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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:
Sharing an update with the Parliament about his work in Liberia during the recent Ebola crisis, Ambassador of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Victor Garpulee, gives us hope that in times of humanitarian emergency, commitment to the Interfaith movement is building support between neighbors. Here is his pictorial essay:
Victor’s Parliament of the World’s Religions group in Liberia demonstrates will and commitment to work with students, as well as religious, social, and other institutions to promote the Parliament’s Faiths Against Hate initiative, and eliminate violence and discrimination.
“The banner above is a working material of Parliament Liberia as we go in communities and institutions where there are people of difference faith to sensitize them about respecting people of other faiths.”
An awareness of the Ebola epidemic that is taking away the lives of the people of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
The below letter shows how Parliament Liberia is demonstrating will to work with various institutions across the country.
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)
The Parliament of the World’s Religions condemns the brutality demonstrated by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and all other sides of the ongoing armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq. It is disturbing to see that once again civilians and minorities are the primary victims of this sectarian and religious violence.
The Parliament calls upon faith communities to pray for all victims of these tragic events. We also urge the spiritual leaders of any groups affected by these struggles to follow the principles of peace and non-violence that characterize their own religions, as well as to promote talking rather than fighting with their enemies. Moreover, we applaud the many countries that have provided the humanitarian aid of food, water, and other supplies for the victims.
We question, however, whether bombing ultimately ends violence or simply perpetuates it. The multiple wars in Iraq and Syria have produced more than five million refugees, according to the United Nations. Most of these victims are ethnic and religious minorities—Christian, Yazidi, Shia, and Sunni.
The Parliament also implores the US government to focus on diplomatic solutions to the complex problems in Syria and Iraq rather than on the use of military campaigns. While we support the right of all people to defend themselves against attack, we oppose any suggestion that weapons will lead to unity or lasting peace in the long term. Accordingly, we ask all public leaders to commit themselves to seeking the resolution of conflicts by political, not military, means, and only to supply armaments to any faction when one or more parties violate the agreed upon peace by reverting to armed violence.
In light of these recent events, the Parliament points to the Declaration for a Global Ethic which was read at the concluding plenary of the first modern Parliament on September 4, 1993, in Chicago. In that document, signed by leaders of multiple religions representing the 6,500 participants of that historic Parliament event, the following passage was included: “We condemn the social disarray of the nations; the disregard for justice which pushes citizens to the margin; the anarchy overtaking our communities; and the insane death of children from violence. In particular we condemn aggression and hatred in the name of religion.”
The Board of Trustees of the Parliament of the World’s Religions has decided to convene the World Parliament every two years.
As the interfaith movement has doubled and tripled in interfaith action and services in the last decade it has become necessary that this largest summit of people of faith working together for a just, peaceful and sustainable world come together more often. The board also moved by the extraordinary desire throughout the interfaith movement to engage younger people for whom a five-year Parliament cycle is very long.
Announcing the strategic move of the Parliament the Chair of the Board Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid said that “a five-year Parliament cycle was a bit slow for the age of social media, a globalized world, and shorter attention spans. As forces of hate, anger and fear are rising in the world, we must strengthen the interfaith movement by sharing our interfaith experiences and building relationships among faiths and across interfaith networks which can be better sustained through a two-year cycle.”
Initial feedback from the Parliament Ambassador program coupled with data gleaned from the Global Listening Project shows strong support for a faster moving Parliament timetable. More frequent Parliaments will also foster relationships with a widening roster of world leaders interested in supporting and engaging the interfaith movement.
An announcement detailing the launch of this timetable will be released soon.
By Molly Horan
Parliament of the World’s Religions Staff
The brutalizing violence of hate crimes against at least three Sikh-Americans since the events of August 5, 2012 breaks my heart. And yet, every time the Sikh community speaks out, it shares with us all an unrelenting reminder that we cannot lose hope in the work to stop hate.
The Sikh community calls it Chardi Kala.
