Friday, June 27, 2014

URI Global Council 2014 - Day 5 (The best of interfaith - for me.)

Thursday, June 26

Again, I am left behind while the buses drive off…

The day started early with breakfast with Elisha Buba Yero, Alejandrino, and Rachael.  Before being a URI Trustee, Elisha was the Special Advisor on Religious Affairs to the Executive Governor of Kaduna State and Permanent Secretary in the Kaduna State Ministry of Religious Affairs in Nigeria.  He is also Wakilin Kpope (The Ambassador to the Chief and Traditional Ruler of his Community) in Kaduna State of Nigeria.  Nominally a Christian, he is good example of the way Christianity and traditional practices can exist side-by-side in a single person.

Elisha told me about a spring in his village.  It was down in a hole with steps leading down to it.  Only women could collect the water, and then only if they asked permission and had a good heart.  If so, the water would be pure and good.  A barren woman could be made fertile by drinking such water.  There were snakes and such down in the hole, but they would not bother such a woman.  If a woman came with a bad heart, the water would not flow.

There were trees around the spring, making it a cool, shady, beautiful place.  If a man came and asked permission of the trees, he could cut one down and the next day it would be back again whole and sound.  Elisha said that he had seen this with his own eyes. 

But now people are cutting down the trees for lumber and disrespecting the spring.  He asked if I had any advice.  I suggested three things: 1) Talk to people who remember the spring when it was still being properly taken care of.  Collect their stories.  See if there are old photographs of the place.  Make it possible to tell other people the story of the spring and how special it was and could be.  2) With this information, talk to the government, business, and interfaith leaders, comparing the spring to their holy places – churches, mosques, and such – that they would not think of abusing in this way.  3) Work with the people of the village to restore the spring and its sacred qualities, and then make it available to others.  Turn the people who live around the spring into its guardians and stewards in such a way as to help the economy of the village.  All this has been successful in other places.

We talked about how sacred items are treated as “art”.  His people were part of the Nok civilization, which produced amazing terra cotta figures (  Elisha said that when sacred images are recovered by the Nigerian government from foreign museums, they go into museums in Nigeria when they should go back to the people they came from, to take their proper, traditional place in religious ceremonies and sacred sites.  Why does plundering a sacred site suddenly turn sacred images into “art”?  We talked about how the same ideas I mentioned above could be applied to create collaboration between national museums and local stewards of sacred artifacts.

Rachael and Alejandrino joined us and Rachael filled Alejandrino in about all of this.  Alejandrino shared a story about a man Rachael and I know from Peru – Alejandro – who, while working his fields, cut down a tree that was in the way even though he knew it was a sacred tree associated with a particular spirit.  Immediately he was seized with back pain and bent over like the cut tree.  He was not healed until he made proper offerings and apology to the site and left it alone.

Our morning session opened with a blessing from the North American contingent.  The whole crew is too large to name, since it includes most of the Staff, but you can find out about them and see their faces at  For the first time I can remember in URI history, none of the North American Trustees were here.  Health issues and other pressing business concerns kept them away.  And so the blessing was done by two people:
* Ms. Sande Hart (? / USA) – Regional Coordinator
* Mrs. Monica Willard (? / USA) – URI United Nations Representative NY

They had draped all of the chairs in flags of the Banner of Peace, emblematic of the Roerich Pact.  Sande explained the story of the Banner and the Roerich Pact (  These flags were gifts from one of the missing North American Trustees, Rebecca Tobias (Jewish / USA).  Monica then set up a small Peace Pole in the center of the room ( and led us all in the Peace Prayer.

Rattan Channa and John Baptist Odama had to leave.  Rattan was going to her daughter’s wedding in Ireland.  Bishop Odama has mediated talks between the Ugandan government and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.  He was needed back in Uganda, but he told us “I’m not leaving.  I’m just taking a long stroll outside the campus.”

