Archive for the ‘Interreligious Movement’ Category
The Parliament is announcing its partnership to the Union Theological Seminary’s upcoming conference on climate, “Religions for the Earth.”
In a recent Time Magazine article reporting on its plan to divest $108.4 million from fossil fuels, Union announced news of its hosting the climate conference bringing attention to its partnership with the Parliament as well as GreenFaith, the Interfaith Center of New York, The World Council of Churches, and Religions for Peace in coordinating the event.
Choosing to live out their values, Union becomes the first seminary institution to divest from fossil fuels. In this spirit several organizations are coming together in this event to spread dialogue about climate change.
More more information please visit the Religions for the Earth.
By Kevin Childress
There simply was no diversity in the small southern town I grew up in. Virtually 100 percent of the population was white, middle-class Baptists. The most “exotic” people in town were a small number of Lutherans, including my close friend Laura and her family. Hearing how people talked about Lutherans, I wanted to defend them, and I started seeing myself as an outsider like them. From that time onward I have identified with outsiders.
As an adult, my life has taken me around the world (for example, I lived in Armenia for two years, working with the Peace Corps). I’ve been to Egypt, Turkey, Russia, India, and all over Eastern and Western Europe. And in all these places I have witnessed expressions of hatred and superiority that one group of people directs at another. No country is free of it. But in those same countries I witnessed extraordinary acts of kindness, sympathy and respect for outsiders.
When I finally got around to it in my 40s, I went back to school to formally study comparative religion (the comparison of doctrines and practices of the world’s faith traditions). It was something I had always wanted to learn more about, perhaps because of my commitment to respecting outsiders. I never wanted to solely study a particular religion, as it is the diversity in particular that most fascinates me, and what I wanted to center my work around.
Two years ago, I read a blog by Lisa Sharon Harper (a columnist with “Sojourners”) about her experiences as a non-Muslim fasting during Ramadan. The idea was appealing to me, as it clearly conveyed a message of respect for, and solidarity with, Muslims.
When I decided to fast last Ramadan, I posted something about it on my Facebook page. That was all I initially said about it to anyone. I prepared myself for fasting with what I thought was practical planning – figuring out schedules for when I would prepare and eat food. I am such an organized person (one of those people with a Master List of smaller “to do” lists), and I dove into it with enthusiasm. For a while it was pretty easy. And I learned a lot of tips. For one thing, it helps to have ready-to-eat food on hand. Late at night, I sometimes just didn’t have the energy to cook. And it’s important to be sure to eat when the time arrives – missing the mealtime window can make for a very uncomfortable day.
Some people say they gain spiritual insight during fasting. It might sound odd, but I have to say that during my fasting time, I found myself reading more poetry, and thinking about the world around me in poetic terms. I rarely ever write poetry, but during fasting I found myself writing haikus about the smell of summer rain, or the intricacies of a well-made shirt. I developed a kind of stillness in my mind that allowed me to “unpack” an idea, to hold it to the light and attempt to see it more clearly. Some people might joke I was simply experiencing protein deficiency or something, but I don’t think that was it. I think I was just a little closer to what I call the “eternal,” and what most people call God.
My post on Facebook attracted a bit of attention. Muslim friends sent me the obligatory “High Five” comments in the beginning, and checked in with me on occasion to see how I was faring. Muslims I hadn’t met before sent me friend requests, because they’d seen something about my fasting on their friends’ Facebook pages. As Ramadan went on, people started sharing with me how fasting was altering their views of the world and themselves, often (to my surprise and pleasure) using poetry as a means of communicating their feelings. One friend on Facebook quoted the Sufi poet Rumi, who compared the fasting person to a musical instrument ready to be played: “We are lutes, no more, no less.” I had often heard that fasting during Ramadan brought Muslims together, spiritually and emotionally (through their shared experience), and physically (in breaking the fast every evening). It was interesting to discover the same type of thing happening virtually.
My first invitation to attend an Iftar (the evening breaking of the fast) came from someone I had met on Facebook. At that Iftar, I met numerous people who in turn invited me to other Iftars. Thanks to these invitations, I could easily have gone to a different one every evening, and quite a few of them were interfaith iftars – some hosted by city politicians who weren’t even Muslim. And it was in the gathering together with people to break the fast that I knew I was engaging in something marvelous and important: around the table, as we met and got to know each other, we changed from strangers into neighbors.
As Ramadan continued, what started to be a problem for me were encounters with people who didn’t know I was fasting. I would show up at someone’s home and they would have this lovely lunch laid out. “I made lasagna because I know how much you love it,” a friend said. It reminded me of a time in Armenia when a poor village family had invited me over for a meal. In honor of my visit, they had killed their only goat, and fried its liver. They brought the dish to the table with such pride, and I remember feeling queasy just looking at it. But, in knowing what it cost them – and what it meant to them to serve me – I ate as much of it as I could. So when faced with the lasagna, I made a quick decision to eat it. Later I felt bad about breaking my fast, thinking I had failed. But then I realized I had sacrificed something that was important to me in order to offer my respect and regard for another person. Maybe I hadn’t failed after all.
For the rest of Ramadan, I fasted as much as I could, but I broke fast when situations like this arose. A Muslim would never make such concessions, of course – and they would rarely face such situations anyway, since most people know they are fasting. But for me, my fasting had been successful because it prompted me to be mindful of food, and to think about the function of food in society. The sharing of food can break the ice between strangers; it can be a gesture of hospitality, and an indication of trust and respect. And it certainly helps us to celebrate joyful moments in our lives, when people come together around a table to share a meal.
Beside fasting during Ramadan, there are countless ways a person can join in experiencing the faiths of other people. Guests are warmly welcomed at the Jewish Passover Seder, Christmas Mass, a Sikh Diwan, or the annual Hindu Diwali. But what I learned from my Ramadan experience is something that perhaps leaders and members of faith communities should keep in mind: for the people outside your doors who are interested in sharing your faith – they need to be invited. An implicit and generic “We are always open to visitors” isn’t really enough. Much better to issue an explicit and specific invitation, a “We invite you to join us next Tuesday” type of thing. Like a meal, the sharing of faiths requires a proper invitation.
About the author: Kevin Childress is the sole proprietor of SocialNet Works, LLC. While his academic background is in Comparative Religion, his professional background is in Business, with more than a decade of experience in Information Technology, Public/Media & Donor Relations, Executive Management and Finance. He has extensive knowledge of digital imaging, including video production and, of course, all avenues of social media. A 22-year resident of Manhattan, Kevin has worked with religious and civic leaders in every borough of New York City.
The Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago (CRLMC) presented its inaugural Interreligious Leadership Award recognizing the distinguished His Eminence Francis Cardinal George, Ilene Shaw, and Rabbi Herman Schaalman in a downtown Chicago ceremony June 19.
Of the honorees, Rabbi Schaalman, who was the spoksperson of the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions, is remembered for helping to mobilize a worldwide interfaith movement rooted in Chicago.
President of the CRLMC and Parliament Board Vice-Chair Rabbi Michael Balinsky says, “Schaalman is a respected and beloved voice on the Council whose very presence and wisdom fosters an atmosphere of interreligious cooperation. He is looked to for guidance and wisdom on the issues facing our city and the role the interreligious community can play in fostering activism and healing.”
In a Chicago release, the JUF echoes this statement describing Schaalman as “one of the most respected Rabbis to serve Chicago’s Jewish community.”
According to the CRLMC, Cardinal George has served the council for 17 years, and honor Shaw recognizing her support to the Council’s educational efforts. In its report, the Council states, “Mrs. Ilene Shaw, who, under the auspices of the CRLMC, “has made possible the production of an InterFaith Calendar featuring 17 different faith traditions describing their basic tenets, beliefs and observances. The calendar is recognized nationally as an excellent vehicle to promote interfaith understanding and respect,”
To read more about the ceremony and its address by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, please read more by visiting the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago.
By Arun Gandhi
The Parliament of World Religions condemns all forms of violence any where in the world. While the world claims to be progressing toward civilization, the actions of brutal ethnic violence in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, as well as in other parts of the world, must be strongly condemned by all peace-loving people.
Growing intolerance, widening disparities, a life-style of exploitation, a burgeoning armament industry freely producing and selling weapons of mass destruction, are all the kinds of fuel that ignite people’s imagination for violence. Sri Lanka and Myanmar are the latest flash-points on the world map where ethnic violence has taken many innocent lives. But the world as a whole lives on the edge of the precipice of conflagration fueled by ethnic, economic, political, religious, national, gender and many other issues that become more contentious by the day.
