Rev. Robert V. Thompson, Former Chair of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, considers alternative methods of bringing about peace using creative thinking and being attentive to conflicts at their earliest stages.
This op-ed was originally published in Chicago Tribune on December 5, 2001
Because we Americans are suckers for the quick fix we want to believe the war on terrorism will be won through military action, improved intelligence, stemming the flow of terrorist money and stepped-up national security.
While most of us believe these policies will solve the problem, many of us are plagued by a palpable uneasiness and persistent ambivalence. We are, after all, an intensely empathic people. We care very much about the plight of the Afghan people and it is not OK with us that one more time, innocent people are being offered as a sacrifice on the altar of a just cause. Equally unsettling is the gnawing awareness that terrorism is the face rather than the heart of the problem. If we destroy terrorists in Afghanistan, where do we go next? Is it back to Iraq or on to Indonesia? And it is common knowledge that our war in Afghanistan will likely create hundreds or perhaps thousands of new terrorists. Where will it end?
Bill Ury, author of “The Third Side,” has extensive experience in creative non-violent conflict resolution. Ury says terrorism, for that matter any form of violence, is comparable to a virus. He says terrorism, like a virus, lies sleeping, spreads throughout the body and attacks, as if from out of nowhere. It flourishes when the world’s immune system is weak.
I asked Ury what might have been different had we had a strong global immune system prior to Sept. 11. He said, “Witnesses might have informed us of the terrorists’ plans. Peacekeepers the world over might have frustrated the terrorists and taken them into custody. Healers would have been healing the wounds of the Islamic world. Mediators would have been working hard to resolve the obvious conflicts like that of Israel-Palestine. Teachers would have been at work teaching other ways of dealing with differences and about the tragic futility of violence. Providers would have been addressing the conditions of poverty and oppression that often breed terrorism. Bridge-builders would have been building bridges between the Islamic and Western world. Arbiters, equalizers, referees would all have been at work.”
Every person has a role to play in strengthening the global immune system. Every human being can become a peace keeper, healer, mediator and teacher of non-violent conflict resolution. We can do this in our homes, schools, neighborhoods, religious communities, nation, and around the world. This is an infinitely greater challenge than flying a flag or singing the national anthem on key. We are now being called to this greater patriotism. One like that envisioned by Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “No nation can live alone . . . we are tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
This wisdom, this greater patriotism is the awareness that a healed and renewed America cannot exist apart from a healed and renewed world. And history has taught us that if the people will lead, the leaders will follow. Copyright © 2001, Chicago Tribune
Rev. Robert V. Thompson – Parliament Chair Emeritus. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Bob Thompson graduated from Berkeley Baptist Divinity School (Graduate Theological Union) and was ordained an American Baptist minister in 1973. He served American Baptist Churches in Kansas, Ohio, and for 30 years, as Senior Minister of the Lake Street Church in Evanston, Illinois. During the 1980′s Thompson became an activist pastor focusing on issues such as homelessness, racial reconciliation and advocacy for LGBT rights. He is the author of A Voluptuous God: A Christian Heretic Speaks (CopperHouse, 2007) and a contributor to the book for preachers, Feasting On the Word, Westminster John Knox Press.
Parliament Trustee Robert Sellers discusses film as a means of reflecting on human drama occurring across the globe, and as a springboard for conversation regarding shared values and the role of Religions therein.
Every couple of years, I offer a course for both undergraduate and graduate students at my university entitled “Religion and Film.” This theology-prefix course, offered on the Friday nights and Saturday mornings of about half of the semester weekends, is identified by the following course description: “An exploration of the relationship of modern film and religion, particularly Christianity. The focus will be upon theological interpretations of the characters and plots of selected mainstream movies. Students will have an opportunity to explore how specific spiritual and ethical motifs are treated in film.”
Some may question why movies should be a source for theological reflection. There are several good reasons. First, the Divine doesn’t only confront us in sacred texts, so we are challenged to grapple with the Mystery and to “read the text” in all of life’s experiences. Second, the visual and audio, and, (now, even) 4D capabilities of contemporary films greatly enhance the impact that they can contribute to those who experience them. Third, many screenwriters, directors, and actors consciously determine to communicate profound insights through their work, yet many movie viewers assume that films do little more than entertain, which is a notion that should be challenged. And, finally, film is perhaps the most popular artistic medium today, and the largest demographic of moviegoers are young people—the very group that, regardless of their religious (or non-religious) background, might learn to appreciate the power that a good story has to shape one’s moral character.
The way in which I structure my class meetings enables students to watch 14 films during our sessions together, as well as to participate in small group presentations at the end of the semester. Seminar members write a theological reflection on each movie, focused upon a suggested theme such as life, identity, guilt, forgiveness, pain, coping, faith, hope, love, trust, redemption, transformation, acceptance, and interdependence.
