United Religions Initiative, annual Global Council meeting, Day 1 & 2
October 10-11, 2015
So, it's the night of the second day of ten days of interfaith work.
As many know, the Parliament of the World's Religions (www.parliamentofreligions.org) will be happening here in Salt Lake City in a few days. Less well known is that the United Religions Initiative (www.uri.org) decided to save some travel expense and plan its annual, face-to-face meeting of its Global Council in Salt Lake for the five days leading up to the Parliament. Back to back conferences is going to be a long haul.
I am a Continuing Trustee in this fourth term of the Global Council. That means that I was selected by the previous Global Council to serve on this one to help ensure continuity. There is one other Continuing Trustee, Elisabeth Lheure of Spain. I was one of three Trustees elected for North America in the GC's first term. In the second, I was appointed to serve as an At-Trustee. I was also made an At-Large Trustee in the GC's third term. URI founder Bishop Bill Swing and I are the only Trustees to have served on all four of the URI's Global Council's to date. This makes us the GC's organizational memory.
Sunday was a travel day. The flight from Berkeley / Oakland was about one and a half hours and an airport / hotel shuttle took me right to the Red Lion, where all of the URI Trustees and Staff are staying. I arrived around 2:30 pm. On the shuttle I ran into John Weiser, a member of the URI's President's Council - a group of friends of URI founder Bill Swing who work to raise the money to keep this whole show going. Most of our 3.5 million dollar budget comes from them. How to continue the President's Council after the President retires some day is one of the challenges we'll be addressing at this meeting.
Many Trustees had to come great distances and we arrived in dribs and drabs over the course of the day. After checking in, I had a few hours before we were to meet in the lobby to go to dinner. The rooms are reminiscent of PantheaCon. I have a room to myself as I am told that I snore prodigiously. I've never heard it, but I've been forced to believe others. As a result I tell conference organizers that I have to share a room with someone else who snores, someone who's deaf, or have my own room. I pay my own way, so it doesn't matter to the organizers.
At 7 pm, those of us who had arrived walked over to a nearby Thai restaurant for dinner. We made an interesting group navigating the hotel parking lot, through a gap in the fence, into the parking lot of a mini-mall, and so to the restaurant. We included: Rev. Victor Kazanjian (URI Director & Episcopal / USA), Rattan Channa (Sikh / Kenya), Honorable Elisha Buba Yera (Christian & traditional / Nigeria), Dr. Kazi Nurul Islam (Muslim & Sikh / Bangladesh), Petar Gramatikov (Bulgarian Orthodox / Bulgaria), Marianne Horling (Humanist / Germany), Bart ten Broek (Protestant / the Netherlands), Ciro Gabriel Avruj ("Spiritual" / Argentina) and his assistant Mario, Audri Scott Williams (Christian & indigenous / USA), Sam Wazan (Muslim / USA), Peter Mousaferiadis (Greek Orthodox / Australia), Musa Sanguila (Muslim / the Philippines), and me (Wiccan / USA).
(Only about half of us were here, yet already the diversity was amazing! You can Google almost any of the folks and read about their amazing interfaith work around the world.) Several members of the URI Global Staff were with us as well.
The route to the restaurant took us along two sides of a store selling erotic lingerie, and its window displays were a sight to behold! Earlier Global Councils included folks who would have been shocked and mortified at the sight, but I think this crew took it in stride. I had to endure some ribbing about the "sexy Witch" outfit in the window, but I assured everyone that this was in fact our traditional religious garb. They may not know a lot about us, but they can understand a joke.
Dinner was an opportunity to catch up with old friends, especially Peter. If you remember my reports form the last Global Council meeting in Santa Clara CA last year, Peter was the one who was so shocked and enchanted to meet real Witches that he wanted picture after picture with me and Rachael to send home. When a small earthquake struck during the meeting - with our tour bus moving back and forth - and Peter saw my hand shaking, he wondered if was casting a spell to cause the earthquake! Peter organized most of the musical programming for the Melbourne Parliament and he is looking forward to seeing how it's handled at this Parliament.
After dinner, it was back to the hotel and relatively early to bed as we were to gather at 8:30 the next morning. I spent a bit of the evening writing, as usual.