Say it with me: Chardi Kala! We can end the violence.
Chardi Kala describes the state in which a person of the Sikh faith aspires to live, in an eternal optimism. Since August 5, 2012, it’s become a kind of rallying call to any and all who wish to practice relentless optimism in the work to stop violence.
I walked in Oak Creek, WI last weekend in solidarity with my Sikh neighbors at the second annual Chardi Kala 6k. The race is organized by Sikh young adults to build community and promote goodness out of something so deeply saddening: the death of six in the Oak Creek gurdwara two years ago in a shooting carried out by white supremacist Michael Wade Page.
To personally witness the spirit of humanity for which Oak Creek has become a model was important to me. It’s in this success – changing the headlines from hate to healing as we say, that I know this Chardi Kala works.
From my desk at the Parliament for nearly two years I’ve tracked how this Chardi Kala has impacted our country:
1) In 2012, the Sikh Coalition led by a letter written by Rajdeep Singh and endorsed by hundreds of justice oriented groups (finally) wins a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Domestic Extremism. As a result, the FBI began tracking hate crimes committed against South Asian, Arab-American, Hindu-American and Sikh-American. In other words, the U.S. government shuns the word “other” and acknowledges this pervasive problem.
2) Upworthy, the social sharing website responsible for millions of views of rich, humanity-saving content shares Valarie Kaur’s 9-minute film on the aftermath in Oak Creek on last year’s anniversary, and people remember. On Saturday, she told me being in Oak Creek was like being with family. As a visitor, I was treated the same from the moment I arrived; greeted with hugs, fed free curry (langar!), and departing one another again with hugs, until next time. That is hopeful, right?
3) Amar Kaleka, son of the slain President of the Gurdwara begins a candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives running on a platform exposing the broken system which created his father’s murderer showing everyone is human and everything can change.
4) Pardeep Kaleka, son of the slain President of the Gurdwara begins a campaign to empower youth against violence in partnership with Arno Michaelis, a former hate activist-turned-author-turned-peacemaker. Serve-2-Unite brings young Wisconsin teens to learn mindfulness in Chicago and bring it back to the community where they live. That is hopeful, yes?
5) Rahul Dubey, godson of the slain President of the Gurdwara, works tirelessly to advance interfaith community around the Milwaukee area and organizes a race, the Chardi Kala 6k, to ensure the community will always come together in a positive remembrance of that day.
6) Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi walks hand in hand with the Sikh community and supports Interfaith activities with all of his authority, demonstrating how all towns in America can operate.
Despite the disproportionate horrors inflicted upon their community, Oak Creek seeks to intentionally live in a way that shows it denounces hate every day. They understand there that denouncing hate is not an annual event or an occasion but a daily affirmation.
Whether we call it Faiths Against Hate here at the Parliament, or Chardi Kala in the Gurdwara, or practicing the Golden Rule in each of its beautiful articulations across faith communities: the spirit of justice is within us if we expel anger from our hearts and see the humanity in others, even if today they may hate us.
And we walk together.
Wiccan Priestess, NPR Journalist and Author Dies at 68
An interview on NPR’s Interfaith Voices with Phyllis Curott and historian Ronald Hutton about Margot Adler’s influence on contemporary Paganism will air Aug. 1-7 on NPR’s 74 stations across N. America; here’s the full list of when and where.
By Phyllis Curott
Parliament Trustee, Women’s Task Force Co-Chair
Margot Adler, one of America’s first public Wiccan Priestesses and author of the groundbreaking study of contemporary American Paganism, Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today” (1979), passed away at her home in Manhattan on Monday, July 28th. She was 68.
Margot was also a reporter for NPR, working since 1979 as a journalist, political and cultural correspondent, host of “Justice Talking,” and New York bureau chief. She preferred stories about everyday people and her series on life in New York after 9/11 was often cited for its compassionate and salutary effect on the city’s recovery. Central Park, where she spent countless hours as a “birder,” was a favorite subject for stories, and like all of her features, were imbued with warmth, intimacy and wise appreciation.
