The Parliament Blog

Interview with Dr. Mary Nelson, Interim CEO

Recently, Jane Travis, Coordinator at the CPWR, sat down with Dr. Mary Nelson in the Parliament Office.

Jane: Thank you for accepting this position as the interim Executive Director of the Council for the Parliament of World Religions. What motivates you to volunteer for this position way after your retirement?

Mary: I took on this volunteer position because I am passionate about the very things that exemplify CPWR, “cultivating harmony among the world’s religions and spiritual communities and fostering their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world.”

Jane:  How did you acquire the executive experience?

Mary: For over 30 years I lived, worked and worshipped in a low income, African American community, initiating and leading Bethel New Life, a faith based, ecumenical community development corporation. Bethel is committed to a just and sustainable community, building on the strengths of the people and neighborhood.  Initiated by a local church, Bethel grew from a $9,600 budget and 2 staff to over 350 employees and a $18 million budget in 25 years under my leadership and the dedication of many. We developed cutting edge initiatives in economic development, affordable housing, community building, human resources, etc. that were nationally acknowledged.

Jane: How did you earn your six honorary PhD’s?

Mary: My six honorary PhD’s (Valpairso, Loyola, Carthage, DePaul, North Park, Gustavus Adolphus) were given in recognition of the pioneering work of Bethel New Life which I had the joy of leading. My earned PhD is in the field of education from Union Graduate School.  I have not had a lot of direct interfaith work, but I am steeped in the basics of interfaith action.  I grew up in a parsonage in Washington D. C. where we always had people of many faiths and nations  living with us; I have Chinese, Pakistani,  Costa Rican “brothers and sisters” from those years.  We were a house of  hospitality and the dinner table was rich with discussion about faith, culture and justice.  My two years teaching in Tanzania at the time of Independence were spent in a village that had Muslims, Catholics and Protestants interacting.  My years in community development involved all the religious faiths present in our community (mainly Christians and Muslims) working on the issues of poverty and violence in the community.  And my years of advocacy work in and out of Washington D.C. and Chicago City-Wide were advocacy around the issues of immigration, poverty, fairness that meant working together with the various faith groups, Jewish, Muslim, Christian and others.

Jane: What’s your vision for  the CPWR?

Mary:  The Parliament is built on a remarkable history, starting in 1893 when the East and West came together and found a collective passion for peace, understanding and justice.  But the next Parliament didn’t happen until 1993, when a group of volunteers came together to re-energize that first vision.  Now 25 years later,I am reminded of the Native American saying, “Now is the time, and we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”   We have a great moral foundation and history.  But at this anniversary time, we need to restate the compelling case for the work of the Parliament, and then roll up our sleeves and get to work.   In this time of hate rising, we can be a meaningful convening place for different faith groups to engage with the world to foster peace, justice and a sustainable world through the Parliaments and the interim gatherings. But we must do more than talk; we must  not only hold periodic convenings; we must also provide tools, stimulus and encouragement for interfaith work and action in our local villages and cities.

Jane: What challenges do you think CPWR is facing?

Mary: I step into the role at CPWR challenged by insufficient resources, debt, and staff turnover.   We have to figure out how to do more with less.  I had to tackle such challenges before in my community development work, and now in my role as Chair of the Board of Sojourners, a national organization committed to faith in action for social justice.  The questions for CPWR are: Can we devise an alternative model of action that uses more volunteers?  Can we harness the electronic media to better communicate, provide tools and encourage the local efforts while working on the global events?  Can we be more pro-active in mediating the places of hate and violence?  Can we (not just staff) be the empowered people who take action?  The 25th anniversary is just such a time for us to collectively envision structure  and action for the future.

We are in this work together.  It can only happen if more of us, building on the foundations of our faith, work together for a better world. Share your suggestions.  Connect with others.  Help resource the future work.  At this time, we are aggressively seeking $250,000 for a turn-around fund, to set the work of the Parliament in a dynamic direction.  Your donations are important, no matter what size. Go to our website and press “donate” and make your contribution.  Or send it to CPWR, 70 E. Lake Street, Suite 205, Chicago, IL 60601.


October 17th, 2012 at 4:38 pm


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The views expressed in the Parliament Blog may not necessarily reflect the official position of CPWR, its officers or Board of Trustees