Some students enter the course expecting to view overtly religious movies—Christian films, to be precise, since my university has Baptist roots and distinctiveness. But they suppose the course title “Religion and Film” really means “Religion in Film,” and thus we’ll be watching movies that serve an apologetic function, like The Passion of the Christ (2004) or God is Not Dead (2014), or at least films where some perceived Christian virtue is dramatized, as in Facing the Giants (2006). These young people may also believe the movies I select will unequivocally demonstrate the superiority of “our” faith by portraying the bad behavior of persons who aren’t Christ-followers.
Other students think that finding a theological meaning in a movie simply requires identifying the story element that is contrary to their own particular religious upbringing. Thus, they will write a paper decrying marriage unfaithfulness in The Bridges of Madison County (1995), greed in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), or sexual abuse in The Kite Runner (2007). But the theological meanings I want them to engage are more subtle and more gray than black or white. The Bridges of Madison County, for example, could yield a helpful discussion about choices, The Wolf of Wall Street about consequences, and The Kite Runner about redemption.
Such assumptions, however, are wrong and have nothing to do with my purpose or approach. What I want to do is to acquaint students with the human drama as it unfolds in many cultures and among people of different religious traditions. Thus, some of the films I select originate in countries other than the United States, while the values implicitly or explicitly expressed in the stories are grounded not only in Christianity, but in a variety of other religious traditions. Films of this type that I’ve used productively include In a Better World (Denmark, 2010), The Sea Inside (Spain, 2004), Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia, 2002), Monsieur Lazhar (Canada, 2012), The Color of Paradise (Iran, 1999), Tsotsi (South Africa, 2005), Ajami (Israel, 2009), Innocent Voices (Mexico, 2005), and Five Minutes of Heaven (Ireland, 2009).
I’ve discovered that movies can also stimulate rich conversations concerning perspectives from the Religious Other and, especially, about ways to relate to persons who follow other faiths. One of the best entrees to such a discussion is the sweet story Stolen Summer (2002). Students are particularly interested discussing their idea of the themes in two cinematically gorgeous films by Ron Fricke, neither with a plot or dialogue, entitled Baraka (1992) and Samsara (2011). These visual and emotional “masterpieces” elicit multiple interpretations.
Based upon several years of successfully challenging very bright university students to think creatively about pop culture, I heartily recommend that films be used to initiate conversations about our shared values and virtues as people who practice various religions. They not only entertain hundreds of millions of people around the world—including a host of faithful adherents of our own spiritual traditions—but they are often reservoirs of helpful theological insight about the Divine, our fellow human beings, and the world which we all share.
Robert P. Sellers is professor of missions and theology at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, and represents Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches, USA. He is a member of the Board of Trustee of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.
Spirit Unleashed: Reimagining Human-Animal Relations by Trustee Anne Benvenuti Nominated for Pulitzer (Excerpt)
Parliament Trustee Rev. Dr. Anne Benvenuti’s new book entitled Spirit Unleashed: Reimagining Human-Animal Relations has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction. The book applies both scientific and religious perspectives to the relationship between humans and other animals.
Excerpt Published with permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.
“One summer morning it was a bat. I had set out early for a trail walk, hoping to get some exercise for me and for the dogs and some mental focus before the day heated up. I had planned to write about having learned from Molly to love the non-human world. As I started out on the trail, I calmed my mind, stilled my thoughts and asked all the beings there to help me to stay awake and not drift into the lulling and dulling chatter of thoughts. After a few minutes of watching the woodpeckers and the cottontails, the rocks and the ragged cianothus and sage, I noticed a dead blossom lying in the middle of the trail. As I bent to look at it, I saw its fine and fragile wing-like structure. I picked it up and turned it over, still not knowing what it was. Then face-up in my hand, I could see that it was a dead bat. I observed that his little mouth was open, tongue out and the tiny fragile fingers of both hands were clutching his throat. I thought he may have died of some poison, or gagged on contentious catch. I probably never would have picked up a dead bat intentionally, having heard terrible tales of bat-contamination. I carried the little corpse over and set it on a noteworthy rock, hoping that I would find it there for further study upon my return. As I turned to go, a wing fell open, or did he move it? I returned to investigate.
I understood then that he might have been one of the many flying creatures who have some kind of problem midflight that causes them to crash land, resulting in shock and dehydration, on top of any injury or illness. They frequently need water and safety more than any special care. I have learned that a lot of animals die just so of shock and dehydration, and I have also learned that they understand your intent in relation to them very quickly. I assured him in that soft hypnotic voice that creatures tend to love that my intent was to do no harm and to do what good I might. I lifted him gently and watched him unfold and open entirely; beautiful wings made of a fine frame of bone and joint covered with translucent fabric that wrapped his body, webbing the entire back of his torso in an enclosure. I didn’t have my glasses, and, at this point was interested to know if he had teeth. I peered at him closely and saw the soft petals of his pointed ears, but I never did ascertain the presence of teeth, in spite of his open mouth. His furry belly fluttered with uneven breath as his arm bent at the elbow and he reached for his mouth again. Then my mind’s ear heard clearly the words, “I thirst.” Ah, that. I do not know how to care for a bat and I know precious little about them, but I do know thirst. I decided I would carry him to the creek with me and see about arranging something between him and the moisture he so desperately craved.