It is important for all of us to understand that the path of hate and destruction destroys the very things we seek to preserve. Religious beliefs, economic progress, security and sanctity of life can only be enjoyed and preserved for future generations by respect, understanding, harmony and compassion.
The world community cannot ignore the strife in parts of the world because it does not affect us immediately. What happens in one place today will happen all over tomorrow. We are all sitting on a tinder box of intolerance that only needs a spark to ignite.
There are two main reasons for this state of affairs in the world. As Mohandas K. Gandhi said many decades ago: the more materialistic we aspire to be the less moral we become. This is reflected in the seven social sins that Gandhi said leads to violence in humanity. The world is guilty of indulging in politics without principles, in commerce without morality, in science without humanity, in religion without respect.
Massacres of people in the name of God and religion have become the norm with events like those in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and many other parts of the world. These events are not aberrations, they are a reflection of the unmitigated religious bigotry exacerbated by political chicanery.
It is this kind of religion-political exploitation and abuse that the Parliament of World Religions seeks to change. Religions is not how many times we pray, but how sincere and truthful we are in practicing our beliefs in real life and relationships.
Arun Manalil Gandhi, Born 1934 in Durban South Africa, Arun was sent by his parents to India when he was 12 years old so that he could live with and learn from his grandfather, Mohandas Gandhi. It was then that young Gandhi learned the principles of non-violence that he continues to espouse until today. Dr. Gandhi spent much of his adult life in India working as a journalist and promoting social and economic changes for the poor and the oppressed classes. Along with his wife Sunanda he rescued about 128 orphaned and abandoned children from the streets and placed them in loving homes around the world. They also began a Center for Social Change which transformed the lives of millions in villages in the western state of Maharashtra. In 1987 Arun came to the United States and in 1991 he started the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence at the Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee. In 2007, the Institute was moved to the University of Rochester, New York. In 2008 Arun resigned from the Institute to begin the Gandhi Worldwide Education Institute, with its mission to build basic education schools for the very poor children of the world. The first school will open shortly in a depressed village in western India (www.gandhiforchildren.org). Arun Gandhi has taken the message of nonviolence and peace-making to hundreds of thousands of high school and university youth around the United States and much of the Western world. His publications include The Legacy of Love; The Forgotten Woman: The Life of Kastur, wife of Gandhi, and several others.
The Parliament of the World’s Religions tells a 121-year story of extraordinary, inspired people from around the world- belonging to literally hundreds of faith traditions- coming together with global leaders to create a better planet. Where common bonds and prayers transcend spiritual paths and national origin, these luminaries and lay leaders collaborate to empower the worldwide interfaith movement. This collective of interfaith activists work through a shared love of humanity to create a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world.
Take a glimpse inside the vaults of Parliament history to see that another world is possible, and what those who have experienced the life-changing encounter have to say about the Parliament of the World’s Religions. .
“A Parliament, in essence, is a big conversation.”
-Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, Chair of the Board of Trustees, Parliament of the World’s Religions
The Birth of a Movement
“What we need is such a reinforcement of the gentle power of religion that all souls of whatever colour shall be included within the blessed circle of influence.”
– Fannie Barrier Williams, the only official African-American presenter at the 1893 Parliament
Towards a Global Ethic
“The Parliament’s keynote address spelled out clearly the destruction that humans have wrought upon the planet, and this theme was echoed throughout the week. What better time for Earth-centered spiritual paths to enter the conversation.”
– Sarah Stockwell
A New Day Dawning
Cape Town, South Africa
“In the year 1999, you gathered in our own continent, Africa, in the city of Cape Town. You inspired us. In 2002, IFAPA (Interfaith Action for Peace in Africa) was founded. It embodies the spirit of the Parliament.”
New Pathways to Peace
“The most important lesson I learned in my role as Parliament Chair was that interfaith dialogue and engagement empowers us to understand that our differences present us with an opportunity to go deeper. Beneath our differences we share a common humanity. It is this vision of our deep unity amidst our diversity that gives me hope and keeps me doing the work I continue to do.”
-Rev. Bob Thompson, Chair Emeritus of the Parliament of the World’s Religions
Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth
“Only the Parliament, the largest interfaith gathering on earth, has the potential to serve as a platform to mobilize interfaith social justice movements on a global scale.”
A Legacy for the Future
“The Parliament was an opportunity for people with different ideas getting together, discussing issues for better understanding. Religions plays such a big role in so many people’s lives, that if we can manage to get people to be tolerant towards each other where religion is concerned, other problem areas should be a lot easier to sort out.”
– Ms. Hettie Gats, Cape Town, South Africa
I watched a Muslim youth and a Jewish youth join hands on the stage of Good Hope Center. Each sang a prayer, one in Arabic and the other in Hebrew, and I wept at the profundity of their simple gesture.”
– Rev. Pete Woods
“With open hearts and minds, the Parliament’s participants will be returning back to their neighborhoods in our shared global village enriched with new experiences, friendships and new success stories after a joyful six-day long intensive listening and learning experience. Many of them will be making their personal commitments in writing on how they plan to change the world”
-Abdul Malik Mujahid
By Rev. John L. McCullough and Rev. David Beckmann
Via “The Hill”
As religious leaders and faith-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) committed to promoting the dignity of every human being, we are keenly aware of the irreplaceable role American leadership plays on the world stage. The work we NGOs do would not have nearly the impact it has without U.S. government leadership and funding, which, through our own leadership and private funding, we leverage every day.
Together we are helping build healthier generations in even in the most desperate places. Our work does not just alleviate the emergency at hand, we work to mitigate disasters before they hit. Building strength and resilience in anticipation of unavoidable catastrophes prevents avoidable deaths. It helps populations make a fast comeback so they can get back to the act of living and not just surviving until the next catastrophe strikes.
Take Africa’s Sahel, infamous for its history of famine. Because “building resilience” is underway, during the massive 2011 drought, children did not die by the tens of thousands as they tragically did in areas we have yet to reach, such as Somalia. Our public and private partnerships across the region have made it better able to weather the recurring cycle of droughts. How? With health centers that provide nutrition when it’s needed most; more resilient drought-resistant crops; diversified food sources; improved livestock survival rates; preserved food stocks; safe water storage; roads that get crops to market and keep local economies afloat.
Foreign assistance can dramatically reduce the need for expensive emergency relief, and, most importantly, it saves and improves lives for the long haul. Foreign assistance from the U.S. and many other countries around the world is making smart investments that enable communities to thrive and momentum is on our side:
- Six million fewer children died last year from preventable diseases than in 1990 and a record-breaking number of children around the world now live past their fifth birthday. Nutrition interventions during the critical first 1,000 days from pregnancy to age two help to ensure a child’s ability to grow, learn, and thrive throughout their lifetime. Every dollar invested in nutrition generates as much as $138 in better health and increased productivity. It is exciting to see that the U.S. government will soon announce a landmark, comprehensive nutrition strategy on global maternal and child nutrition.
- Investments in primary education have helped increase the global literacy rate by 33 percent and triple primary school enrollment in the last 25 years. Individual earnings increase 10 percent for every year of school completed which fuels economic productivity among these countries, many of whom are also our trade partners.
- The U.S. government has supported life-saving HIV/AIDS antiretroviral treatment for 6.7 million men, women, and children worldwide. Of the 780,000 pregnant women who tested positive for HIV last year, 95 percent of their children were born HIV-free due to treatment interventions.
- Then there’s polio. On the verge of eradication, polio once crippled 350,000 children every year. Last year there were 400 documented cases worldwide.
As the U.S. Congress works on appropriations, every American who believes in the basic dignity of a human being must continue to support this momentum. That means funding for humanitarian and poverty-focused development assistance programs must remain at levels comparable or higher than those enacted in the previous year.
We don’t believe there is a choice here. How can we stomach the desperate looks on children’s faces and refuse to help when we know we are able? Each of us, citizens and elected representatives, reflect the priorities of this great nation, and among the most important is hope and compassion for all God’s children.
Beckmann is the president of Bread for the World, a collective Christian voice urging Congress to end hunger domestically and abroad. McCullough is president and CEO of Church World Service, a global humanitarian agency with programs in development and humanitarian affairs, advocacy for social justice, and refugee assistance.
