and our influence can be detected.  The Purpose of the United Religions Initiative is “to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, end religiously motivated violence, and create culture of peace, justice, and healing for the Earth and all living beings.”

There has been a Neopagan on the URI’s Global Council – or Board of Trustees – in all four Global Council terms since the URI’s founding, and there is a Neopagan on the URI’s Global Staff as one of eight Regional Coordinators.  Our presence is valued.

As those of us doing interfaith have always affirmed, interfaith work may seem to be about public relations – explaining to other religions who we are and what we aren’t – but what it really is is an unprecedented opportunity to act on our principles in the world and work side by side with others on issues of common concern.

The only true change comes through changing peoples’ minds, and nothing has the power to do that that religion has.  Religions working together for the common good has the potential to be the most powerful force for positive change on the planet.  How can we not be involved?

From it’s beginnings to just last year, the person at the helm of the URI, through its first steps  and its early meteoric growth, was its Executive Director, the Rev. Cannon Charles Gibbs.  Charles announced his retirement last year and the search began for a new ED.

After the job description was created, URI founder Bill Swing joked to the URI’s Global Council that there were two global job-searches going on right then – one on San Francisco and one in the Vatican – and the Vatican would be lucky to get our runner-up.

Many of us thought it would be unlikely to find anyone who could live up to what we were expecting of the new Executive Director.

We lucked out.  We found Victor Kazanjian.

His bio is online and I don’t want to take a lot of time with it:
          * He served as Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life, Dean of Intercultural Education, Co-Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Program, and Director of the India Program at Wellesley College
          * He co-founded Education as Transformation, an international organization working with colleges and universities around the world to promote religious pluralism and spirituality in education.
          * He is a visiting faculty member and Fulbright Scholar at the Malaviya Center for Peace Research at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, India
          * And he is an ordained Episcopal priest.

At our first meeting, Victor told me that he had worked with Pagans while he was at Wellesley and that he looked forward to meeting and working with the Pagan community of the Bay Area.  I said I thought I could make that happen, and this meeting is the fulfillment of that promise.

Just a month ago, the URI’s Global Council held its annual week-long face-to-face Board meeting – 25 Trustees from 19 countries, plus about the same number of Staff.  This was Victor’s first time in the hot seat, and he was amazing.  The Global Council doesn’t exactly work by consensus, but Victor made sure all voices were heard and all concerns addressed. 

This is no mean feat when most of the Trustees come from cultures with very different assumptions about decision-making, administrative structures, what “grass-roots” means and how it works, what a global interfaith organization can and can’t do.

The other thing about Victor is that he did all this with grace, generosity of spirit, and at least the appearance of unflagging energy and enthusiasm (‘tho I imagine he crashed hard at night when he finally had the chance).

I have the highest of hopes for Victor, and the URI, and for the growing relationship between the URI and the Pagan community of the Bay Area and the world.  I will give everyone a chance to introduce their groups soon, but first it is both a pleasure and a privilege to welcome Victor Kazanjian."

Victor gave a wonderful talk, which I wish I had taped.  He thanked the CoG-members with whom he had been working for our insight and support.  He talked about the URI and the opportunities it offers for interfaith cooperation.  he talked about growing up in a multi-faith household.  He talked about the urgent need to bring the Divine Feminine back into our spiritual lives and to listen to the wisdom of the Earth-based spiritualities.  He told us about his experiences at Wellesley, inlcuing what happened when a Pagan student group wanted to join the student interfaith council...  Apparently, although there was a lot of support for the Pagan group, there were also a few groups who said that their religious communities just wouldn't permit them to be in the same room with "Witches" and "Pagans".  After much discussion and fear that there wasn't a solution, someone had a clever idea.  Victor's office had once been a larger room that had been divided into two rooms by the addition of an arch with sliding doors.  The next time the student interfaith council met, the chairs were arranged in a large circle, spanning both rooms, with the open doors in the middle.  After much tilting of heads and quizzical looks, the folks with objections decided that if they weren't actually in the same room, they could stay.  the group met this way for a few months, until enough trust had been built and fellowship created that the "two-room circle" was no longer necessary.

Following this, and after I had thanked the many people who had helped make this event happen, each of the groups introduced themselves and said something about who they are and what they do.  While each group had between one and three people present, each group had one designated spokesperson.

