Archive for the ‘Interreligious Movement’ Category
Announcing the Inaugural Women’s Assembly for Global Advancement and Program Initiative at 2015 Parliament
The Parliament Proudly Announces the
INAUGURAL WOMEN’S ASSEMBLY FOR GLOBAL ADVANCEMENT
You asked, we listened.
The Women’s Task Force of the Parliament of the World’s Religions invites YOU to the Inaugural Assembly for Women’s Global Advancement, Oct. 15 and Program Initiative at the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions, Oct. 16-19, 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Join with women of diverse faiths and spiritual traditions to:
- MAKE HISTORY
- SYNERGIZE THE PLATFORM
- SHARE INSPIRATION, IDEAS AND PRACTICES
- CONVENE IN THE SPIRIT OF SISTERHOOD
To participate in this historic gathering at incredible discounted rates, register today for the deepest 2015 Parliament discounts. When registering please write “Women’s Assembly & Program” in the interest section. More details will follow.
SUBMIT A PROGRAM – All women’s voices, wisdom and ways are welcome. Submit your proposal here!
Along with politics, poverty and culture, religion is often cited as a source of conflict throughout the world. However, the last 100 years reveal a growing interfaith movement in America — one that promotes peaceful and productive interactions between religious traditions.
And it all began with a fair.
THE FAIR THAT SET THE STAGE
The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, IL drew millions of visitors to the windy city over its six-month run. Among its 5,978 educational addresses and meetings was the World’s Congress of Religions, which hosted religious leaders from all over the world.
The congress marked the first organized, international gathering of religious leaders and is thought to be the nascence of formal interfaith dialogue. Hindu monk, Swami Vivekananda, spoke at the congress, greeting the 5,000 assembled delegates with the iconic words, “Sisters and brothers of America!”
A CENTURY OF INTERFAITH DIALOGUE
One of the first international groups to get organized after the fair was the International Council of Unitarian and Other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers — now the International Association for Religious Freedom – formed in London in 1900 with the stated purpose of uniting all those striving for fellowship and religious liberty.
With the outbreak of World War I other interfaith efforts emerged. The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) formed in New York just after war began in hopes of bringing people of faith together to promote peace, and it went on to become a leading interfaith voice for non-violence and non-discrimination.
With the second World War on the horizon, the World Congress of Faiths formed in London with the dual purpose of bringing people of faith together to enrich their understandings of their own and others’ traditions and also to educate and report on religious happenings through its journal, Interreligious Insight.
Following the devastation of World War II and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Christian missionary Carl Allison Evans founded the New Jersey-based Fellowship in Prayer as a multi-faith organization that would use prayer and meditation to foster peace.
In addition to the work of humanitarian organizations, renowned world leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and the Dalai Lama, inspired by their own faiths, promoted religious, racial and political freedom. Many scholars say the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, in particular, demonstrated the organizing power of congregations working together for social change, under the guidance of religious leaders like King marching side by side with Abraham Joshua Heschel.
In 1962 the Catholic Church took a giant step forward in interfaith relations by convening of the Second Vatican Council. Before Vatican II, Catholics were discouraged from visiting other faiths’ houses of worship — but this all changed with the Nostra Aetate. This document, which officially took effect October 28, 1965, acknowledged the divine origin of all human beings and the truths present in other religions. It stated: “We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God.”
Many organizations followed the Vatican’s lead over the next few decades. Religions for Peace, based in New York and accredited to the United Nations, officially kicked off in 1970, and the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington formed in 1978.
First formed in 1960 the Temple of Understanding helped publish the first directory of interfaith organizations in 1987 and over several years hosted meetings that paved the way for the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN), which was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1990.
A CENTURY LATER
By 1988 nearly 100 years had passed since the World’s Congress of Religions and Vivekanada’s historic speech. A group of religious leaders and local organizers in Chicago came together to plan a centennial celebration, and through this the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions came into being.
In 1993 the Parliament hosted its conference in Chicago with 8,000 participants from faith backgrounds around the world. The organization went on to host meetings around the world every several years, and in September 2014 announced its first U.S. conference since 1993, to take place in Salt Lake City in 2015.
The 1990s also saw the birth of interfaith groups focused on the environment, including Green Faith in 1992 and Interfaith Power & Light in 1998. These efforts put ecological sustainability at the core of their faith-based activism.
With the growth of interfaith dialogue came increased academic and sociological interest in the ways pluralism affects religious life. Harvard University’s Diana Eck launched the Pluralism Project in 1991 to chart the development of interfaith efforts throughout the United States. And in 2001 the Pew Research Center initiated its Religion & Public Life Project to explore the intersection of religion and public life.
INTERFAITH’S NEW MILLENNIUM…
This article by Antonia Blumberg for HuffPost Religion is published with permission.
Parliament Ambassador Launches Spirituality and Medicine Interest Group at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine
During my first few months in medical school, I noticed that religion was rarely discussed. As a Theology minor in college, I knew that religion was an important part of life for many Americans; indeed, nearly 9 in 10 Americans report a belief in some divine or spiritual power, and several studies have shown that organized faith communities can play important roles in promoting healthy behaviors. Topics related to spirituality and religious beliefs arose during the Healthcare Disparities course, but the discussions were only tangential. I had a feeling that students felt uncomfortable discussing such personal topics in the academic setting.
For this reason, I proposed a new student organization for the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago: the Spirituality and Medicine (SAM) Interest Group. This group aims to create a safe space for discussion of how spirituality/religion affect healthcare. I thought that this idea fit in perfectly with Pritzker’s commitment to all forms of diversity. Last month, SAM was approved for funding by the Dean’s Council, and I was awarded Germanacos Fellowship, a $5000 grant to develop a medical discussion series focused on the intersections between spirituality/religion and medicine. These seminars will be partially based on a well-known religious literacy curriculum for healthcare workers developed by the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. The Germanacos Fellowship was awarded by the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based nonprofit that aims to make interfaith cooperation a social norm in the United States by promoting inter-religious dialogue and community service.
I am interested in the intersections between spirituality and healthcare because my own religious beliefs inform my choice of career. My passion for medicine stems from a declaration in Islam and various other traditions that saving one person’s life is equivalent to saving all of mankind. Through my work with the Interfaith Youth Core during my undergraduate years at Georgetown University and as an Ambassador for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, I have come to realize that religious communities—like all social structures—can be divisive or, when harnessed correctly, can be powerful catalysts for social improvement. Fortunately, the medical field is especially conducive to interfaith engagement because the concepts of service and human dignity are always implicit. In addition, physicians are one of the most religiously-diverse populations in the United States, and providers are increasingly recognizing the importance of religious literacy in medical education.
Over the next several months, I hope to introduce other students to religious diversity in the healthcare world, and to provide opportunities for my classmates to reflect on their personal motivations and values (whether or not those they come from a religious background) for pursuing medicine. I also look forward to finding connections between existing student organizations and facilitating dialogues on important topics such as mental health, reproductive health, and organ donation.
While becoming a physician, I also want to be at the forefront of the interfaith movement’s expansion into the healthcare world. I would be interested in collaborating with similar proposals that bridge the areas of religion and medicine, and presenting our work at the upcoming Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2015. I intend to demonstrate that religion and science can work together rather than in opposition. I am guided by one of my favorite verses from the Quran: “Had God willed, He would have made mankind as a single religion [or community], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so strive with each other for virtue (5:48).
Aamir Hussain is a first-year medical student at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. . A recent graduate of Georgetown University, Aamir became an interfaith programs facilitator through leadership training introduced by the Interfaith Youth Core and now serves as an Ambassador of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.
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.
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:
Paryushan is one of the two most important religious periods for Jains, the other festival is Diwali (the Celebration of Light). According to the Western Calendar, it begins this year on August 22; depending on the sect of Jainism, it can last from eight to ten days.
In India, the native land of the Jain religion, Paryushan comes during the annual monsoon, or rainy season. During this season, the land teems with new life–earthworms, frogs, mosquitos, and other insects come out of hibernation. Since Jains view all life as sacred, including even insects, extra care must be taken not to harm any living creature. Since the simple act of walking can cause one to inadvertently step on an insect, extensive travel is prohibited for monks and nuns. They stay in town for a period of about four months.
During the Paryushan period, monks and laity observe fasting for up to eight days. Those who can’t observe fasting eat only one or two times during the day. When Jains fast, no solid or liquid food is consumed and only boiled water is used from sunrise to sunset. The purpose of fasting is to cleanse oneself of bad karma (the accumulation of bad deeds and their consequences). During this time period Jains do not eat green and root vegetables. They eat lentils, wheat, rice, and other similar foods. They also cut down on cooking activities, since lighting a fire kills living organisms in the air. Jains believe that life exists in plants, earth, fire, water and air so they reduce the consumption of any of these.
Jains observe complete holidays during this period as they go to temples to pray to god, and to listen to sermons given by monks. They do Samayik and Pratikraman:
Samayik means sitting down at one location for a minimum of forty-eight minutes. During this one cannot eat or drink or do any mundane chores. Instead, one should meditate, read holy books and scriptures, listen to sermons, chant mantras, or count rosary beads.
During Paryushan Jains do Pratikraman twice a day, once in the morning before the sunrise and other one after the sunset. Pratikraman means “turning back, confessing, and asking for forgiveness.” They reflect on their daily lives based on five principles to see if they have done anything wrong. These five principles are non-violence, truth-telling, non-stealing, celibacy, non-attachment to wealth and materialistic things in life, and attitudes expressed toward others—including anger, egotism, deception, and greed. Jains ask for forgiveness from everyone, mentally and verbally, and forgive others who may have behaved unjustly toward them.
The last day of the Paryushan is called Samvastari. It is an annual confession day. Everyone fasts for that day. On the last day of the Paryushan all Jain families get together and do Samvastari Pratikraman following the same daily ritual of Pratikraman, but with special emphasis placed on examining life based on the five principles and behavior with others for the entire year. They extend forgiveness to others, including strangers. They also ask for forgiveness from all the living beings on the planet. Jains believe someone who is a stranger to you in this life may have known you in the past life and you may not have asked for forgiveness during that life time. So asking for forgiveness from everyone during this life time cleanses all the bad karma of all the past lives.
Jains believe that if you have not asked for forgiveness and granted forgiveness to everyone, at least once a year during Samvastari, then your cycle of birth and death will continue forever. You have to break the cycle of life and death to attain Nirvana or Moksha (Enlightenment).
There are about 150,000 Jains in North America and about 30 Jain Temples and Jain Centers. At major Jain centers, scholars from India are invited who will discuss various Jain scriptures for those eight to ten days. Most will stay at the temple from morning until evening reading religious books, doing meditation, and listening to sermons.
The day after Samvastari, which is ninth day, people break their fast and celebrate the end of the Paryushan. They also give a donation to poor and needy.
The following prayer of forgiveness, Khamemi Save Jiva, is recited at the end of each Pratikraman:
I grant forgiveness to all living beings,
May all living beings grant me forgiveness.
My friendship is with all living beings,
My enmity is totally non-existent.
Let there be peace, harmony, and prosperity for all.
Kirit Daftary is a Trustee of the Parliament of the World Religions, Board member of Greater Waco Interfaith Conference, President of Anuvibha of North America, and the Past President of JAINA (Federation of Jains Association in North America)