Religion is often accused of causing much of the polarization in the world. Those who perpetrate violence through words and actions often point to religion as justification. However, the Parliament supports the notion that religion is a powerful force for good, bringing out the best in both individuals and communities.
Adam Taylor of the World Bank and Cheryl Tupper of Arthur Vining Davis Foundation joined the Parliament leadership on a panel presented at the Council of Foundations 2014 Philanthropy Exchange Conference on Monday, June 9. The breakthrough session called “The Role of Religion in an Increasingly Polarized Society,” attracted more than 40 engaged representatives of grantmaking organizations.
Panelists exploring this theme agreed that both the commonalities and distinctions between faiths can powerfully address deep moral and ethical issues of scarcity of resources, equality gap and justice, and the environment. Cheryl Tupper, speaking from a philanthropic perspective, said foundations are not only an important audience for these messages, but can also play an important role in addressing these issues.
Describing religious and spiritual communities as a force for good makes sense in financial terms, too. Participants live tweeting the panel highlighted Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid’s comments on reports projecting that $2.6 trillion U.S. dollars in charitable relief and social support come from faith communities in service annually.
“Interfaith brings out the best in faith,” said Imam Mujahid, who chairs the Board of the Parliament. Marketing the dollar signs behind religious good is a critical step forward for the interfaith movement itself. By quantifying the social good it becomes harder for guiding institutions to deny or ignore the massive potential of faith-based collaborations.
Adam Taylor elaborated the point in catchy terms. At his turn, Taylor spelled out the World Bank’s Faith Based Initiatives’ “4 B’s of Religion,” championing religion as a “bridge, balm, beacon of hope and a boost for social movements.”
Throughout the discussion the panelists sought to highlight practical ways faith communities are working to ameliorate the polarization between individuals religions, communities and our guiding institutions; in addition to how philanthropy can be a strong catalyst to support creative outcomes.
Moderator and Parliament Executive Director Dr. Mary Nelson explained reasons why some foundations have been skittish about engaging with faith-based initiatives, acknowledging that concerns arise when sectarian violence is committed ‘in the name of religion,’ but that the extremist fringes do not follow religious teachings. In reality, the majority of people of faith come together through common values of compassion for the other, or the Golden Rule.
Nelson further affirmed that “religion offers an ongoing source of renewal empowering us to face the issues of the world,” and that one of the opportunities foundations can be powerful colleagues in fostering a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world is in supporting ways of engaging younger people who are increasingly identifying as ‘spiritual but not religious.’
Remarking on the need to move beyond simple platitudes, Rabbi Michael Balinsky emphasized the need to build real relationships like those he seeks out not only in his work as Vice-Chair of the Parliament, but also in the Chicago neighborhoods of faith where he serves dual executive roles on the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago and the Chicago Board of Rabbis.
Janaan Hashim, another Parliament Trustee, underlined the importance of dialogue. Sharing her experience teaching seminary students, Hashim reflected on how interfaith engagement is a way to learn productive and respectful communication when difficult issues emerge.
By the session closing, engaging questions from attendees pushed the 75 minute gathering overtime an additional five minutes. It was heartening for those working within and supportive to the interfaith movement to discover foundations so interested in understanding new pathways to collaborate with interfaith initiatives.
I love my city of Chicago. One of my prouder moments occurred in 2010 which, to me, witnessed the manifestation of about ten years of outreach, communication, and deepening mutual respect across normative borders. It came out of years of interfaith dialogue and growing friendships.
At the end of that summer, I arrived home from my studies in Amman, Jordan to a welcome of something called “Quran Burning Day” as promulgated by some obscure preacher in Florida named Terry Jones.
I chuckled. I sighed. I knew that this preacher and his hate didn’t represent Christianity or those Christians beyond his flock. That’s illogical and runs contrary to my exposure and readings on Christians and their faith. He is an anomaly. Then I wondered how different today’s world would be if people thought similarly about Muslims and Islam when an anomaly decides to do some hateful act in the name of Islam. My following of this newest offense, I thought, would end there as I had better things to do with my time than give attention to this hate-monger.