I studied him as I walked, awed by the intricate beauty and the fragile toughness of him. He had tiny glass beads of eyes. Had I not heard that bats had no capacity to see? It was hard to tell exactly without my reading glasses. His body was about an inch and a half long with fine pointed little ears at the top and a webbed tail, which he used to completely pull up the blanket of his fabric and enclose himself. His wings were about six inches in span, huge by comparison to his soft little body, graceful as a geisha’s fan in their folding and unfolding. His arms were just like mine, bending at the elbow, with hands and fingers just like mine, except for the size, about an eighth of an inch. Again he brought his hand to his dry tongue. Do you doubt for a moment that he spoke to me about his thirst?
I set him down in the moist sand about two inches from the place where the water lapped the shore and I let my fingers dribble water down in front of him. He drank it; he gulped water down. Then he rested, then drank more, and more. Rested, more water. With no warning, he unfurled his wings, fanned out into the water as if he had a gentle breeze in his sails, and swam away from me. Have you ever seen a bat swim? Have you ever even seen a picture of a bat swimming? Oh glorious and graceful sight, oh human delight! He hauled himself with infinite grace onto the underside of a rock. I watched. He climbed, revived by mere water, climbed up under the rock and then over it and then up again. My work was done. On the definite underside of a rock, wedged well against other rocks, he hung upside down, asleep. So this is the dreaded bat.
Love one little thing and you love the entire universe that holds it, as well as the essence from which it pours forth, and the pulse that beats in it, and the breath that heaves it, and the awareness that connects it. Save one little thing and you save your soul entire.
That tiny desperate thirst is indeed your own, and you are quenched beyond measure, awakened in the water, merely for being there, responsive. This is what I learned from Molly Brown, the little dog with great spirit, slowly over the many years of her patient instruction, that words hinder the communications of the heart, acting often as stoppers to the ears of empathy, which would otherwise hear every pulsing breathing body.
“God speaks to us secretly and in silence,” said John of the Cross. Perhaps the language of God is silence because only in silence can I listendeepluy; and God is not shallow. The whole world is here, waiting to be heard, but I am too busy producing private words and thoughts to listen to it. I am so lulled by my word-making that I don’t even know I am doing it most of the time. In silence, words are reborn and they become something expressive, something worthy of care. In silence, we learn love. You do not need information about bats to know a dry tongue and a hand reaching for a parched throat, but you are unlikely to see that reaching hand unless you are still.
Surprise! The whole world is a message under the words. What I learned by way of Molly Brown—she who would be understood and not just condescended to—is that the whole world is there, waiting to be known, interested in me, as I am interested in it, that we, multitudinous and embodied, are also inseparable and in Love.”
To Continue Reading Spirit Unleashed, check out the book on Amazon.com
Anne Benvenuti is a professor of psychology and philosophy, an integrative scholar, a licensed clinical psychologist, a priest of the Episcopal Church, a spiritual director, and a published poet, writer, and photographer. Her research interests include developing models for scientific investigation of qualia; explication of religious epistemology, especially with reference to the potential for neuro-scientific models of integrative knowing, policy implications of religious epistemology, and the clinical integration of spirituality, health, and ecology.
Nearly half a million people marched to save the only planet we have on the 21st of September at the People’s Climate March in New York City. After exceeding goals to stage the biggest climate march in history, the day ended with an interfaith service packing thousands into the largest Cathedral in the World, St. John the Divine. Leaders spanning the faith traditions of the world vowed there to commit unprecedented action to curb climate change.
In this historic moment the Parliament, in conjunction with partners Green Faith and Interfaith Center of New York, took part in the 3-day Religions for the Earth conference presented by Union Theological Seminary. Organized by Union Forum’s Karenna Gore, daughter of Former U.S. Vice-President and global environmental champion Al Gore, the conference that brought together more than 200 leaders of world spiritual communities and interfaith organizations also leveraged partnerships with the World Council of Churches, Religions for Peace, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the National Religious Partnership.