* American Magic Umbanda House - Rowan Fairgrove
* Ile Orunmila Oshun - Louisah Teish

* Ár nDraíocht Féin - Caitlin ni Manannan
* Doire Brighid Grove (OBOD) - Susa
* House of Danu (OBOD) - Jim Bianchi
* Quercus Seed (OBOD) - Felicity Grove

* Freya's Folk - Greg Harder
* Hrafnar (The Troth) - Diana Paxson
* Vanic Conspiracy (The Troth) - Cora

* Sirius Encampment - Glenn Turner

* Adocentyn Research Library - Gus diZerega
* Cherry Hill Seminary - M. Macha NightMare
* Church of All Worlds - Oberon Zell
* Come As You Are (or CAYA) - Yeshe Rabbit
* Coru Cathubodua Priesthood - Rynn
* Elderflower - Edye
* Fellowship of the Spiral Path - Shirin
* Fellowship of Isis - Rowan Fairgrove
* Hanta Yo - Edye
* Kemetic Temple - Richard Reidy
* Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn - Sam Webster
* Pagan Alliance - Arlynne Camire
* Pagans of Color - Xochiquetzal
* Patrick McCollum Foundation - Patrick McCollum

* "Eko, Eko" (the local Gardnerian community of 15 covens) - Polly
* Dragonstone (the Myjestic tradition) - Marilee
* New Wiccan Church - Sara
* New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn (or NROOGD) - Kurt
* NCLC / CoG - Deborah Bender

After each group spoke, I asked everyone in the room who was affiliated with that group to raise their hands.  This showed the vast interconnectedness of our community.  It was not uncommon for someone to be, for example, a Druid, a Heathen, and active in two Wiccan covens.

A further 18 groups were contacted, but could not attend.  With this many groups, even "brief" descriptions ran long and by the time we had finished we had almost used up our two-hour time slot.  Fortunately, the BFUU folks said that we could stay a bit longer for schmoozing, munching snacks and drinking coffee, and having smaller conversations with Victor.  A "bit longer" which ended up being another hour and a half, so "Thank you, BFUU!".

A few of the groups' presentations stood out for me:

Louisah Teish talked about the creation of an "Overground Railroad" to address worldwide economic and sexual slavery.

Glenn Turner explained that all the OTO groups were holding their Gnostic Masses at exactly the time we were meeting, so she was the only person present for a large community.

Oberon Zell was very eloquent and inspirational when he talked about the early days of the Church of All Worlds, Green Egg magazine, and the beginnings of the Pagan movement in general.  He stress that we were and are a "movement", i.e. always in motion, never becoming ossified.

Sam Webster surprised many folks when he said that he was opposed to interfaith work.  He sees it as "a distraction from the clear and present threat that Christianity poses to the Pagan community."  While he applauds the work being done "out there", i.e. in service to the rest of the world, he doesn't see how it benefits the Pagan community.  However, he is open to being convinced.  (Victor sought Sam out to talk during the shmoozing time.  Sam and I talked about following up the conversation as well.  In my mind, among the MANY other reasons for doing interfaith work, it provides the valuable allies we need to oppose just the kind of aggressive Christianity that concerns Sam.)

Patrick McCollum talked about how Paganism is being welcomed at the highest levels of government and at the UN.  He thanked CoG for the work that we have done in building interfaith connections.

Kurt of NROOGD told a story about the ,moment he realized the value of interfaith work.  He was at a URI interfaith event in San Jose with Rowan Fairgrove.  A woman came up to him.  She said that she was told that he was a Witch and wanted to know how he could be at this event and worship Satan?  Next to Kurt, a rabbi and a Baptist minister were having a conversation.  They overheard this, stopped, and addressed the woman, saying, "Oh no, dear, Satan is OUR problem.  This nice man has nothing to do with him."  Kurt said that all of the tension was dissolved in one kind, humorous moment of interfaith support.

I sopke with Richard Reidy and Matt Whealton of the Kemetic Temple as they were leaving and asked if they had had a chance to speak with Victor.  Just as they were saying "No", Victor walked up.  We had a nice chat and they suggested that Victor might want to come to PantheaCon.  I explained what and when it was and Victor said that he and his wife Michelle would love to come.  Then started talking about a URI program, then a URI hospitality suite, and then my wife Anna said "Give the man a break!  He hasn't even gone to one yet and you already have him doing one of the most labor-intensive things you can do at a PantheaCon!"  She's right.  We'll start small.  But I am sure we'll be doing a program.

This was one of those events where the space holders practically had to shove people out the door because everyone wanted to keep talking.  It ws also one where - as is always true of Pagan events - random people started volunteering to help set up and help take down as soon as they walked in the door, including our guest-of-honor Victor.

Everything went very well and Victor was thrilled. I think we have this relationship off on the right foot and look forward to where it will go.

Blessed Be,
Don Frew
National Interfaith Representative

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a wonderful cooperative. Yes, the Vatican would be so lucky to have such a candidate as Victor Kazanjian, his credentials read like the charter of all-faiths should be. (If there ever is or will be). I am continually amazed and impressed with Bay Area Pagans!