A few days later I received a call to serve as the host of an interfaith press conference on Eid al-Fitr. This is the day of celebrating the completion of Ramadan and the fasting that comes with it; it was also the day of this Quran burning event.
Around 10,000 people attend the prayer and celebration each year at Toyota Park, home to Chicago’s soccer team. The field was packed with worshipers as our interfaith guests observed from the bleachers.
After the prayer, I was ready to move the press conference along, pressured with 14 people from 14 different faith traditions all wanting to voice their stand against the hate thrown toward Islam and its adherents. As I walked into the press room, I was given an additional five names.
To move a press conference along swiftly with a small handful of speakers is tough given news crews cannot stay long. But this was a powerful group with a powerful, single message: the Chicago interfaith community stands behind its Muslim brothers and sisters.
One local TV news station dedicated about 4 minutes of clip after clip, faith leader after faith leader, saying the same thing. The message denounced with a forceful voice any concerns that the same type of hate would be tolerated in Chicago. I’ll never forget Rev. Gregory Livingston, a Baptist, staring straight into the cameras and, with his bold, robust voice saying to the Florida preacher, “Brother, you’ve got it wrong.”
Such bonds of support and brotherhood is not strange in the world of religion. When people think religion polarizes us, a closer look indicates otherwise. It’s not religion that is polarizing, but those who want religion to polarize that causes the divide. To me, this position is simply playing into the hands of religious zealots and terrorists, reinforcing their warped perspective of religion.
People of faith trust their scriptures and one thing that interfaith dialogue has taught me is that, at their core, no faith in the world calls for hate of the other, destruction of civilization, or annihilation of different beliefs. Having nearly 20 faith traditions represented at this press conference exhibited the bond of brotherhood through several of our faiths’ common denominators: being your brother’s keeper; speaking the truth; standing against hate; educating the ignorant; detachment from self.
Knowing with full confidence that my friends of different faiths – indeed, different theologies and practices of worship – had my back did not arise out of a vacuum. This was the natural consequence of years of cooperation, discussion and firm belief that in coming together as an act of personal faith, we are taking strides toward creating a better world.
Janaan Hashim is a trustee of the Parliament of the World’s Religions an attorney with Amal Law Group, LLC and adjunct professor at McCormick Theological Seminary.
Over 300 persons died in Cook County in the past year and were buried by the Medical Examiner’s office because no friends or family were available to receive their bodies. Their names were read in solemn dignity at a memorial service held in their honor at the Chicago Temple, on Wednesday, May 21, 2014. The following post is based on the sermon preached by Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, president of SCUPE preached at that service.
Dr. Vincent Harding died this week. This hero of the civil rights movement was a friend of SCUPE. This professor of theology, a Mennonite, from the peace church tradition is credited with influencing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak out against the Vietnam war and with writing the sermon he preached exactly one year before his death at Riverside Church in New York entitled “Beyond Vietnam.”
I met Vincent Harding about two months ago in at the Soka Gakkai Buddhist Temple at 14th and Wabash. He had written a book “America will Be…” That phrase comes from Langston Hughes poem “Let America be America Again.” Here are a few lines from the latter part of the poem:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath-
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain-
All, all the stretch of these great green states-
And make America again!
The poem is worthy of deep reflection. I hope you will read it again and again. Speaking to that packed hall Dr. Harding affirmed that he stood with Langston Hughes in the affirmation America will be. But “How is it possible that he make that audacious claim?” he asked. After all, he had just said several times over in that poem that “America that was never America to me.” How could he possibly swear an oath that “America will be?”
I felt very skeptical. We are going the wrong way, I thought to myself. People in our city are struggling to make ends meet. We used to think that it is right that we as citizens pool our resources not just out of our generosity, but because justice demands it, for the sake of the common good or what we used to call our common-wealth. This is why we elect City, County and State governments, to manage our public money, or our common-wealth.
But our public discourse has decidedly turned against the common-wealth to support individual wealth. As a result wealth disparities are significantly increasing. Today, the wealthiest 1% owns 40% of the nation’s wealth; the bottom 80% own 7%. SCUPE’sCongress on Urban Ministry will address this very important question when we gather June 23-26 at DePaul University.
This narrative of personal responsibility, of pulling yourself up from your boot-straps has become a religion these days. Yes, personal responsibility is important, but that narrative does not take into account, the structural disparities that put large numbers of people in our city, particularly those in racial minorities, at a clear disadvantage. How can personal responsibility work if there is no level playing field? So, unlike Langston Hughes and Vincent Harding, I wondered, “Will America ever be…”
My organization, SCUPE, trains pastors and church leaders to understand the dynamics of the city. We put our students directly into the streets and communities, and ask them to listen to the stories of people’s struggles, their pain and indeed also their laughter. That’s where theology begins for us, with stories of struggle. We know the stories of single mothers who struggle to feed their children, families who live in food deserts, people struggling with two or three minimum wage jobs, families whose children are incarcerated and children left alone because their parents have been deported. We know people in our neighborhoods who live in constant anxiety, in midst of very real gun violence. And we know the struggles of those who try very, very hard to get out of that situation and we know how discouraging that struggle is. Our students have listened to many persons like the ones whose lives we commemorate today.
Sisters and brothers, the values that we hold, the stories that we tell, the policies that we embrace, the leaders that we elect are based on what we believe, or our theology. If we believe in the Ayn Rand theories of hyper-individualism then we will act in one way. If we believe that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, or that we should love our neighbor as ourselves, we will act another way. If we believe that God comes to us in the guise of another, we will act in even different ways.
The Indian tradition is very clear. When we fold our palms in a gesture of greeting and say Namaste, what that in fact means is that the God that is in me, greets the God that is in you. If we were to put this in language that is common to both Jewish and Christian traditions, I recognize that you are created in the God’s image, and you are a child of God.
On this matter, the Christian story is also very clear. God comes to us as a helpless infant, desperately poor and outcast. God is not incarnate in a kingly palace as the wise men thought, but in a smelly, crowded, stable with live animals, lying in a manger upon the hay that animals eat. Can you just imagine that! Almighty God is incarnated as a homeless baby, and is then run out of town as a refugee. As an adult, Jesus comes to town from a small village called Nazareth, an out of the way place where no good was supposed to come from, and gets crucified by the imperial Roman government outside the city and hangs there in utter powerlessness. If you went out looking for God, you wouldn’t recognize God, because God comes to us in disguise.
There are lots of stories in scripture that tells us how God comes to us as a stranger. Jesus himself tells a story about the last judgment in Matthew 25:31ff. When the Son of Man comes as King, he will separate people of all the nations gathered before him as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. To those on the left side he would say “Away from me you that are under God’s curse! Away to the eternal fire which has been prepared for the Devil and his angels, These people are flabbergasted. Why, some of them may have been devout Christians. “I was hungry, you would not feed me. I was thirsty, you would not give me to drink. I was a stranger but you would not welcome me in your homes. I was naked and you would not clothe me. I was sick and in prison and you would not take care of me.” And they answer, “When Lord, did we ever see you hungry, or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and we would not minister to you.” You see, they were expecting Jesus to fit into their image, their theology and their religious structure. Now, here’s the kicker: Whenever you did not do it to one of the least of these my sisters or brothers, you did not do it to me.”
Here’s one final story to bring it home.
There once was a little boy who decided he wanted to find God. He knew it would probably be a long trip, so he decided to pack a lunch — four packs of Twinkies and two cans of root beer. He set out on his journey and went a few blocks until he came to a park. On one of the park benches sat an old woman looking at the pigeons. The little boy sat down beside her and watched the pigeons too. When he grew hungry, he pulled out some Twinkies. As he ate, he noticed the woman watching him, so he offered her one. She accepted it gratefully and smiled at him. He thought she had the most beautiful smile in the world. Wanting to see it again, he opened a can of root beer and offered her the other. Once again she smiled that beautiful smile. For a long time the two sat on that park bench eating Twinkies, drinking root beer, smiling at each other, and watching the pigeons. Neither said a word. Finally the little boy realized that it was getting late and he needed to go home. He started to leave, took a few steps, turned back and gave the woman a big hug. Her smile was brighter than ever before.
When he arrived home, his mother noticed that he was happy, but strangely quiet. “What did you do today?” she asked. “Oh, I had lunch in the park with God,” he said. Before his mother could reply he added, “You know, she has the most beautiful smile in the world.” Meanwhile, the woman left the park and returned home. Her son noticed something different about her. “What did you do today, Mom?” he asked. “Oh, I ate Twinkies and drank root beer in the park with God.” And before her son could say anything at all, she added, “You know, God’s a lot younger than I had imagined.”
Sisters and brothers, we honor these women, men and children who died in our city not because we want to salve our conscience that we have done something. No. We do this because our destiny is wrapped up in their destiny, our salvation in theirs. When we want to see the face of God, we need to look in their face. When we need to hear God’s story, we need to hear their story. If we are to stand with Langston Hughes and Vincent Harding and have their defiant faith that America will be America again, that requires us to see in all our sisters and brothers, God incarnate among us. Nothing less will do.
The Rev. Dr. Shanta D. Premawardhana is President of the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education in Chicago. Originally from Sri Lanka, he was most recently the director for the Program Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation at the World Council of Churches (WCC), a worldwide fellowship of 349 Protestant and Orthodox churches based in Geneva, Switzerland. Prior to moving to Geneva, Premawardhana served as the Associate General Secretary for Interfaith Relations at the National Council of Churches of Christ, based in New York.
As a Parliament Ambassador, Karen Hernandez focuses on illustrating the West Coast’s interfaith work through profiling organizations from San Francisco and beyond. This month’s post features the United Religions Initiative (URI) located in San Francisco.
Founded by The Right Reverend William Swing, San Francisco-Based United Religions Initiative has been building bridges the last 14 years at the grassroots level around the world. As noted on their website, URI’s Mission Statement says,
URI is a global grassroots interfaith network that cultivates peace and justice by engaging people to bridge religious and cultural differences and work together for the good of their communities and the world. We implement our mission through local and global initiatives that build the capacity of our more than 600 member groups and organizations, called Cooperation Circles, to engage in community action such as conflict resolution and reconciliation, environmental sustainability, education, women’s and youth programs, and advocacy for human rights.
At the crossroads of incredible interfaith work, URI is an organization that, when they say works at a grassroots level, they mean grassroots. Governed by Trustees, with 12 Trustees newly elected, for a total of 28 Trustees from over 16 countries, and with staff in all the major regions of the world including Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Multi-Regions/Transnational, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, as well as the North America Region, and with active participants in 640 Cooperation Circles, in over 84 countries – URI epitomizes grassroots interfaith work at its best.
Designed purposefully to enable the voices of those on the ground and those dedicated to the harmony of and in their homelands, the crux of URI is the Cooperation Circles. The Cooperation Circles are holistically independent and they fund, as well as organize themselves. Some circles are less than ten participants, and some have thousands of participants. Some of the amazing work the Cooperation Circles have done worldwide include rescuing child soldiers in the Ugandan civil war; brokering a truce between factions of the Christian church in Kerala, India; helping religious and cultural minorities in the conflict-prone province of Mindanao, Philippines have their voices heard by government officials in Manila; as well as facilitating urban reforestation in New Delhi, India. URI has proven time and time again that working at the grassroots level can and does make quite an impact in the world.
URI and the Parliament have a rich history together. Besides myself as a bridge of both organizations, long-time colleague at URI, Sally Mahe, has been building bridges with both organizations for years, and Sande Hart, URI’s Interim Regional Coordinator for North America, is also actively working with the Parliament.
Building off of a quote by Mahatma Gandhi, URI’s Executive Director Victor Kazanjian often speaks about URI as a movement. “Gandhi-ji said, ‘I offer you peace. I offer you love. I offer you friendship. I see your beauty. I hear your need. I feel your feelings. My wisdom flows from the Highest Source. I salute that Source in you. Let us work together for unity and love.’ Let us work together for this unity and love, and for justice and for peace for all through interreligious understanding and cooperation. For this light, this love, is at the heart of all religious and spiritual traditions, and also at the heart of this movement that we call the United Religions Initiative.”
As I find myself an Ambassador of the Parliament and a Consultant with URI, I am living and working in-between these two amazing organizations dedicated to peace work, interfaith work, and letting people create this work in a way that is tangible, successful, as well as incredibly powerful and life-changing, for people all over the world. Both URI and the Parliament are committed to creating sustainable peace and relationships. This, for me, is incredibly important, and I am proud to serve in this capacity where I can be a witness to this movement in our lifetime.