Months of planning and organizing- with Parliament Trustee Dr. Kusumita Pedersen at the core and Trustee John Pawlikowski advising- resulted in a great showing of support from the Parliament Board. Highlighting some of the ways that spirituality as a healing, connecting, and educational force can powerfully address the climate crisis were Rev. Andras Corban Arthen of the Earth Spirit community, who spoke on an Indigenous Peoples panel, Rev. Dr. Anne Benvenuti, author and educator, who discussed the spiritual connection of humans and other animals, and Phyllis Curott, attorney and Wiccan priestess, who led an opening session prayer. Parliament Trustee Emeritus Naresh Jain, who serves currently on the Parliament’s UN Task Force, was also in attendance. The Parliament’s Executive Director, Dr. Mary Nelson, connected with former Vice President Al Gore, as did Parliament Chair, Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, who spoke at the closing Multi-faith Service.
What amplifies the voices of faith communities today is hoped to carry over into massive action at the forthcoming 2015 Parliament. Speaking to the Multi-faith Service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on the evening of September 21, Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid made a public commitment that the 2015 Parliament will take on climate issues and sustainable living as a prime focus.
The Parliament applauds the remarks offered by its partners, especially those shared by Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations Jan Eliasson at the Religions for the Earth Multifaith Service. Concerning what spiritual communities who work together harmoniously can achieve, Eliasson said, “Faith leaders like you here today have an essential role to play. You can set an example of dialogue and of mutual respect. You can use your pulpits to convey important messages as we have heard today. You can reach across lines of faiths and across the lines of identities that might otherwise divide people. I ask you, I plead with you to continue to remind us of the ethical and moral dimensions of climate change. Such efforts related to higher morality are needed not only on environment, but in general, at a time when we are seeing so much of sectarian turmoil and hatred around the world. I thank you all for mobilizing the positive power of religion…”
The Parliament of the World’s Religions UN-NGO Representatives affiliated to the United Nations Department of Public Information say attending the 65th Annual UN-DPI NGO conference in New York City August 27 – 29, 2014 was a great opportunity for the interfaith movement to build relationships with other NGOs invested in advocating for the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda.
“How A Global Ethic Can Contribute to the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda: An Intergenerational Discussion” paired the Parliament’s UN Youth Representatives Ms. Sara Rahim, and Mr. Tahil Sharma, in a workshop with members of the Parliament UN Task Force and co-sponsors exploring how activism for the SDGs can be enhanced by civic society. This process is achievable through the promotion and understanding of foundational documents on Human Rights including the Global Ethic, the Earth Charter, the Charter of Compassion, and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
The Panelists Representing the Parliament and Co-Sponsoring Institutions:
- Dr. Kusumita Pedersen, Chair of the Parliament UN Task Force, Parliament Trustee, and Co-Chair of the Interfaith Center of New York
- Monica Willard, Representative of the United Religions Initiative to the UN, UN NGO Committee Co-Chair
- Rev. Father John Pawlikowski, Parliament Trustee
- Rev. Dr. Anne Benvenuti, Parliament Trustee
- Sr. Joan Kirby, The Temple of Understanding
- Ms. Sara Rahim, Parliament UN Youth Representative
- Mr. Tahil Sharma, Parliament Un Youth Representative
Connecting institutional and grassroots advocates, the UN-DPI conference format includes plenary speakers, workshops, and panels equipping thousands of participants with new strategies. In proving the value of face-to-face networking opportunities, assemblies like this serve to enhance sustainable action by smart approaches to allocating human and other resources directed toward the UN’s Development Goals.
Tahil Sharma and Sara Rahim reported and reflect below on their experience presenting and participating in workshops and plenaries paying special attention to five takeaways the interfaith community can use to advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda:
The first three observations come from Sara Rahim:
“We have a duty to be bold. That is what people want. That is what the world needs.” – Ms. Susana Malcorra, UN Chef de Cabinet UN-NGO 2014
Between August 27-29, Tahil Sharma and I attended the 65th Annual UN DPI/NGO conference held in New York City, which drew in over 2,000 NGO representatives from over 117 countries. Earlier this year, we were chosen to serve as the Parliament of the World’s Religions Youth Representatives to the United Nations.
These past few months leading up to the conference, we brainstormed ways in which we could share our experiences with the greater civic community. We submitted a workshop panel that would explore how a Global Ethic could contribute to the Post-2015 Development Agenda, and were thrilled to be notified that we had been selected to present at the conference with trustees of the Parliament and like-minded interfaith bodies.
On August 27, Tahil and I quickly registered for the first day of the conference and made our way through UN security. In line, I met dozens of NGO representatives from around the world, who shared with me their field of work and what inspired them to attend the conference.
While this conference would clearly focus on the role of civil society and key global issues, I wondered how it might be possible to increase collaboration among interreligious groups. Faith-based organizations were certainly leading grassroots initiatives in their local communities, but how could we take that one step further? During the Opening Session, I observed several main themes that resonated with me regarding the role of interfaith at the UN.
