Sunday, October 25, 2015

United Religions Initiative, annual Global Council meeting, Day 3 & 4

United Religions Initiative, annual Global Council meeting, Day 3 & 4
October 12-13, 2015

(Note: When a person is mentioned for the first time, their name is in boldface.  More information about each person can be found on the URI web site at:

Monday started early.  We were up, ready to go, and on the shuttles to the Episcopal Center by 7:15 am.  Breakfast was soon ready for us there.  I sat with Sam Wazan and Sherif Rizk and talked about the differences in Arabic from place to place, especially the idiosyncrasies of Egyptian Arabic.  We also discussed the pre-Qur'anic fragments found inside the walls of the Great Mosque at Sana'a in Yemen and the difficulties that scholars who tried to study and write about them experienced, since they include earlier versions of Qur'anic texts.  One author in Cairo was declared apostate and had is marriage annulled by the courts.

Later, Ardey Turner, a long-time URI volunteer, joined us.  She coordinates the Circle of Healers CC and does Reiki.  She offered to give me Reiki during the meetings, to help with my arm.  I said that I would gratefully accept what was offered.  After some more discussion of healing techniques, Victor directed us all outside for the opening blessing.

The Multiregion was giving the blessing.  Each of the three Multiregion Trustees - plus me as a sort of ad hoc Multiregion Trustee - offered something.  Audri opened by acknowledging the First Peoples of this place and asking their permission and blessing for our work.  She continued with a reading from one of her books, Awakening the Heart of the Beloved Community, an anthology of writings on diversity and community.  I explained that since we would be meeting in a box for four days, the Multiregion felt that we should spend some time outdoors.  I led a tree - roots - branches - Four Elements meditation.  Vrajapati chanted Hare Krishna and read a passage from the Gita.  Ed recited something from Theravada Buddhism.  I believe that it was all well-received, as we got many compliments throughout the day.

We went upstairs to our meeting room and formed a circle.  As always, we opened with a group reading of the URI Charter - the Preamble, Purpose, and Principles or PPP - line by line, going around the circle.  The PPP is the heart of the URI ( and I recommend checking them out.  they guide all we do in the Global Council.  For some reasons, interfaith groups almost always for widdershins around a circle.  The Pagans and the Indigenous folks always shake our heads.  Each of the 27 Trustees present (out of 31 total), half dozen Staff, handful of President's Council members, and single member of the Board of the URI Foundation were asked to say something about what in the PPP.  (I have to say that while most folks were waxing poetic and speaking from the heart, I was busily considering how one of the Principles might create a feedback loop with a part of the Bylaws.  This is what I get for Chairing the Bylaws Committee.)

Then Sally Mahe (Interfaith Christian / USA - Co-Director of Global Programs & Organizational Development) and I led a session of Appreciative Interviews.  I explained the history of this practice while Sally gave the specific directions.  Sally and I (mostly Sally) had crafted the questions for the interviews last week.  In the past, Appreciative Interviews have been used at the start of many interfaith conferences.  I can truthfully say that every person with whom I did such an interview became a good friend.  Each person was to find someone they didn't know well and from another Region.  They were to sit down together and respond to a set of questions.  Each person would have 20 minutes to answer the questions.

1) Introduction:  Please tell me a little about yourself.  What  brought  you to URI?  What role do you have?

2) Working in Organizations – Sharing Stories:  Most of us have had different kinds of  experiences working with others in organizations. Please reflect on an experience that you had working with others in a group or organization that led to an exceptionally  positive result.  Tell me the story of what happened.  How did the group work together?  What made the work effective? Without being too humble, what was it about you that contributed to the success of this work?

3) Building URI’s Future Together:  Imagine that it is 2025 and that URI has continued to grow strong and vibrant.  Other international organizations look to URI’s  Global Council as an outstanding  model of Board governance and  global organizational leadership.  What is the Global Council doing that contributes to its success and effectiveness?  What values and practices stand out as most important?

4) Next Steps:  We hold high vision that URI’s network  is making a better world,  a world  that is fit for our children and grandchildren.  As the governing board for URI,  how might  the  Global  Council empower URI’s global network  to achieve its mission and purpose?  What steps can we take now to inspire and shape the work ahead?