Liam Chinn, our Co-Director of Global Programs for Evaluation and Learning, led the first of several sessions on “Energizing the Network”, a handbook on helping Regional Coordinators and Regional Leadership Teams work with Cooperation Circles on participating in the URI.  Liam’s parents are Irish Catholic and Confucian, and he grew up in an Inuit village in outermost western Alaska, so he truly has an interfaith personality and is very supportive of indigenous spirituality in URI.  We started with small group and then general discussions of what a group gets out of being a Cooperation Circle.  All the usual answers came up:  NGO status at the UN.  Connection to resources.  Speaking with a global voice.  Global validation of local actions.  Partnerships.  Knowing that you are not alone in your struggle.  Building personal relationships that lead to a global sense of family.  Strengthening the indigenous presence and voice.  Etc.
(Standing Left to Right: Victor Kazanjian, Liam Chinn, Mussie Hailu)
I shared my Rio story:  At one point during the 2002 Global Assembly, Rowan Fairgrove and I found ourselves on camera for CNN South America.  The reported asked me why someone would want to do interfaith work?  I answered that “We all want to see change in the world: an end to violence, empowerment of women, a healthy environment… Well, the only true change comes about through changing peoples’ minds, and nothing has the power over peoples’ minds that religion has.  So, religions coming together to collaborate for the common good has the potential to be the most powerful force for positive change on the planet.  As a person of faith, concerned for the welfare of others and for the Earth, how can I NOT be involved?”

Liam asked how our CCs had provided a tangible benefit.  I mentioned the stories from last night about how Multiregion CCs had helped others.  Rachael mentioned the 1000 Kalema project, in which she had been instrumental, and how it had helped young people express themselves (  Lots of other projects, many involving reconciling once-warring peoples, were mentioned.  Many involved youth.  Audri talked about how her Trail of Dreams CC held a retreat for LGBT youth of different faiths and how empowering it was (

Liam said that no other organization on Earth provides the benefits we do, even if we don’t directly provide funding.  We provide access to funding and to policy makers.  Mussie talked about his work with the African Union and the UN and how the URI, as an included NGO, can speak directly for the people when they meet.

Liam then led us into a complex exercise about sharing stories – how important it is and how hard it can be.  We broke into groups of three.  Each group decided that one person would be the story-teller and the two others the story-recorders.  After this, we would meet in groups of 18, where each story would be shared with that group by one of the recorders (not the original story-teller).  The group would then vote on which story to share with the whole group when we re-convened, and someone else would then tell the story again to that group.  (Sort of an exercise in “Telephone”.)

My group was me, Elisabeth Lheure (Baha’i / Spain), and Patrick Nickisch (Hindu / Germany).  They decided I would be the Story-teller and I told the Tabebe story, again, since it’s my most powerful experience of interfaith work...

“At the Parliament Assembly that took place at the monastery of Monserrat in advance of the 2004 Parliament of the World's Religions, Mussie Hailu 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 family-member… 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 in 1999, 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 Gibbs at the end of the conference.

Mussie and Sr. Latitia went back to Addis Ababa and founded a URI Cooperation Circle in Ethiopia.  They included the Tabebe in their CC and for their CC logo they used a variation on an early URI logo that included a pentacle among its religious symbols:
As they expected, religious representatives 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 internationally recognized 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 one religious representative after another, 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 with people courageous enough to stand up for the truth, 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."

We analyzed how this story applied to other parts of the URI.  We talked about empowerment of minority religion.  We especially discussed how “invisible” indigenous / Pagan religions are.  Anthropologists joke that “Haiti is 90% Catholic and 100% Voodoo.”  But collectors of religious data are more likely to report that as Haiti being 90% Catholic and 10% Voodoo.  I told them about the time I had lunch at a meeting of the world’s Interfaith Councils in Taipei with a Catholic Archbishop, a Protestant leader, and a Chief Imam from Uganda.  I asked if their were any Pagans or Animists in their Interfaith Council.  They looked at me quizzically.  I tried again, asking about people who practiced the older, tribal spiritual practices that existed before the coming of Europeans.  The minister, sitting in the center, gestured to all three of them and said “Of course.  Us.”  All of them continued to perform their traditional spiritual practices in addition to being Christians and Muslim.

Dual-affiliation is almost never taken into consideration.  If it was, Pew’s current numbering of the world’s Pagans (in the broad sense) at 29.25% of the population would skyrocket.

When we sat out under a tree and shared our stories in the next phase of the exercise, we voted for which one we wanted to share with the whole group and it was my job to tally the votes.  We agreed that people shouldn’t vote for their own story.  My name was first on the list, but no hands were raised for my story.  Bart ten Broek’s story of overcoming intolerance in a Christian school won.  (It turned out later that several people didn’t realize we had started voting when I called out my name, but I don’t think it would have made a difference in the outcome.  “Herding cats” applies as much to interfaith meetings as it does to Pagan events.)

As we waited to reconvene, I chatted with Biswadeb Chakraborty about the upcoming Global Indigenous Initiative gathering.  We agreed that there is a tendency to equate “indigenous” with the pejorative “primitive”, with “marginalized”, and with “poor”, and so end up excluding a lot of traditions who should be included: many kinds of Hindu, Shinto, Taoists, and others.  We need to embrace a larger understanding of indigenous, both because it’s the right thing to do and because it expands our economic base.   Someone asked me what “indigenous” means and I replied that it refers to “spiritual traditions that have evolved as manifestations of a people’s relationship with the environment in which they live.”  Biswadeb agreed.  Biswadeb will be at the opening of the GII meeting and we will bring this up. 

I have always said that we need to develop a global indigenous economy in which practitioners of indigenous spiritualities in wealthier countries can help their bothers and sisters in less wealthy countries through assisting in building economic infrastructure.  There is a BIG difference between sharing resources, knowledge, and skills between with brothers and sisters in a two-way exchange vs. going to the Church for a handout.  One is empowering and the other re-enforces a powerless, subordinate status that started with colonization and continues today.

Before we went back inside, Global Council Chair Kiran Bali (Hindu / UK) asked us to gather of a moment of silence in solidarity with then girls taken by the Boko Haram.  This was all the more poignant in light of the information that CoG’s Greg Harder had sent to Rachael that 60 more girls had been taken yesterday.

While we were still standing in a circle, someone pointed out that today – June 26, 2014 – was the 14th anniversary of the signing of the URI Charter in Pittsburgh PA.  Everyone asked Bill to say a few words.  Among other things, he said that his intention had been to create a “United Religions”, based on the model of the UN, but instead we had a “United Religions Initiative”.  His intention had been to get the world’s religious leaders around a big table, but instead we had over 600 Cooperation Circles.  So he was a big failure, but out of that failure came a shining star!
  (Bishop Bill Swing explaining his "failure".)

I ate lunch with Peter Mousaferiadis (Orth. Christian / Australia).  He is a new Trustee for the South East Asia and the Pacific Region.  We just wanted to find out more about each other.  He laughingly said that someone had told him that I was a Wiccan and was surprised when I confirmed that I was.  I explained about Pagan / Witch / Wiccan etc.  Somehow the conversation drifted into comparing natural disasters between where he lives in Australia (fires and floods) to where we were sitting in Santa Clara (earthquakes).  He was surprised to learn that we have earthquakes strong enough to feel about once a month.  He said that he appreciated what I had been saying about Bylaws and URI structure and asked to be on the Bylaws Committee.  Since we had mostly talked about me and where I live I walked with him back to the dorm to learn more about him.  It turned out that we have a shared interest in trying to create a game that replicates the interfaith experience.  Check out his work at:

I remembered that the Multiregion was supposed to do the opening blessing after lunch and dashed back to confer with my fellow Multiregioneers before we started.  When I walked in, Karen Barensche, the new Regional Coordinator for the Southern Africa Region, with whom I had barely spoken, stopped me and said that when she first saw me at the ceremony at the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, she had assumed I was the presiding minister for the place, but then she got a psychic flash that I was Wiccan.  She was the person who had spoken to Peter!

(Meanwhile, Rachael had taken Vrajapati out to find an Indian restaurant.  He had been looking a bit peaked and it turned out that there wasn’t any food that fit his dietary restrictions other than the green salad and it just wasn’t enough.  He was too polite to ask for something else since in his culture it is offensive to ask for food or take it; rather you wait for someone to give it to you.  Rachael understood this and helped him out.  He looked much better when he got back and was much happier.)

We asked everyone in the room who was in a Multiregion CC to stand with us, so we ended up with about half the room standing in a circle facing out at the other half, but only a few of us spoke:
* me (Wiccan / USA) – Continuing Trustee, led everyone in singing “Air I am…”
* Rachael Watcher (Wiccan / USA) – Regional Coordinator, performed the Dryghtyn Blessing.
* Patrick Nickisch (Hindu / Germany) – URI Representative at UN Geneva, read a Vedic hymn to the Divine Feminine.
* Swamini Adityananda Saraswati (Hindu / India) – At-Large Trustee, did a Sanskrit chant.
* Audri Scott Williams (Christian and Indigenous Cherokee / USA) – Trustee, recited a prayer asking for the blessings of the Ancestors from the four directions.
* Vrajapati Das (Hindu / India) – Trustee, read an excerpt from a book by a teacher I didn’t catch.
* Ed Bastian (Buddhist / USA) – Trustee, recited part of the Heart Sutra in Tibetan.

After this, Liam led us into the final phase of this morning’s exercise: hearing the final stories from this morning’s groups.  We heard Bart’s story and one from Karen B. and Peter M. about the age of the universe that I confess I didn’t quite understand.  It had something to do with astrophysicists figuring out what the Big Bang sounded like and that it wasn’t a “Bang!”, but more of an “Ommmmm…”

Isabelle Ortega, our Director of Global Communications and Strategic Planning, led us through another process of identifying which communication stream was the best for finding information and for sharing information with the Global Council, the Global Support Staff, or the rest of the URI.  We have: Social Media, Websites, Publications, Email Listserves, etc.  I was fading by this time as, like many of the folks coming from other countries, I am used to a nap in the afternoon and that, combined with the heat and medications, was making me drowsy.  Several other folks were drooping over, too.  There were a LOT of good suggestions about improving and expanding our information flow – internally and to the rest of the world.  Someone suggested a URI TV or radio show (or podcast, or whatever is the current version of the same idea).  Marianne suggested collecting our best stories for a Jubilee book about the URI.  Genivalda reminded us not to forget the blind or deaf.  Monica suggested a URI story-a-day calendar. 

For our next exercise, Liam split us into groups of five, each of which was given an actual CC activity report from a real CC somewhere in the URI.  We were supposed to evaluate the information for what it told us about how the CC was achieving (or not) its goals, how the URI might help it more, what it had to offer to other CCs, etc.  Not just how many people met on what day to do what event.  In other words, not Who? What? When?, rather How? and Why?

My group was me, Patrick, Musa Sanguila (? / Philippines) – Trustee, Ros Sam An (Hindu / Philippines) – Trustee, and Potre Diampuan (Muslim / Philippines) – Regional Coordinator.  Our CC to study was one in India.  As a real, functioning group I don’t want to identify them.  We noticed that the CC seemed to be stretching its information to fit the evaluation questions, which suggested that the questions weren’t quite right.  We noticed that the CC had several faith traditions, but that seemed to be incidental to its work.  This raised the question of whether any service group that just happened to have several faith traditions could qualify for URI membership, or does our Principle #1 “URI is a bridge-building organization, not a religion.” mean that bridging differences between faith traditions needs to be part of its raison d’etre?  We noticed that whoever filled out the form did not have English as their first language and that might be part of the problem.  We concluded that the form should be the basis for a more direct communication, like a phone call.  We also noticed that the form asked the group what it was doing and how it could help other parts of the URI, but nowhere did it ask “How is the URI currently helping you in your work and how could it do more?”

When we all got back together, we brought all of these points up.  Monica asked if we have an assessment of what the URI can offer CCs, in the form of resources, connections, etc.?  Before we ended the session, Liam gave me a draft of the Energizing the Network manual for CCs.  We all know in CoG that in grass-roots organization you can’t wait for everything to flow from the top.  You have to be proactive and ask for things.  This manual is a guide for CCs to get the most out of their participation in the URI.  I am looking forward to going through it, since Liam and his team do great work and appreciate input and feedback.

Victor explained about tonight’s home visits.  We were all to take buses to designated homes of local URI supporters for dinners and schmoozing.  These would all be folks who support the URI financially and are enthused by meeting and talking with the people whose work they support.  I didn’t want to get in a situation where my hand and arm got worse and I was stuck with no way back, so I opted to stay at the dorm and find my own dinner.  (Turned out it was at a Starbucks.  There is surprisingly little around here.)  It gave me a chance to work on reports.

When folks got back, Patrick checked in and we had a long chat about the history of the URI and the role it plays in the spiritual transformation of the world.  When I’m writing about it, it sounds gushy and Hallmark-y, but when you are here, it’s easy to believe that anything is possible.  We look around the room and see tremendous religious diversity, different races, different countries, different cultures, Archbishops and ordinary citizens, men and women, young and old, rich and poor… all enjoying each other’s company, all on a first-name basis, all helping each other, all listening and learning from each other, all working together to make the world a better place.  If we can do it, theoretically anybody should be able to do the same.  When we come together like this, we are the microcosm in a great spell to change the macrocosm.  We are an example of the future.  I always say about these meetings – URI meetings, Parliaments of the World’s Religions, NAIN Connects... all of them – “Come see what the world can be!”

Enough gush.  2:00 am.  Must be up by 7:30 am.  Time for bed.

Blessed Be,
Don Frew

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