1. “People are the center of development” – Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director, United Nations Population Fund
Refocusing efforts towards protecting people’s dignity is crucial, as we often forget the inherent link between human rights and development. Interfaith groups can continue to pave the path towards conflict resolution and community building in a way that ensures all voices can be a part of the conversation. As expressed by Dr. Osotimehin, focusing specifically on women and youth can help achieve universal goals of poverty reduction and education. I see an opportunity for interfaith groups to continue to advocate for women and youth as part of their initiatives.
2. The Importance of Setting Concrete Goals
Ambassador Samantha Power, Permanent Representative of United States to the United Nations, stated that encouraging civic society to work more closely with government would require an outcomes-driven process. The need for setting measurable, concrete goals for the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda can combat the criticism that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are too abstract and intangible. Powers also recommended focusing on peace and global governance as a basis for development. Passing just laws and creating credible institutions is one of the most sustainable ways to improving development. I personally recognized this vision, as it aligns with Parliament’s mission to mobilize faith leaders in their communities towards creating a peaceful, just, and sustainable world. Interfaith work is not just a ‘feel good mission,’ but it also has the potential to measure impact and offer tangible results.
3. Inclusion of the Disabled, Indigenous, and Youth
Ms. Maryanne Diamond, Chair, International Disability Alliance, assessed that persons who live with disabilities, 80% of whom are in the developing world, severely lack access to education, healthcare, and other basic resources. She offered a major critique that the previous MDG’s lacked inclusivity of disabled and indigenous populations. One of the biggest outcomes of this conference would be the revision and inclusion of minority groups into the agenda. Of these minority groups, I saw the role of youth as a major key player towards development. Tahil and I both recognized our own experiences in which interfaith had been a tool to mobilize people of all backgrounds towards a common goal. The NGO community, particularly interfaith and faith-based organizations, must continue to think in innovative ways to collaborate across sectors and be inclusive of all minority voices.
Tahil Sharma observes points 4 and 5:
4. Building Community through Forgiveness
The Representatives at the NGO conference represent great diversity across fields of expertise and demonstrate profound willingness to make a difference in the world. This point was addressed in a special keynote at the Permanent Mission of the United States to the United Nations by Ambassador Elizabeth M. Cousens who resides on the UN Economic and Social Council and serves as an Alternate Representative to the UN General Assembly. With fellow representatives being as young as 14 years old, showing an amazing ability to tackle major subjects, refute claims and develop productive dialogue with the ambassador, an important point on how the eagerness of the coming generations to foster change was taking place. The ambassador herself made note of this: “We need your voice, your ideas, and your insistence about what matters… You need to hold our feet to the fire in making sure that we count it.”
This proved the vitality of the kind of inter-generational conversation we would emphasize in our workshop about the creation and implementation of influential documents like the Charter for Compassion, the Earth Charter and the Global Ethic of the 1993 Parliament. Several individuals across cultures, faith traditions and ages must participate in making these paths for change to make the impact which can really matter.
My first example is a man who is legally blind, and arrived with a guide at his side for our workshop; his name was Takashi Tanemori from Hiroshima, and he is a hibakusha, or Atomic Bomb Survivor. Seeking revenge for the death of his family, he traveled to the United States for opportunity and suffered prejudice, discrimination and mistreatment for decades, even while discovering faith and service through Christian organizations. But in an instant, an epiphany of forgiveness and understanding made him turn his story become a force to educate and serve people. Dedicating his life to speak out against the struggles he experienced throughout his life, he describes his transformation and “how communication between people and countries is the answer to lasting peace throughout the world.” (Taken from his bio.) He spreads his message of understanding, love and forgiveness through lectures, poetry, art and through the writing of his own book, Hiroshima: Bridge to Forgiveness, having shared his message with thousands of people around the world. This same man who has experienced worlds of transition was the same man who commended the work that Sara, myself and the other panelists of our workshop dedicated ourselves to: creating bridges of understanding and respect. His sharing complimented our experience with his story and his message of compassion and clemency.
5. The Strength of Grassroots Advocacy
Another individual who caught my attention sprang from a social media interaction between Sara and fellow attendee, Syed Mahmood Kazmi, a college graduate from our age group, and a man who was leagues beyond my intelligence, capability and humility. A Kashmir, Pakistan native, he is dedicated to education and supporting marginalized and oppressed communities throughout South Asia. His work includes serving as an Emergency Response Team Leader in Pakistan Red Crescent Society providing First Aid and Search & Rescue. Additionally, Kazmi serves as an Intern at the Office of the Permanent Observer to the United Nations International Organization for Migration, New York. Proving to me that there is not any limit on the power in your stride to revolutionize the way we think and act. It was a privilege to associate with him, but his drive and grace also reminds me that my personal call to action must never be silenced.
The workshop and conference experience sent me home with a new energy to excel in my work, to inspire others, to educate communities about the world, and to ensure communities are provided what is needed to flourish and produce better lives. At certain moments, I thought my work with domestic communities lacked significance in the bigger picture, but people from all over the world proved our small actions are revolutionary. I have always known that lecturing, building community beds for organic vegetation to feed people, and building relationships between communities was the right thing to do, but now it seems like the normal thing to do. There is normalcy in instilling peace and stability in humanity.
