Thursday, May 25, 2017

Update from a National Interfaith Representative – the Global Council of the United Religions Initiative

Don Frew, 11 May 2017

Merry meet!

I haven’t posted in a while; not because I’ve been inactive, but because health issues usually left me too tired to do a report after meetings and events.  Fortunately, two health crises this year (diabetic keto-acidosis & hyperthyroidism) both complicated my life and improved it dramatically.  When the doctors know what you have, they can give you the right medications.  I had felt like I was just winding down and getting old, but now I am much more strong, awake, and active.

So, on the occasion of my 57th birthday, I just finished a Zoom conference call of the Global Council of the United Religions Initiative.  Of the 31 Trustees we have residing in 22 countries, 19 were able to attend (16 being needed for a quorum).  Some were on the call from home, some on their phones – one at a train station in Delhi, India, where it was 110 degrees in the shade!  Accommodating all of us meant meeting at unusual times for some; for me, just at 7:00am.
Highlights of the call and where the URI is now include…

An opening reflection was led by URI Executive Director Victor Kazanjian (Christian / USA).  He focused on cycles of birth & death and remembrance of friends who have passed.  (EricTomarompong, President of the Muslim / Christian Peacemakers Circle in the Philippines was shot and killed last week while working on Muslim / Christian dialogue in a war torn region –  This was a reminder that interfaith efforts in many parts of the world involve action in conflict areas that are very much not safe.

[As I post this - May 25 - I get word from Victor that Father Teresito "Chito" Suganob of the Peacemakers Circle and members of his parish were taken hostage from the Cathedral of St. Mary's in Marawi City in Mindanao in the Philippines by ISIL-linked fighters.  We are all hoping for their safe return.]

Thirty-eight new Cooperation Circles (CCs) have joined the URI so far this year, bringing our total to 851 CCs in over 100 countries, involving several million people!  You can find info about all of the CCs at ( but just a few highlights from new CCs in April and May…

* The National Coalition of Religions and Community Together (Bujumbura, Burundi, Great Lakes, AFRICA)
* Society for Health Education and Development – SHED (Anantaporamu, India, ASIA)
* La Villa de Arcilla (Based in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, LATIN AMERICA & THE CARIBBEAN)
* Youth Today Foundation CC (Blantyre, Malawi, Southern Africa, AFRICA)
* Women Organization for Rural Development – WORD (Kadiri, Anantapur, India, ASIA)
* Greater Concord Interfaith Council (Concord, New Hampshire, United States, NORTH AMERICA)
* Building Better Society CC (Yangon, Myanmar, SOUTH EAST ASIA & THE PACIFIC)
* Advocates for Grassroots Inter-Religious Cooperation (Pagadian City, Zamboanga del Sur, Philippines, SOUTH EAST ASIA & THE PACIFIC)

We just held our Circles of Light annual fundraising dinner, at which the first Chair or the URI’s Global Council was honored by having the position of Chair named “the Rita Semel Chair” henceforth.  I have mentioned Rita Semel (Jewish / USA) many times in my reports.  She helped found the San Francisco Interfaith Council, the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, and the URI.  She has been doing intercultural and interfaith work in the SF Bay Area since covering the signing of the United Nations charter here in 1945 as a cub reporter. 

Speaking of the United Nations… The URI is a NGO at the UN, where we are in the process of formalizing relations with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, the United Nations Environmental Program, the United Nations Population Fund, the United Nations Department of Public Information, the World Federation of United Nations Associations, the Office of Genocide Prevention, UNESCO, and the United Nations Development Program. Having formal relations goes a long way when your trying to work together on the ground to improve things in various parts of the world.