These qualities, and an impish sense of humor, also made Margot Adler one of modern Paganism’s most beloved figures, a welcoming presence to the thousands of newcomers who found the movement because of her thoughtful book or because of her early willingness to publicly identify herself as a Witch when that word still provoked distorted stereotypes of Satan worshippers or wacky spinsters. Her courage and capacious intellect challenged and helped transform these misconceptions, and the media and its audience reconsidered their biases when confronted by Margot’s sophisticated New York sensibility which integrated a bachelor’s degree in political science from Berkeley, a master’s from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and in 1982, a Nieman fellowship at Harvard, as well as a family background which included her grandfather, noted psychiatrist Alfred Adler.
Margot’s death is a great personal loss for those who knew and loved her as a friend, three of whom have served as Parliament Trustees – myself, Angie Buchanan and Andras Arthen.
Margot and I met 35 years ago, both members of what was then a small, hidden community of Wiccan practitioners in New York City. We shared similar educational and cultural backgrounds, an interest in the return of the Goddess and the role of women as spiritual leaders, which appealed to our feminism, and an appreciation for the ecstatic and joyful practices that revealed the Divine embodied in the natural world. We worked together over the years, in public and private, teaching and celebrating and I treasure every moment shared, every memory created. Most precious of all is Margot’s immortal enthusiasm which was so deeply rooted in the term’s Greek origin, entheos: “to be inspired or possessed by a god, to rapt, to be in ecstasy.”
Countless homages posted on numerous social media sites affirm her impact on the personal lives of fans and followers, and her unique contribution to modern Paganism as one of the fastest growing spiritual movements in the United States. Margot Adler played an essential role in the rebirth of ancestral religious traditions as a vital new spirituality and that inspiration will continue, for what we remember, and those whom we remember, live.
New Suffolk, NY July 30, 2014
Phyllis Curott is an attorney, author and Wiccan priestess. An interfaith activist and advocate of religious liberties for minority faiths in the courts and media, Jane Magazinehonored her as one of the Ten Gutsiest Women of the Year, New York Magazine described her as one of the “culture’s most intellectually cutting-edge thinkers,” and Beliefnet has featured her in their video series Preachers and Teachers. Curott is founder and president of the international Temple of Ara and president emerita of the Covenant of the Goddess.Phyllis Curott
Parliament of Religions Calls Faith Communities to Actively Oppose War, Blockade of Gaza, Anti-Semitism & Islamophobia to Protect Israeli and Palestinian Lives
The Parliament of the World’s Religions grieves whenever violence and conflict flares, as is now occurring in Palestine and Israel. Grief, however, must not paralyze faith communities and the interfaith movement into silence and inaction. Instead, we are called to serve as moderating agents in the cause of sustainable justice, unconditional compassion, and enduring peace by raising our voices against those who seek the annihilation of their enemies.
The Parliament, therefore, asks religious and spiritual communities across the globe, and the interfaith movement specifically, to be vocal and active in:
- calling both sides to end the war in an ethical manner, including the ending of the seven-year blockade of Gaza, with borders monitored by the United Nations to ensure safety for Israelis as well as Palestinians
- asking world leaders to take concrete steps, with urgency, to ensure the freedom, self-determination, security, and equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis
- calling the United Nations to ensure that both sides abide by international laws and human right accords in safeguarding civilians, with special attention given to children
- requesting both sides to recognize the humanity of the other and to honor their sacred spaces
The Parliament of the World’s Religions encourages all faith communities and especially the interfaith movement to actively expose and challenge anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in their neighborhoods, cities, and in the public discourse. Let us be moderating voices and agents that will revitalize the dialogue and cooperation between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. This mission should be a part of our sermons, prayers, and civic action.
This statement was adopted by the Board of Trustees of the Parliament by a majority vote.