All in all, the 3-day conference served as a platform for individuals, stakeholders, and NGO society to come together. This success was not just because of the number of people who participated in the event, but because all players came together to draft a powerful declaration to action. Our roles as interfaith leaders challenged us to think innovatively about how a Global Ethic could efficiently push for the Post 2015 Agenda. We found that there are multiple opportunities for collaboration in a way that moves from dialogue to producing tangible results. We walked away with not only a better understanding of what sustainable development means, but also how interfaith action can bridge the gap towards inclusivity and peaceful governance.
The Parliament of the World’s Religions is coming home. For the first time since 1993, the largest, most historic global interfaith summit is returning to the United States in October 2015. We are honored to invite you to experience a taste of this life-changing gathering on November 13, 2014. Join us in the Parliament’s home city by hosting your own table or purchasing tickets as together we look with great excitement toward our 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City, Utah!
A celebratory, pre-Parliament event, benefitting the Parliament of the World’s Religions:
5:30pm: A Festival of Faiths Reception
6:30pm: Benefit Dinner and Program
8:00pm: Dessert Reception
Chicago Cultural Center, Sidney R. Yates Gallery, 78 East Washington Street, Chicago
For Tickets: Chicago Pre-Parliament Benefit on Eventbrite
This vibrant evening of learning and celebration will be a glimpse of the Parliament to come! At the Faiths Fest Reception you will rediscover the unique and varied gifts of our gathered faith communities. Two dynamic new videos, produced by Baha’i Media Services will be premiered, showcasing our rich tradition and pointing us toward a bright future. Over dinner, you will be engaged and inspired by our brief program including a call to action from Dr. Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, and rousing performances, bringing the spirit of the Parliament directly to you. And, the most compelling aspect of the evening will be your opportunity to pre-register for the eagerly anticipated 2015 Parliament!
We hope that you will be with us on this momentous evening! If you are unable to be physically present, please consider a generous donation. As we move boldly towards our long awaited 2015 Parliament, your support and presence helps us step with confidence into our future. Thanks to you, that future is here.
Parliament Chair Abdul Malik Mujahid, Former V.P. Al Gore, and National Spiritual Leaders to Conclude Religions for the Earth Conference at Multi-Faith Service in NYC
On Sunday, September 21, Parliament Chair Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid will be speaking at the Religions for the Earth Multifaith Service at New York City’s Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine.
Mujahid’s view that “faith leaders must all join hands to save the only planet we have” will come to life at the service featuring a prestigious group of leaders in the religious, spiritual, and Earth-spiritual communities presented in collaboration with Former-Vice President of the United States Al Gore, who is also slated to speak.
Speakers and attendees will be enveloped in celebratory acts of music, performance and ritual all building toward a massive pledge of spiritual communities honoring the sacred environment in real, practical actions.
As a co-sponsor of the Religions for the Earth conference, the Parliament will be connecting with a strategic assembly of 200 other leaders in interfaith, religious, faith and spiritual organizations. Union Theological Seminary is hosting the conference as part of events kicking off NY Climate Week in advance of the United Nations Climate Summit.
In Mujahid’s view, the growing commitments faith communities are making to advance environmental protections will see more promising results by applying the influence leaders can have in multiple ways.
Mujahid says, “As more than 40 percent of America listens to pulpits every week, we must not only preach the gospel of sharing more and consuming less. But also, we must do our best to influence the guiding institutions to become more serious in urgently developing the relevant public policies. Better public policies and better consumer behavior both are needed. And this will be a major theme in the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions.”
Religions for the Earth Conference attendees will also participate in the biggest climate march in history, The People’s Climate March, expected to unite over 100,000 environmental stewards organizing from across all social institutions on Sunday, September 21. Faith and interfaith representation at the march will climb into the multiple thousands.
Peace activism in general will reach a global high on September 21, which is the United Nations official observance of International Day of Peace, coinciding with satellite climate events taking place all over the world.