At Sunday breakfast in the hotel, we were joined by more trustees who had arrived late the previous night: Ravindra Kandage (Buddhist / Sri Lanka), Prof. John Kurakar (Christian / India), Elisabeth Lheure (Baha'i / Spain), and Alejandrino Quispe Mejia (indigenous Quechua / Peru). Over breakfast, I spoke with Petar about the situation in Bulgaria with Len.
(For those who didn't her about this... One of my coveners - Katya - has a relative - Len - who was vacationing in Bulgaria and was arrested a while ago at the request of the government of Kyrgyzstan. He was the retired executive of a mining company that did business in Kyrgyzstan and there were some sort of political machinations going on with the company and the Kyrgyzstani government. The Kyrgyz thought that grabbing Len could give them some leverage and contacted the Bulgarians through Interpol to pick him up. Anyway, Len was being held in a Bulgarian jail (not fun) and about to be extradited to Kyrgyzstan (much less fun) and so Katya turned to our Wiccan community for magical help and asked if I could pull any interfaith strings. Knowing Petar is a mover and shaker in Bulgaria and very well connected, I asked him for aid.)
Petar told me that he had looked into the matter and was sure that the extradition would not take place. With Western interest being focused on the matter, Len would certainly be released. And so he was!
After breakfast, a group of us decided to walk to the Temple and take in the sights, before our programming began in earnest later that day. Along the way, I got caught up with Alejandrino, with the constant help of the Spanish translation program in my Android. I had taken Spanish from Nursery School through Middle School, but had switched to Latin in High School and had five years of that. The result is that I can understand a lot of Spanish, but when I try to speak I'm not sure if I'm using Spanish words or Latin ones. The Spanish comes back to me pretty quickly, but I'm not fast enough for conversation. Alejandrino had taken English in High School, and studied for a month up in the Bay Area with Rachael (a project of the Spirituality & the Earth CC). I insisted that I speak in Spanish and he in English, as we both taxed our memories.
At the Temple, we were immediately greeted by comely young missionaries who were eager to greet, inform, and hopefully convert us. (They were all so uniformly good-looking with shiny white teeth that I had to wonder if beauty was a requirement for the job. That made me uneasy. "I'm sorry, dear, you are devout and well-informed, but you're just not pretty enough.") That being said, the young ladies were all very nice and informative. They marveled at the diversity of our group and wondered what brought us all together. We explained the URI. they wondered what brought us to Sal Lake and we explained about the Parliament. They all had no idea this even was just a few days away and that they would soon be swamped by people of over 200 religions.
We all wandered off in different directions, but Peter and I stayed together. We went through one of the Museums, where Peter heard Australian accents and ran into a huge singing star from Australia, a contestant in their X Factor program, disabled Iraqi war orphan Emmanuel Kelly. (I didn't know who he was until I got back to the room and Googled him. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W86jlvrG54o Wow!) A woman with Emmanuel told about a group she formed as the result of being Mormon and having a gay son. The first meeting of this group to support LGBT people in the Mormon church had 52 people show up! There are more and more Mormons with LGBT family members and more and more are being open about it. We talked about the possibility of her group working with similar efforts in the URI to form an LGBT-support Cooperation Circle. We'll talk more. Peter and I continued on around Temple square. We had several conversations with young Missionary women. In every case, once they learned about URI from us they seemed more interested in learning more about interfaith than converting us! We seemed to be teaching more than learning .
We continued on around the square. The city was immaculate and almost deserted. On the way back, Peter's gout started bothering him so we got an Uber drive. The driver explained that the Mormons stayed home on Sunday, so half the population was off the streets.
Back at the hotel, more Trustees had arrived: Vrajapati Das (Hindu / India), Swamini Adityanada Saraswati (Hindu / India), Genivalda Cravo (Spiritualist / Brazil), Sherif Awad Rizk (Coptic Christian / Egypt), URI Treasurer Becky Burad (Christian / USA), Chief Phil Lane, Jr. (indigenous Dakota & Chickasaw / USA), and Ros Sam An (Buddhist / Cambodia). I accompanied Peter to his room to do some magical healing on his gout. He seemed impressed with this first experience with magic.
Around 5 pm we gathered for shuttles to the local Episcopal Church Center for an opening dinner and where we would be holding our meetings. The Center is only a few years old and quite pretty (http://www.episcopalutah.org/eccu/facilities/). Our last arrivals were there: GC Chair Kiran Bali (Hindu / UK), URI founder & President Bishop Bill Swing (Episcopal / USA), several more Staff members, some more members of the President's Council, and one of the members of the URI Foundation, which manages our endowment. Bill's dream is to raise a $100 million endowment to ensure that the basic costs of the URI are covered. We're only part way there.
Kiran welcomed us to the 2015 meeting of the URI Global Council. Victor introduced the Director of the Episcopal Center, who said that they always wanted the Center to be focused on interfaith, so we were most welcome. Kiran invited each of us to introduce ourselves, starting with me. Bill said a blessing over the food. Victor encouraged us to sit with people we didn't know as well, to make new friends. (That was hard for me. After 13 years on the Council, I pretty much know everyone.) I sat with Victor, Phil (who talked about the influence of the Iroquois Confederacy on the US Constitution), Sherif (who talked about the politics of Egypt & Syria), and others.
The Staff handed out binders with the documents we would need for the meeting and Victor walked us through the schedule. He asked who would lead the first meditation / blessing, tomorrow morning. Vrajapati immediately volunteered the Multiregion. (While not a Multiregion Trustee, I am usually included with them, so they just assumed that I would be involved.) I said that since we will be meeting in a box for a few days we should start outside. We'll take everyone into the Center's garden and I'll lead a grounding meditation.
We had about a half-hour to schmooze before the shuttles arrived to go back to the hotel. I spoke with Audri about overhearing a conversation she was having with Staff-member Pamela about Ferguson and Black Lives Matter! I said that, in the URI, we have meta-CCs focused on Women, the Environment, Youth, and Indigenous People. It's ridiculous that we don't have one on Race. This, and LGBT issues, are something we must talk about! I'll bring it up with Victor in the next couple of days.
Alejandrino and I (with the aid of my Android) started talking about the temple. He had been singled out by a Spanish-speaking young Missionary woman who tried her best to convert him. When he explained about his indigenous spirituality, the young woman tried to explain that the indigenous people of the Americas are descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel. Alejandrino was having none of it. She gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon in Spanish before he left to come back to the hotel.
We continued our conversation on the shuttle. When we reached the hotel, we asked Elisabeth Lheure to translate for us. We ended up spending a couple of hours ranging over a number of topics. (It's now 2 am and we have to gather to leave the hotel at 7:15 am, so I only have time for some highlights.)
* We talk about how, in Ayacucho (Alejandrino's home in the Andes) indigenous people are leaving the Catholic Church for Evangelical churches , not because they believe, but because of the power of the "new" as a way to escape the power of the Catholic. There are 36 Catholic churches in Ayacucho, of which only 5 are operating. There are over 200 Evangelical churches, some run out of people's homes.
* The Evangelical churches require folks to tithe 10%, but they just can't afford it. To avoid the tithe, folks drive to markets far from town to exchange goods in a barter system, so they don't have income to tithe.
* We talked about LGBT issues and polyamory in the Wiccan community and the indigenous community of Ayacucho. They have an interesting practice that everyone knows about, but no one talks about. When women reaches menopause, "since her sex drive is so much stronger than her husband's", she will leave her husband - temporarily - and have relationships with several men. This will go on for a few years, after which she will return to her husband and continue their relationship as if nothing happened.
* We talked about the preservation of sacred sites from those who would destroy them, those who would use them incorrectly, and those who would want to study them and preserve them, but prevent access for ongoing use.
* We talked about how global interest in Alejandrino is resulting in people in his city starting to take indigenous spirituality more seriously. He finds young people expressing interest in learning how to make offerings at the sacred sites.
* In relation to that, Alejandrino told us about the radio program he used to do on indigenous issues - in Quechua on Saturday and in Spanish on Sunday. He had to stop because he could no longer afford to pay for the airtime. (That's the way it works in Peru.) We talked about the possibility of the Lost & Endangered Religions Project supporting Alejandrino in videotaping programs and putting them online. It could be the beginning of an "indigenous radio" website. A lot of ideas were tossed around, but I think we definitely have a new project.
* We talked about the priesthood of which Alejandrino is a part, but we didn't have time to get into this very deeply. More later.
Okay. Gotta go to bed. I'm posting this and hitting the sack. More tomorrow.
National Interfaith Representative