Each year, the Global Council meets several times by Zoom and has one face-to-face meeting.  We try to move these meetings around the world, to make it easier for people to attend.  This year, the meeting will be in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in September.  Travel to and getting visas for Sarajevo has been a bit tricky, so Victor will be stopping there to help work things out on the ground with Foreign Ministry of Bosnia and Herzegovina on his way back from visiting interfaith groups in Russia later this month.  In anticipation of the Global Council meeting, several working groups – consisting of Trustees and outside advisors – have been focusing on aspects of the Global Council’s work and preparing materials to help move the meeting along in a productive way.  The working groups are: Organizational Sustainability, Growth & Impact, Connectivity & Visibility, Capacity Building & Leadership.  With an international organization that is as multicultural as ours, we can’t just assume that one administrative culture fits all.  We are trying to build something that allows everyone to express maximum creativity for the good of all. 

I chairing a group that is working with the Mills Legal Clinic at Stanford Law School on upgrading our Bylaws to fit the kind of organization we are becoming, even though we haven’t really become it yet.  URI founder Bill Swing (Christian / USA) is fond of saying that “we are building the airplane that we are already flying”.  If so, then some of us are trying to write the instruction manual when we don’t know what kind of plane it will be yet.

Twenty-three Global Council members are part of the “Principle 19 Project”, based on the URI’s Preamble Purpose and Principles (  #19 reads: “We are committed to organizational learning and adaptation.”  This group is working on ways for us to understand and measure our impact in the world.  How do we know if we are succeeding?  What can we show others?

[BTW, I just took a break from writing this so Anna and could attend the commencement ceremony for Michelle Mueller at the Graduate Theological Seminary here in Berkeley.  Michelle is a former CoG National Interfaith Rep for Youth and just got her Ph.D. in Cultural & Historical Studies of Religion for her dissertation “Performed Polygamy and Polyamory in the Media Age: The ‘Teleducation’ of Nonmonogamous Religious and Spiritual Families in Reality Television”.  She also just had a baby, so… Yay, Michelle!]

The URI will be launching its new website in September, but in the meantime, the Multiregion of the URI has already launcher theirs:  (For those who don’t know, the URI is organized into seven geographically proximate Regions and an 8th “Multiregion”.  The Multiregion inclused all CCs who either have members in more than one Region or are focused on a global topic that crosses Regions – like Women or the Environment or Peace.  CoG-members have been most active in the Multiregion.)

“In February, the URI announced a new partnership with the Women’s Earth Alliance (WEA), a global grassroots training organization that focuses on empowering women to develop local environmental projects:  URI and WEA are developing a global training program called The Ripple Academy.  The Ripple Academy will unleash a global cadre of women leaders allied to forge and amplify solutions for peace, justice, and environmental healing in communities around the world. The Ripple Academy will bring together the best of URI’s and WEA’s models, offering a coordinated training experience to equip leading change-makers with the skills, tools, and alliances they need to build bridges of cooperation and environmental solutions for generations to come.”  (Victor’s words)

The URI continues to work on building an endowment – the URI Foundation – to fund the day-today actives of a global interfaith organization.  So far, the Foundation is managing a little over $1.1 million in assets.  The URI’s current annual global budget runs a little over $3.9 million, so we have a ways to go before an endowment can cover our expenses.  Treasurer Becky Burad (Christian / USA), as always, gave a thorough report.  I pointed out that, not only can this be difficult to follow for English-speaking Trustees who may not have any background in business, but the Global Council includes many Trustees for whom English is not their first language and who come from cultures with different ways of handling business affairs.  I suggested that she give a workshop at our face-to-face meeting on how to read and understand her reports.  She agreed on both counts.

Chief Phil Lane (Yankton Dakota & Chickasaw / USA) is an At-Large Trustee focusing on URI’s relations with indigenous peoples.  He gave us an update on how things are progressing with the Standing Rock group.  He offered a song for those continuing the work of Standing Rock and for the URI member killed in the Philippines.

There was a lot more, but this is a snapshot into the ongoing work of the URI’s Global Council.  For more of the work on the ground by the over 850 Cooperation Circles, just check out or, for a focused view of what’s going on in your particular area of interest, go to

Blessed Be,
Don Frew

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