The evening Religions for the Earth Multi-Faith Service is open to the public, featuring speakers including:
- Uncle Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, Founder – IceWisdom International, Eskimo, Kalaallit Elder
- Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Lakota Sioux 19th Generation Keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle
- Rabbi Ellen Bernstein, Founder – Shomrei Adamah, Keepers of the Earth
- Ms. Dekila Chungyalpa, Environmental Advisor to His Holiness, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje
- Father Edwin Gariguez, General Secretary – Caritas Philippines
- Former Vice-President Al Gore, Chairman – The Climate Reality Project
- Reverend Dr. Serene Jones, President, Union Theological Seminary
- Reverend Dr. James Kowalski, Director – Cathedral of Saint John the Divine
- Iriama Margaret Lokawua, Director – Indigenous Women Environmental Conservation Project
- Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, Chair – Parliament of the World’s Religions
- Dr. Vandana Shiva, Founder – Navdanya
- Rev. Jim Wallis, President and Founder – Sojourners
- Terry Tempest Williams, Writer and Teacher
When: Sunday, September 21, 2014 at 6 p.m. EST
Where: The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, 1047 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY 10025
Religions for the Earth MultiFaith Service is being presented by host Union Theological Seminary, and co-sponsored by the Parliament of the World’s Religions, GreenFaith, Interfaith Center of New York, the World Council of Churches, Religions for Peace, and the Cathedral Saint John the Divine.
Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Evangelical Baptist Church of the Republic of Georgia’s recent visit to the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education offices facilitated by SCUPE President and Parliament Trustee Shanta Premawardhana schooled Chicago Christians in lessons on radical solidarity with minority groups in need of compassion. By championing the rights of Chechan Muslims, LGBT citizens, masses of unemployed and female clergy hoping for ordainment, the Baptist Bishop unravels stereotypes associated with religious practices in the Russian Orthodox world.
by Tanya Sadagopan, Director of Continuing Education and Outreach
Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE). Republished with permission.
“Being a good Christian or a good Church isn’t good enough anymore. We must learn the ways of compassion. Something that we learned in the course of the struggle is that it is very important to have equal rights and equal opportunity for everybody, Songulashvili said.
Ordaining women as leaders, standing in solidarity with the LGBT community, and fasting with Muslims during Ramadan are marks of discipleship. There is clearly a great deal we can learn about justice and peace from Baptists in the Republic of Georgia.
In the context of a state Orthodox Church the people of Georgia longed for a church of and for the people. The Evangelical Baptists of the Republic of Georgia focus not just on high liturgy and sensual worship, but more importantly they do the work of justice and peace in an environment of increasing tensions with Russian government forces occupying foreign lands.
These radical Baptists are not afraid to speak out and stand up where others would not. They ordained women as clergy early in their history. They celebrate women as deacons, presbyters, and currently have one female bishop with another one on the way. They stand for equal treatment of people regardless of their sexual orientation. They are deeply engaged in the work of interfaith advocacy with persecuted Muslims both within Georgia as well as with Russian refugees.
All this work of justice and peacemaking takes place in the economic context where in some villages the unemployment rate is as high as 70 percent. In a time of great economic disparity, how can a church find so much energy and resources to do the ministry of Jesus on the ground? Perhaps it is their liturgical commitments and their spiritual practices of fasting and prayer that undergird the power of their practice of ministry. We have much to learn from the Evangelical Baptists of Georgia. But don’t take my word for it, read the story of their ministry below.
Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili
Evangelical Baptist Church of the Republic of Georgia
Lecture given at the SCUPE offices on Tuesday July 29th, 2014
For the Baptist Church in Georgia we often have to find some analogies or stories to explain our identity. One such story goes like this.
Once upon a time, in the forest a lion decided to have a convention. So he invited all the animals and birds for the convention. Once they came he asked them to divide into two groups. Those who are beautiful should stay on the left and those who are strong should stay on the right. There was upheaval in the group and ultimately everybody found their place. In the midst there was an ugly frog. The lion asked, “Why did not you choose your place?” The frog said, “I do not know how to choose a place because I am both strong and beautiful.”That is the story of the Evangelical Baptist Church in Georgia.
On one hand we are orthodox in our liturgy, in our theology, and in our ecclesiology. But on the other hand we are strongly related to the European radical reformation. The church came into being about 140 years ago as a result of a search for meaning in the context where the Orthodox Church was a state church. There was longing to have a church to be closer to the people where the liturgy would be understandable for the congregation. Our identity was forged in the time of persecution. We were first persecuted by the Czars and then persecuted by Communists and then we were persecuted by religious nationalists after the breakup of the Soviet Union. So our identity has been forged in constant struggle with the culture which happened to be Russian Imperial, Soviet, and then Nationalist.
President of SCUPE Shanta Premawardhana and the Bishop’s wife Ala were among our guests.
Something that we learned in the course of the struggle is that it is very important to have equal rights and equal opportunity for everybody. In the 1930’s all the churches were closed down by comrade Stalin and all the male leaders and male laymen were sent to Siberia. All of them. And I think the Soviets made a dramatic mistake. If they wanted to get rid of the Baptist Church in Georgia, they should not have sent the men; they should have sent the women. Owing to the work of the women, the church not only survived, but it grew. When the Soviets came there were twelve ethnic Georgian Baptist churches. And when the Soviet Union collapsed there were a couple of thousand churches.