This was the first time that I did not participate in the interviews.  With Sally I made sure folks were on track, rang a bell when necessary, etc.  Usually, when the time is up and the group reconvenes.  Each person introduced their partner to the group, based on what they learned in the interview.  We did not have time for this.  Instead, Sally asked for folks to shout out one word that was their response to the Interview.  Words like "Exciting", "Inspiring", "Informative", etc. filled the room.  I asked them to remember what they learned and if, over the course of our meetings, some insight from the Interview applied, to share it then.

We had a short break, during which I had a brief conversation with Peter and Bill about the absence of conservative Christian and Muslims from our work, and my experience doing dialog with such people.  I know that there are ways that we can be dialogue, to the benefit of everyone.  We'll have to talk more later.

When we reconvened, Victor told us to form our pairs into groups of six.  Since I hadn't been in a pair, I attached myself to a group of Peter, Bill, Sherif, Presidnet's Council member Jill Kramer (Christian / USA), Maria Eugenia Crespo de Mafia (Catholic / Argentina - Director of Cooperation Circle Support), and Pamela Banks (Christian / USA - Director of Finance & Administration).  These groups were asked to share, discuss, and draw on some large sheets of paper what one thing is necessary for us to succeed.  We came up with "building trust", "innovation", "establishing a global identity", "balancing democracy and control", and more.  Jill drew a Mother Fern, growing and seeding off other plants. 

One of the things we discussed is how the President's Council raises most of our $3.2 million global budget (not 3.5, I was incorrect), the CC's themselves raise 5 to 10 times that much to support their own efforts, and the volunteer effort is worth 5 to 10 times that.  We need to do another assessment of the funding raised by the CCs and the worth of the volunteer support.  Jill mentioned that Bill's dream had been to have 1 million people in 1000 CCs in 100 countries by 2025.  Maria pointed out that, as of Wednesday, we will have over 700,000 members in 745 CCs in 92 countries, so we are already almost there.  Bill added that those 700,000 people are being served by a paid Global Staff of only 36 people.  Something will have to change soon.

When we all shared the fruits of our discussions, many groups had drawn something like a tree or other plant.  The idea of organic growth had came up a lot.  One group brought up the idea of a "Rapid Conflict Resolution Mobile Team CC", bringing together the multi-cultural conflict resolution skills throughout the URI network to be of service to the world.  A light bulb went off in my head... Just as we are developing Resource CCs - CC that exist to harness the skills & resources of the URI network to serve the other CCs - perhaps we could also create Service CCs that could harness the skills & resources of the URI network to serve the world.  The already mentioned Conflict Resolution came to mind as a Service CC.  I thought of Sustainable Economic Development as another.  And in discussing the idea with Peter, Bill, Victor, and Liam Chinn (Earth Spirituality / USA - Co-Director of Global Programs, Evaluation & Learning), Refugee Assistance came up as another.  I don't know if this will go anywhere, but the URI has always been about serving the world, not just our CCs, and this might be a method.

We broke for lunch and I sat with Liam, Ed, and Peter Carpenter (Christian / USA) of the President's Council.  I had not met Peter before and this was a chance to get to know him.  After lunch, Liam, Ed, and I ventured further a field to find a coffee shop.  We talked about the "indigenous radio" idea that had come up with Alejandrino.  Liam grew up in an indigenous community in far Northwest Alaska and shared my enthusiasm for the project.  We talked about Service CCs.  We talked about the materials Liam and others were preparing to help CCs explain the URI to new people.  I told him about the "What CoG Already Does for You" pamphlet I had written for CoG and how the same principle applied to the URI.  Being a CC is not about what you "get" out of being a member.  Or, at least, that's a small part of it.  It's about being inspired by the PPPs and wanting to share in that vision of a better world.  It's about helping others just by being a member CC.  You may get some "credibility" by being a CC, but you also lend credibility to others.  In parts of the world where interfaith work is much harder, where it can literally be a matter or life a death, being able to say that you part of a larger global network doing the same things you are can help immeasurably, but the other members of that network have to exist as well.  Liam said that he hadn't considered these aspects and that we should talk further.

When we got back and reconvened, the Asia Region did the opening blessing.  I was a little concerned when Swamini ended her blessing by saying "May all the darkness be banished from the world!"  As I understand us, we kind of like the darkness.  I think this is one of those deep differences between some faith traditions.  Some think that things are best when everything is Light, and some want there to be both Light and Dark and take pleasure in the balance.

John Weiser then led us through an exercise on the Roles & Responsibilities of Trustees and the Global Council, since people from around the world can have very different preconceptions about this.  He started with looking at the pertinent Bylaws.

4.1.A) The purpose of the Global Council is to support the Members in making real the vision and values of the Preamble, Purpose and Principles.  The Global Council’s central spirit is not one of control, but rather one of service informed by deep listening to the hopes and aspirations of the whole URI community.  The Global Council will inspire and support the URI worldwide community in cooperative global action.  It is envisioned that their deliberations will be tempered by tenderness for one another and for the Earth community.  It is envisioned that their actions will reflect a yearning to help the people of the URI fulfill their aspirations to be a positive force for peace, justice and healing in the  world.
4.1.B) The Global Council is responsible to develop financial and other resources to meet the needs of URI, Inc.  The Global Council will accept eligible applications for Membership in the URI and will manage the affairs of the Core Trust and URI, Inc.
5.1) The Core Trust shall be comprised of a Chair, President, Executive Director, Treasurer, Secretary, such additional officers as may be appointed pursuant to Section 5.2 and such staff as it shall require and it shall operate under the direction of the Global Council and serve the needs of the Members.

We looked at an article on Management recommended by John and then returned to our groups of six for discussion based on that article, especially to answer the questions:
            * What do we see as the key roles for Trustees?
            * What do we need to be more effective as a Trustee?

When we re-gathered to compare notes, there was a general agreement that, based on the Mission / PPP of the URI, the Global Council should set Goals for realizing that purpose in the form of direction given to the Staff.  The Staff should then work with the GC to create a Strategic Plan for achieving those goals.

As far as what we need to be better Trustees, the number one thing was that we need better electronic communication!  The Trustees feel swamped by emails (often from folks who don't know how to use email correctly, IMHO) and the Global Support Office feels like no one answers their emails, so they send more, so the Trustees feel swamped and don't get to them, etc., etc.

John also talked to us about how Trustees normally don't get involved in directing Staff, but that the participation of Trustees in Regional Leadership Teams - which seems unique to the URI - put a different spin on this.  We'll talk about this later.

John then shifted the group around a bit to discuss and come up with 5 Goals for the coming year.  Our group lost Bill and Peter, and gained Audri and Vrajapati.  We ended up with 6 Goals:

            * Improve internal electronic communication, both vertically (between the Global Council, the Staff, and the CCs) and horizontally (between Trustees and between CCs).  Vraj said that we should "improve the quality of our communication and reduce the burden of it".
            * Improve our communication to the URI, so more folks understand who we are and what we do.
            (In both of these, we need to learn from other organizations and from our CCs.)
            * Explore relationships & partnerships with related groups, other than them becoming a CC.
            Engage in innovative development of our Regional Leadership Teams that is geographically and culturally appropriate.
            * Increase Regional fundraising capacity.
            * Translate all our basic documents into several languages and put translation buttons on our web pages, to communicate globally as easily as possible.

As each group shared their Goals, Becky wrote them down on large sheets of paper to post on the walls.  Inevitably, there was a great deal of overlap and these will be collapsed don for us to consider later in the meeting.

After a break, we heard from three Regions of comparable size who had very different ways of organizing themselves. 
            * Europe with 49 Cooperation Circles, is registered with the EU as an NGO in Belgium and is very structured with a tiered democratic administration.
            * Latin America & the Caribbean with 39 Cooperation Circles, has a Regional Leadership Team consisting of its three Trustees, its Regional Coordinator, and her two Assistants.  They meet online once a month and in person as often as possible, and work by consensus.  Maria said that the key to their effectiveness is "consultation, collaboration, and consensus".
            * South East Asia & the Pacific (called "SEAPac") with 41 Cooperation Circles, has to contend with being very spread out in an archipelago in which travel is difficult.  They divided their Region into three Zones, each administer by one Trustee and a Staff person: Western (9 CCs in Cambodia & Malaysia - Sam An), Central (22 CCs in the Philippines, itself over 7,000 islands - Musa), and Pacific (10 CCs in Australia, Fiji, and New Zealand - Peter).

Each Region also told us a LOT about what they were doing in their Regions, their challenges and their success.  SEAPac is contending with natural disasters from tsunamis to volcanoes and so has CCs involved in disaster relief.  It also has serious ethnic conflicts, and so has CCs involved in peace negotiations between governments and rebels.

After this, Ed reported on the work of the new Environmental Resource CC, the first of the Resource CCs.  Inspired by the extent to which "Earth" is prominent in our Charter and PPPs, and shocked by environmental depredation and climate change, they had come together to help the URI as a network address the many serious related issues.  Over 150 CCs are focused on something having to do with the environment and they could work more effectively if someone connected them with each other and helped them connect with resources and funding outside the URI.  That's what the Environmental Resource CC will do.

Ed handed out copies of their Strategic Plan and Executive Summary.  Everyone agreed that this sounded great!  Phil spoke at length about how much these issues affected Native Americans and how happy he was to see the URI coke to this point.  I said that I agreed with Phil, but that for documents that were all about nature, I didn't hear the voice of the nature religions anywhere in them.  "The environment" was always in the third person and equated with "the creation".  The nature religions felt that this kind of separation between humanity and nature was part of what got us into this mess.  There are many nature religions - Shinto, Taoism, Indigenous traditions, Wicca, and others - who should be included.  Ed said that they would welcome input on this.

As we broke for dinner, I spoke with Bill, who had founded the Environmental Resources CC, and apologized for inserting a negative comment into the rollout of his CC.  He said that the plans presented weren't meant to be a theological statement.  I said that I understood, but that it would be good to find more inclusive language that would be more welcoming of all traditions.  He agreed, but pointed out that those traditions weren't in the meetings.  I said that we usually weren't, because few of us had the time or money to take time out for them.  That's why I often felt that I was the one person present who had to speak up for all those others.  We'll talk more about this as the ERCC goes forward.

I was late for a dinner meeting of the Trustees who are part of the Multiregion Leadership Team Ed, Vrajapati, Audri, and me) with Sally.  We talked about the future of the Multiregion and how it was apparent that this Region was on the cusp of coming into its own as the dream we had at the founding of the URI; a place where CCs in the other Regions could come together in shared interests to share skills & resources globally.

We finally got back to the hotel a little before 8 pm.  I found Gaea Denker (Interspiritual / USA - Communications Manager) waiting for me in the lobby.  We had been trying to find a time when she could interview me.  CBS, the TV network, invited URI to produce it annual Christmas Eve special.  Our office has been collecting footage from CCs around the world and interviews with Trustees and others, and these will be combined with footage shot at an interfaith service in San Francisco this November.  Gaea wanted to interview me in the robes I wear sometimes in interfaith work.  Since others are appearing in ceremonial garb, I agreed and ran upstairs to change.  Along the way, I sent a text to Peter.  Since he had been so fascinated with meeting real Witches, I thought he might like to see one in ritual attire.

Gaea (pronounced "Gia") interviewed me in one of the hotel's ballrooms, the only place with enough light at night.  I assume the interview went well, since she was brought to tears by some of my answers.  Just as we finished, Peter arrived.  Gaea interviewed him, and then took the opportunity to shoot us together as an example of interfaith friendship.  All in all, it was a lot of fun and enjoyed the opportunity to "sell" the URI to the world. (or at least, the nation).  Once again, these days most of my interfaith work is not about telling people about Witchcraft, it's  about working side-by-side with people of other faith traditions to do good together - as a Witch.

I got back to my room about 9:30 and started writing.  We could sleep in a little bit on Tuesday as the busses wouldn't pick us up until 8 am.

As it turned out, sleeping in was the least of my worries, as my arm started taking badly shortly after waking - after several days of being "on" in very hot weather, without a break and with little sleep.  I had to text Victor and let him know that I would be taking a day off.  Today was devoted to working on a Strategic Plan.  I didn't think that I would have input that would radically shift what others would be saying, so I thought I could safely miss this session.  I spent the day resting and finishing this report.

Tomorrow, when we finish our work, we''' meet with representative from the Parliament of the World's Religions and discuss joint programming.

That's all for now...

Blessed Be,
Don Frew
National Interfaith Representative

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