It was not because the Soviets favored the Baptists, but it was because of the energy the women brought to the life of the church. Therefore it was not surprising that we have not even discussed the question which is now being discussed by the Church of England and other churches whether women should be allowed into ordained ministry. It would be sacrilegious to speak of whether women had a right to be ordained. The church survived owing to the leadership provided by women. My grandmother was a sort of bible woman in Communist time who would go from a village to another and would stay overnight and would speak to the people. The Communists would not even notice. Because she was a women, she was not taken seriously. But now when I travel as a Bishop I often come across people who will say, “Son, I know who you are. I knew your grandmother. She was first to preach the gospel in our village or in our community or in our clan.” This is the difference that women make. Therefore since we are Episcopal by structure, we have women as bishops, presbyters, and deacons. In all three layers of the church we have considerable feminine representation.
Our ecumenical identity was forged by our encounter with Muslims. It happened in the aftermath of thefirst Russian-Chechen war when there was a huge influx of Chechen refugees into Georgia. Nobody wanted to deal with Chechen refugees out of fear of Russia. Our country was very poor. The government was very poor to do anything about it. So we decided to go forward and deliver some tokens of support to the refugee camp. We did not want to do anything more. We just wanted to affirm that we are Christians. We are so nice and we would like to present you some gifts.
I should tell you that in the Georgian psyche, the Chechen and Northern Caucasians have always been associated with terror. Georgia is a mountainous land and it also has beautiful valleys, very fertile valleys. We produce a lot of crops, and grapes, ecetera. In the north of Georgia, beyond the Caucasian mountain range, there are northern Caucasian tribes who are predominately Muslim. They have neither fertile lands nor anything else to support their economy. They were very creative to develop their own economy, which happened to be kidnapping. They would come on horsebacks to Georgia in the autumn, kidnap young lads and ladies and take them down to the Istanbul slave market. They would sell them and thus build up their budget for their plans. That was happening over and over and over again for centuries. Therefore we as Georgians had accumulated a lot of hatred, understandably for the Chechenian and Northern Caucasian people.
When we learned that the Chechenian people were coming to Georgia as refugees we did not know how to handle it. Reports were coming on a daily basis of their suffering. They did not have food or clothes. There were mainly children and women. Christmas was drawing nearer and I asked the congregation, “What should we do for the refugees from Chechenia.” There was silence in the congregation and I knew what the silence meant because I felt the same way that they did. If you hear that your traditional enemies are coming here and they are suffering, somewhere in the bottom of your heart you are somewhat delighted. But then we realized that Christmas was drawing nearer and we contemplated the Advent Season. We are fasting during Advent season and we thought we should do something for the refugees because we are Christians.
We went to the camp. We had collected whatever we could: tea, chocolates, and blankets. We went to deliver these goods before Christmas and then forget about it. But much to everybody’s amazement we got trapped in the camp. When we met for the first time, we realized that we are humans as they are. Immediately some sort of bond was forged. Before leaving the camp, we said out of politeness, “If there is anything we can possibly do, never hesitate to ask.” Immediately they produced shopping lists. In the lists they needed binding materials for the wounded, medicine, warm clothes for children, blankets, and tea.
The Bishop resides in Tbilisi. The refuge camps were near the Causasus Mountains.
We took these lists back to the church. Since we didn’t have money to purchase these items, we needed to do some fundraising. This was my first fundraising effort on the internet. So I go to my computer in my office and I open up my internet account. I write a letter to all my friends asking for $500 U.S. dollars to complete the purchases for everything we needed for the camp. That was Thursday. I go to my office on Friday and there is a pledge for $15,000 U.S. dollars. The next week we had $200,000 and within one month we had half a million U.S. dollars.
Thus began our relationship with the Muslim leaders. Because of the overwhelming fundraising response, together we built the much needed schools and hospitals. You see some of the children had never had a chance to go to school. If you are at war for 10 years, the children cannot go to school. So we found ourselves physically and emotionally involved in relief work for a number of years.
At that time, we did not realize that what we were doing would prepare us for what was going to happen later within our own country. Then several years later all the skills and knowledge we had accumulated in the course of working with the Chechen refugees was useful for working with the ethnic Georgian Muslims who were being persecuted by Russian Orthodox Christians right here at home.
What we found out is that Muslims were forbidden to pray on Fridays, that orthodox police were stopping people who were not wearing crosses and beating them, and the government organized the removal of a Muslim minaret in a small village. In our part of the world, you can be Muslim as long as nobody sees you. It is fine to have a place of worship, but as soon as you put up a minaret you are the target of abuse and attack. The same is true for various groups in our society that are sidelined by the majority culture. The Orthodox church says it is fine for you to be a part of the LGBT community as long as nobody knows about you. So invisibility is the only way to survive. But unless you are visible we cannot possibly feel as a dignified part of the wider society. This is how we found ourselves deeply engaged in advocacy work for the Muslim community in Georgia.
Read more about Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili: