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Pagan Imbolc Stirs the Spirit, Shakes Off the Winter Blues

Imbolc: Marking the Time of Winter’s Waning

It is Winter; the wind howls and Mother Nature lies sleeping, deep under a blanket of snow. Bare branches, stark against the slate gray sky, crack against each other like knucklebones, and when the winds really howl they snap, hitting the snow covered ground with a hushed thump.

On the Great Wheel of the Year, this is the time of Imbolc. In the Celtic seasonal calendar, Imbolc marked the beginning of the lambing season. The ewes came into their milk and the first stirrings of Spring began.

This is the ‘quickening of the year’; there is a spark hidden below the surface, like a new pregnancy, barely perceptible and yet urgently anticipated and holding great promise. The seed stirs in the belly of the Earth.

Traditionally, Imbolc was the great festival in honor of Brigid (Brighid, Brigit, Bride), so beloved as a Pagan Goddess that her worship was woven into the Christian church and she became St. Bridget. Brigid is a Triple Goddess, of poetry, smithing, and healing arts. She is also a Goddess of fire, and of the hearth; she brings fertility to the land and its people.

Other archetypes and characters that might be honored at this time are the Cailleach, the old woman in the stone; Lucia with her crown of candles, and of course the Ground Hog, whose story bears surprising similarities to the Pagan mythologies of Kore or Persephone.

Most Pagans, the People of the Earth, are (naturally or through training) consciously attuned to and aware of the differences in the energies of the land as we move through the seasons. We find certainty in the concept of mirroring — “as above so below; as without so within.”  The light, which is mature and at its full height at the Summer Solstice, is now in the belly of Mother Earth at the time of Imbolc.

The original word ‘Imbolc’ means ‘in the belly’, which aptly identifies the underlying energy of this time of year. We do not feel the same vibrant vitality and enthusiasm that we feel in June, at the time of Imbolc.

We use this Imbolc time to finish the season of spiraling inward, of reflection, and dreaming. We hold tightly to the promise of renewal, and awakening, and with the returning light we have hope.

With Imbolc we also begin to experience some sense of relief in another way. The lengthening daylight, which began at the Winter Solstice, can alleviate the struggle so many of us may have with Seasonal Affective Disorder. (S.A.D.)

Denmark, given its geographical location endures particularly long, dark winters. One would think there would be a high number of people affected with seasonal depression in that country. Interestingly, Denmark lays claim to being the happiest place on Earth.

According to Mother Nature Network, the Danish word that embodies this particular kind of happiness is ‘hygge’ (pronounced hYOOgah). Blogger Russell McLenden says, “ ‘Hygge’ may sound alien outside Denmark, but its general ethos of enduring wintry gloom with coziness and camaraderie could help raise spirits almost anywhere.”

My community embraces this concept. Through the Winter months while Persephone reigns in the Underworld, and her mother, Demeter expresses her grief through a barren landscape, we make a point of gathering together in each other’s homes, sharing food and stories, and small comforts that sooth worried hearts.

At Imbolc, we acknowledge and feel gratitude for the good fortune of having made it through the cold dark Winter — something our ancestors may not have so easily taken for granted. We feel the first stirrings and anticipate the return of Persephone, the maiden of Spring.

We weave solar wheels (Brighid’s crosses), which pre-date Christianity, and which are said to protect the house from fire. We bake; we braid bread and churn butter. We dip candles, to remind us of the fire that burns in the belly, and the spark that ignites deep in the Earth. With each dip of our new candles we are reminded that just as the snow hides the Earth, the layers of wax hide the promise of light within — within the candle and within ourselves.

We gather in a circle on a quiet hillside. Standing together on the hard packed snow we feel the quickening beneath our feet. Hand to hand, we allow the rhythm of our breath and the drumbeat of our hearts to synchronize with Her rhythm and with each other. As our flames burn bravely in their little glass jars, we experience the connection to the Earth. We are blessed by the fullness of heart and Spirit that comes from spending time on the land with loved ones, as we contemplate our own hidden fires and await the return of Spring.

We are the People of the Earth and these are the Earth Traditions.

Sources:

http://www.mnn.com/family/family-activities/blogs/how-hygge-can-help-you-get-through-winter

Rev. Angie Buchanan

Rev. Angie Buchanan, Parliament Board Trustee Emeritus

Rev. Angie Buchanan is a Family Tradition Pagan. She is a founder and director of Gaia’s Womb, an interfaith spirituality group for women, and Earth Traditions, a Pagan Church that also offers a Training Program for Pagan Ministry.  Angie has a background in law enforcement and politics. She consults with multiple religious and interreligious groups, encouraging dialogue and understanding. She is a former instructor at Cherry Hill Seminary, having taught Introduction to Interfaith there for four years.  Angie travels, speaking to groups at churches and schools about Paganism, religious freedom, the Global Ethic, the separation of church and state, and the First Amendment. She has been a presenter at a number of interfaith events, including the 2004 Parliament and the Buddhist Council of the Midwest Women’s Conference. She has worked with CPWR as a Board Member since 2002.

Parliament Board Elects 10 New Trustees for 2014

The Board of Trustees of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions is announcing the election of all ten new trustees. Ushering a new era for the Parliament, this year’s board comprises 19 denominations of 11 global religious, faith, and spiritual traditions, constituting a more robust 27-member body.

News is spreading about the elections of returning trustee emeriti, including Dr. Kusumita Pederson who is currently co-chair of the Interfaith Center of New York, Andras Corban Arthen, founding and spiritual director of the EarthSpirit community, and Swami Varadananda of the Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago, who was among the three incorporating trustees of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.

The seven new faces on the Board are teeming with expertise, a group comprised of both elders of and dynamic up-and-comers in the Interfaith movement. These trustees are experienced leaders of religion, business, and scholarship. Get to know:

  • Grandson of Mohandas Gandhi: International Peace Activist and Author Arun Gandhi. , who founded the MK Gandhi Center for Non-Violence and publishes gripping books.
  • One of the first trustees to identify explicitly as a pluralist: author Tom Lemberg, a Boston-based attorney.
  • Executive Director of Arizona Interfaith Movement who created the”Golden Rule” license plate Dr. Paul Eppinger.
  • Veteran Leader in the World Sikh and Interfaith Community, Scientist: Dr. Manohar Singh Grewal
  • Journalist, preservationist, published author, and playwright, Dr. Gianfranco Grande who serves as a Senior Vice President of Partners for Sacred Places.
  • Executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society, a progressive, faith-based organization in Chicago that works to eliminate race and class barriers and advocates for social and economic justice, Dr. Larry Greenfield
  • The Deputy Executive Director of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, past Parliament of the World’s Religions panelist Rev. Nicole Diroff.

As the Parliament continues to profile the newest trustees, they are taking places on newly formed standing committees for the year 2014 and busy in their personal endeavors. Just this week Arun Gandhi delivered a keynote speech on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Georgia, while Dr. Paul Eppinger was being honored by Arizona State University for his successful campaign to see Arizona declare MLK Jr. Day a state holiday in 1992.

Keep your eyes on this Class of 2016, and look for deep-reaching features with each of them in the months ahead.

The Parliament traces back its origins to the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. It was created to cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world.

Why Author Tom Lemberg Joins Parliament Board, and How [Inter]Faith Values Can Heal Democracy

Tom Lemberg recently began his term as a board trustee of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. His book “Difficult Times” is available on Amazon.com.

Attorney Thomas Lemberg of Boston, MA joins the Board of Trustees of the Parliament of the World’s Religions at a gripping moment for the movement of interfaith. As  advocates within the interfaith sphere work to both strengthen and finesse relationships to the wheels-that-turn our world (like faith houses, governments, and the titans of corporate America), the need for interfaith to clearly communicate the messages of compassion and coexistence to those holding the most influence is a compelling one.

In his new book, Lemberg eagerly endeavors to make sense of challenges facing American democracy with a sage sense of urgency about making the many faiths positive factors in overcoming societal ugliness. After identifying three qualities about modern America Lemberg considers most harmful, the role of faith becomes a towering consideration, and one that can and will enlighten the work of interfaith activism and relationships within the Parliament and beyond.

After relishing Difficult Times, the page-turner Lemberg authored, Parliament Executive Director and co-Trustee Dr. Mary Nelson  says “we’re delighted to have Tom on the board with his breadth of corporate legal experience, his own wide-ranging interests, experiences and thoughts, and his down-to-earth practicality in helping us work toward solutions.”

We recently conducted a Q &A with Thomas Lemberg over e-mail to share his spirit as a new Trustee, goals for the Parliament, views of interfaith work, and what his book says about the role of spirituality in healing the cracks he identifies in our modern American democracy.

1) Congratulations on your election to the Parliament Board of Trustees! How have you found your experience with the Parliament, and what attracted you to join an interfaith board? 

I was attracted to the Parliament because I believe that its interfaith work is essential to making a better world. We need people of all faiths to understand each other and to tolerate their differences, to see their common ground, especially commonality in values and ethics, and to work together to advance the those values and ethics around the world. So far, I have found my experience on the Board exhilarating. It is a splendid group of good, dedicated, able, wise men and women.

2. You share in your biography that you were raised Jewish, and now consider yourself a pluralist. While this is a buzzword, what does it mean to you, to hold this belief or practice personally? 

I had never been particularly spiritual until 15-20 years ago. I am spiritual but not through Judaism (which I much admire and which I am pleased that my children and their families practice). I find the world imbued with spirit without going through any organized religion. While I relate, in different ways, to Judaism and other faiths (hence pluralism), for me, I find my spirituality outside any faith.

3) What goals do you bring to becoming a member of the Parliament Board? 

I hope to bring to the Board the value of my legal and business experience as a lawyer and executive in the business world, my perspective as an unaffiliated person of spirituality (I guess we are called “nones”) and whatever good judgment I might be able to offer on the affairs of the Parliament.

4) What would you like to see the Parliament achieve in the next year? 

I would like to see the Parliament schedule and plan a Parliament for 2015 or 2016 if possible. I would like to see the Parliament get on sound financial footing (big steps were taken in 2013) and line up donors able to support an enhanced mission. My vision is that the Parliament become the leading interfaith movement in the world to become: (1) the/a leading place where faith leaders would gather for dialogue, advocacy and community action to promote harmony among faiths and faith-based social action and (2) with their imprimatur would engage people around the world to embrace the values of interfaith (tolerance, respect, love, community, etc.) and to advocate for policies to implement the values common to our respective faiths. I hope that we can begin this journey this year.

Front Cover5) Your book entitled Difficult Times looks at contemporary American democracy with sharp analysis of the religious sphere in the U.S. What have you noticed about the interfaith movement that relates to the three main themes in the book: Secular materialism, extreme individualism, and free market ideology? 

I see the interfaith movement as a most important part of helping us to overcome secular materialism, extreme individualism and our worship of the free market in at least two ways: (1) the values of faith serve as antidotes to each of these unhappy sets of ideas; and (2) the experience of tolerance, compassion and cooperation among faiths is one important foundation stone for our moving from angry hatred to productive dialogue and action.

6) Your book uses a lot of song references in our modern pop culture to explain our modern society. Which is your favorite, and why? 

I am a Dylan and Beatles man. Of the many great songs I love, my favorites are “My Back Pages” by Bob Dylan and “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

7) Who do you consider your heroes? 

Top two: Abraham Lincoln and Bobby Kennedy. Also Martin Luther King, Vaclav Havel and Nelson Mandela.

8) Beyond being an author and scholar, you are also a lawyer. How would you argue the case for interfaith? 

I try not to argue like a lawyer any more. (I practiced law for years but now I’m in recovery.) But, to be unlawyer-like brief, interfaith has the principles (tolerance, compassion and other central aspects of most, perhaps all, faiths) and it has the facts: it’s a lot better to get along and cooperate rather than to be physically and verbally violent against people who don’t share one’s particular form of faith (or don;t have any faith at all).

ORDER ‘DIFFICULT TIMES’ on Amazon.com

Tom Lemberg is an attorney and author. He has been general counsel of several technology-oriented companies, including Lotus Development, Polaroid and UGS Software. At Lotus, he led the creation and growth of the Business Software Alliance, the principal trade association of the software industry. Before that work, he was partner in two Washington law firms. He is now an author and is about to publish Difficult Times: A Fresh Look at Democracy in Modern America, a book on why America is so distressed, angry and divided and why our politics are so badly broken. A Jew by tradition and upbringing, Tom now identifies himself as a religious pluralist who greatly appreciates and seeks to learn from multiple faith traditions.

CPWR Vice-Chair Bob Henderson Elected to Serve on the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States

The elected governing body of the U.S. Baha'i community is the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States, a nine-member council with headquarters in Evanston, Illinois, near the Baha'i House of Worship in neighboring Wilmette. The members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States, elected in April 2011, are (seated, left to right): Valerie Dana, Juana C. Conrad, Jacqueline Left Hand Bull, Fariba Aghdasi, and Erica Toussaint, (standing, left to right): David F. Young, Robert C. Henderson, Kenneth E. Bowers, and Muin Afnani.

from bahai.us

The National Spiritual Assembly oversees the administrative affairs of the Baha’is of the United States and provides guidance for their spiritual and moral development. The Assembly oversees a publishing trust and several periodicals, including The American Baha’i newspaper; Brilliant Star, a magazine for children; and World Order, a quarterly journal of opinion and ideas. The Assembly also operates retreat and conference centers in California, Michigan, Maine and South Carolina.

Whether at the local, regional, national, or international level, Baha’i elections follow a similar process that seeks to choose spiritually minded leaders from the entire body of believers in the area.  The electoral process at the national level is different in one respect. While the local Assembly is elected by all adult community members, the National Spiritual Assembly is elected by delegates, who, in turn, are chosen in “district” conventions. All adult Baha’is are eligible to vote in district conventions, and so the connection between the individual and his or her national-level governing body remains quite close. In choosing members of the National Spiritual Assembly, delegates may vote for any adult Baha’i residing in the country – once again preserving the freedom of choice that is fundamental to the Baha’i electoral system.

Click here to read the full article

 

Remembering Richard H. Luecke

The Council notes with sadness the death of the Rev. Dr. Richard H. Luecke, trustee emeritus of CPWR.

Dr. Luecke was active in justice issues and community life for most of his career. From 1976 to 1993 he was director of studies for the Community Renewal Society in Chicago, an organization dedicated to empowering people to build just communities by working to eradicate racism and poverty. Prior to that, Luecke served as director of studies for the Urban Training Center in Chicago from 1964 – 71 and as the developer of the Urban Ministry Project in London and Oxford, England from 1970 – 71.

Dr. Luecke’s service to the church and the world included long-standing service on the boards of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions; Protestants for the Common Good, Chicago; and the Center for Neighborhood Technology, Chicago.

He was professor of philosophy and rhetoric at Christ College, Valparaiso University; visiting professor of political philosophy at the University of Minnesota; and a visiting lecturer at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Information about his receiving LSTC’s Confessor of Christ Award in 2009 is available online at http://www.lstc.edu/communications/news/?a=article&id=228.

He is survived by by his son Christopher, and a daughter-in-law and grandson – David. His wife, Joan, and daughter, Magdalen, preceded him in death.

CPWR Trustee Featured on the Yoga Hour this Thursday

Dr. Anantanand Rambachan (a CPWR trustee) will speak with Rev. Ellen Grace O’Brian (also a CPWR trustee!) online this Thursday.

from the Center for Spiritual Enlightenment:

Awaken Love and Compassion through Discovering the Atman, the True Self
Dr. Anantanand Rambachan
on the Yoga Hour Online Broadcast,
Thursday, March 29 at 8 am PT 10am CT

Love and compassion are the natural endowments of the soul. When we are freed from the narrow confines of self-interest and discover our oneness with all that is, we find a source of happiness and satisfaction that previously escaped us. The Bhagavad Gita offers profound wisdom for living in love and infusing our action with compassion. Join Dr. Anantanand Rambachan, author of Gitamrtam: The Essential Teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, and Rev. Ellen Grace O’Brian from the Center for Spiritual Enlightenment on The Yoga Hour online broadcast for this insightful exploration of the true nature of the Self.

Dr. Anantanand Rambachan, is Chair and Professor or Religion, Philosophy and Asian Studies at Saint Olaf College, Minnesota, USA, where he has been teaching since 1985. Prof. Rambachan has been involved in the field of interreligious relations and dialogue for over twenty-five years, as a Hindu participant and analyst. He is currently an advisor to the Pluralism Project (Harvard University), a member of the International Advisory Council for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, and a member of the Theological Education Committee of the American Academy of Religion. Prof. Rambachan delivered the invocation address at the historic White House Celebration of the Hindu festival of Diwali in 2003 and also in 2004.

 

CPWR Chair Urges Interfaith Cooperation on Water Security

Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, the Council’s Chair of the Board of Trustees, championed interfaith collaboration as one of the greatest forces for water conservation, protection and positive consumer change.  Imam Mujahid was among the speakers for the United Nations’ World Water Day Conference in Chicago, hosted by the Office of the Governor.

World Water Day has been observed on March 22nd since 1993 voted by the United Nations as “a means of focusing attention on the importance of freshwater and advocating for the sustainable management of freshwater resources.”  This year’s theme was “Water and Food Security: the world is thirsty because we are hungry.” Food security and water access are linked, as the UN projects that by 2025, over two-thirds of the world population could be living in conditions of water-scarcity or under water-stress. Further, 70% of the world water supply is used for food production, which is not sustainable, and climate change is a direct impact of overconsumption and ineffective consumption. Mujahid reminded his fellow religious leaders that America is indeed a religious nation, so by harnessing that collective religious responsibility, religious Americans can have a direct impact on water, food, and fuel usage. With 15% of all food in the US going to waste, Mujahid urged all present to reinforce the message “consume less, share more,” and to “share a message of hope”, in order to create a more sustainable future for water usage and food production, and to fulfill a collective responsibility as people of faith to use our given supply responsibly.

Trustee Emeritus Swami Varadananda, long-time Parliament organizer and manager of the Vivekananda Vedanta Society in Chicago, reflected on how CPWR had highlighted these issues at past Parliaments in Cape Town (1999) and Barcelona (2004), where lack of water accessibility and food insecurity in relation to sustainability were addressed.

The Dr. Robert Henderson, Vice-Chair for the Council and also an elected member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States, spoke to the group about building awareness around clean water access and food insecurity, especially with youth in religious communities. He suggested as well the importance of recording and sharing local initiatives to aid the hungry with the interfaith community at large to maintain momentum and education.

The second half of the meeting was hosted by members of Faith in Place, a Chicago-based interfaith organization that advocates “stronger congregations for a sustainable world.”

In the spirit of CPWR, this meeting brought together people of faith to discuss and work toward action around vital issues that impact people locally and globally.

U.S. Students Build Connections through Interfaith Pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine

by Cheryl Walker
from Wake Forest University

The group of 13 divinity school and undergraduate students and their leaders—School of Divinity Professor Neal Walls and Associate Chaplain for Muslim Life Khalid Griggs—gathered at a spot overlooking the Sea of Galilee during the University’s winter break.

“All at once we were connected to an ancient tradition of looking upon the hills and mountains of Israel and giving thanks to God,” Stillerman wrote in the blog chronicling the journey to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Masada and other places of religious and historical significance in the region.

Participants discussed the trip at a public presentation on campus Jan. 26. The two-week experience was the beginning of a semester-long class devoted to the history and religious traditions of Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities.

Sophomore Avalon French, a religion major and co-president of the University’s Interfaith Council, was among the undergraduates who traveled on the Interfaith Pilgrimage.

“With Professor Walls and Imam Griggs, we would visit one place, like the Temple Mount, and get two different perspectives,” French said. “It opened our minds to different points of view and helped us understand the value of interfaith dialogue.”

Click here to read the full article

Locking Our Children Away

Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5772

by Rabbi Brant Rosen

Cedric Cal was born to a single mother, in a family that lived below the poverty line on Chicago’s West Side. His father had left the family, married another woman and had very little to do with him. His mother Olivia worked constantly, doing her best to keep her family together. As the oldest of four, Cedric became the de facto father of the family and was entrusted with protecting his younger brother, who was legally blind.

Cedric’s family moved around a lot and he learned very early on how to make friends quickly. He liked sports, particularly baseball – and when his family lived on the West Side, he played sports in the local Park District. When they moved to the South Side, however, there were no Park District services available, so sports were not an option for him. Still, no matter where they moved, Olivia became very adept at finding ways of getting Cedric and and brothers into decent public schools. From 5th to 8th grade, he attended Alcott Elementary. Minding his younger brother, he took the public bus every day on a long trek from the West Side to Lincoln Park.

Cedric’s mother taught him how to fill out applications and interview for jobs, but there really weren’t any to be found. And those that were hiring certainly weren’t hiring African-American teenage boys. He was never really successful at finding a real job, but when he was 14 he learned that he could make money dealing drugs. He knew that his mother would be beyond furious if she ever found out, so he made sure to keep his drug dealing and his growing gang activity secret from her. Cedric never, ever, brought his earnings into their home – his mother had made it clear that drug money was not welcome anywhere near her house. Even when he bought a car, he parked it far away from their home.

I met and spoke with Cedric two weeks ago at the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet. He explained to me that as he continued to sell drugs, as he continued the gang life, little by little, he became “desensitized to the things my mother had taught me.” It was quite poignant and sweet to listen to Cedric speak about his mother. “My mother,” he said, “has a lovely spirit,” adding: “I was scared to death of my mother.” He told me of one instance in which Olivia confronted drug dealers on a street corner with a two by four in her hand. Cedric laughed and said that even the toughest gang members in the neighborhood were scared of his mother.

The incident that changed Cedric’s life forever occurred in 1992, when he was 17 years old. According to court testimony, two individuals confronted what would become the three in front of a house on the West Side. In the ensuing gunfight, they shot and killed two of the men and wounded a third. Following the incident, the surviving victim, who was gravely wounded, identified Cedric and another man to the police as the shooters. They were both arrested – and although Cedric was legally still a minor at the time of the shooting, he was sentenced to prison for life without possibility of parole. There has never been any physical evidence – or any other evidence for that matter – that linked Cedric to the shooting and Cedric has always maintained his innocence.

There’s something of a twist to this story. Nearly twenty years later, the wounded witness, Willie Johnson, recanted his testimony. He came forward and testified at a post-conviction hearing that he had wrongly identified Cedric and his co-defendent. He explained that he did this only because the actual murderer had threatened to kill him and his family at the time. The judge however, rejected Johnson’s revised testimony and refused to reverse the convictions. (In an even more perverse twist to this story, although his recanted testimony was rejected, the witness was subsequently charged with perjury.)

When he first entered prison, Cedric joined a gang for protection, as many inmates do. He told me his first few years inside were enormously difficult until he met a man who would have an powerful impact on his life – an ex-gang leader who had become a devout Muslim. Cedric’s new mentor gave him book after book to read, and he read them voraciously. Cedric was particularly affected by “The Autobiography of Malcom X.” He identified deeply with Malcolm’s journey and struggle and was especially moved when he read about his religious awakening in prison. Like Malcolm, Cedric was inspired to convert to Islam and turn his life in a different direction.

As it turned out, his new found Muslim faith took him down a fairly dangerous road in prison. After making the decision to live as an observant Muslim, his fellow gang members approached him and told him he would have to choose between his gang and his newly acquired faith. Cedric chose his faith, knowing full well that this would obviously mean the loss of his protected status. In a very real sense, he was now putting his life in God’s hands.

The next major spiritual transformation for Cedric occurred when the Million Man March took place in 1995 in Washington DC. He was deeply moved by the sight of hundreds of thousands black men, gathered together nonviolently in one place, publicly atoning and taking responsibility for their own lives and for their families. After he witnessed this moment, Cedric decided to embark upon his own journey of repentance.

Specifically speaking, this meant following an eight stage atonement process as developed by Minister Louis Farrakhan. As part of his atonement, Cedric wrote letters. First he wrote a long letter to his mother, in which he apologized for betraying the values she taught him and for the shame he had brought to her through his actions. He vowed that he would devote the rest his life to bringing honor back to her and the family. He wrote similar letters to each of his brothers, apologizing for being absent to them as a big brother and as a role model. He also wrote a letter to his entire community – published in the community paper – and apologized, among other things, for bringing drugs, crime and gang activity into their neighborhood.

I asked Cedric to define forgiveness for me. He said that for him it was all about relationship. Seeking forgiveness meant repairing his relationships with others – and first and foremost, his relationship to God. He added that prayer plays a very central role in this process and that over time, his prayers have helped him achieve a spiritual cleansing – an unburdening his soul. He said that atonement is a never-ending process. He told me, with simple determination in his voice, that he will never stop working at making things right with others and with God.

Cedric is a warm, genuine and open-spirited man. He was happy to tell me his story and clearly took great pleasure in relating his spiritual journey. When we first met, I explained to him that I was interested in hearing his story because I wanted to give a sermon about his experiences during a Yom Kippur service. His lawyer began to explain what Yom Kippur is and he smiled and said, “Oh, I know all about Yom Kippur. It’s coming up in two weeks, right?” My conversation with Cedric was a true pleasure and I was genuinely sorry when our time was up. He gave me an affectionate hug before leaving the visitor’s room.

I’d like to tell you about another prisoner I met that day in Stateville – a 36 year old man named Addolfo Davis.

Addolfo grew up in an even more at-risk environment than Cedric. He was born to a single, drug-addicted mother who severely neglected him. Before he turned 10, Addolfo was running away from home and turning to local gangs for protection. He was just 9 the first time he robbed someone for money to buy food, which resulted in the first of many run-ins with the juvenile justice system.

Addolfo was eventually taken from his mother and placed under his grandmother’s care, where he lived in a one-room, dirt-floor cellar apartment, which already housed three other family members. Around this time, a DCFS social worker reported that he was becoming a danger to himself and strongly urged that he be placed in a contained foster home. Despite these recommendations, Addolfo was eventually removed from his grandmother and placed in a group home.

Addolfo’s incident occurred when he was barely 14. He and two older boys went to the apartment of a rival, reportedly to discuss a turf dispute. When they entered the apartment, the two older boys took out guns and shot four people, killing two. According to witness testimony, Addolfo was present but did not shoot a gun.

Later that day, the police apprehended Addolfo and interrogated him without an attorney present. The only person there to represent him was his mother, who was no longer his legal guardian and who later testified that she was intoxicated at the time. The interrogation ended with his signing a confession, though both his and his mother’s poor literacy skills likely prevented either of them from fully understanding what he had signed.

Although he was only a minor, a juvenile judge ruled that Addolfo’s case be transferred to adult court. This ruling was apparently influenced by the testimony of a therapist who cited his past criminal history and cast doubt on his ability to be rehabilitated by the time he reached the age of 21. In the end, 14 year old Addolfo was tried as an adult for felony murder and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

I was told that Addolfo Davis was small, traumatized eighty pound teenager at the time of his conviction. The Addolfo I met two weeks ago was a grounded and articulate man. I had the opportunity to be present when he spoke with his pro bono lawyer as they prepared his application for clemency from Governor Quinn, which is his only legal recourse now that his appeals have been exhausted. As they spoke, it became obvious that Addolfo had been spending a great of time in the prison’s law library. He clearly had a far reaching knowledge of the legal aspects of his case and of the complicated clemency process. At times, it actually seemed that he was advising his lawyer rather than the other way around.

My first question was to ask Addolfo how he found this obvious inner peace. His answer was utterly unexpected. He said that his first few years in prison were horrid. He was frightened and aggressive and spent much of his time fighting with other inmates and just trying to survive day by day. As a result he was sent to the Tamms Correctional Center – a so-called “super max” prison in Southern Illinois – where he would spend four and a half years.

As at most super max prisons, prisoners at Tamms are forced to live alone, 24 hours a day, close to seven days a week in 8 x 10 concrete cement cells that contain concrete beds, stainless steel sinks and toilets. Although each cell has a window, the windows cannot be opened, and the only way to look out of them is to stand on the bed. The doors to each cell are designed to completely isolate the prisoner inside his cell. When I did a little research, I discovered that when Tamms was first opened in 1998, the warden, George Welborn was quoted as saying “Tamms is not about rehabilitation, it’s about punishment.”

So you can imagine my amazement when Addolfo told me “For some people it’s the worst – but Tamms was the best thing that ever happened to me.” He explained that as a result of his stay there, he actually experienced real solitude and inner peace for the first time in his life. Whenever he felt himself growing claustrophobic, he taught himself how clear his mind and calm himself down. He also started writing and reading. The book “Conversations with God” by Neale Donald Walsch had a particularly strong spiritual impact upon him.

I asked Addolfo if he identified with any particular religious faith and he told me no. He said, “I believe in God with all my heart, but I don’t belong to any religion.” He said it all comes down to “love your neighbor,” adding that “God is a caring, forgiving God. God will straighten everything out in the end.”

Addolfo told me he read the Bible and the Koran every day, and that in prison he was learning the true meaning of spiritual struggle. Every day, he said, is a challenge for him to hold on to his humanity in an inhumane world. He quoted his grandmother: “When you turn yourself over to God, the devil works overtime to pull you back.”

Although he is very, very happy to be out of Tamms, Addolfo did say that it is much harder to find the same kind of solitude in Stateville. He said sometimes he’ll just put on his ear buds and listen to music, sometimes even just static, and he can get back to a focused, clear minded place.

As I did with Cedric, I asked Addolfo for his definition of forgiveness. He said that the first step in forgiveness was forgiving yourself so that you can take personal responsibility for your own actions. When he was in the solitude of Tamms, he said, he learned that once he forgave himself, he was able to forgive others more easily and not simply point the finger of blame. Once he quieted down his mind, he found forgiveness for his mother, realizing that her drug use was not her. He was then able to see past her actions to her inner humanity.

Addolfo also said to me that since he never had a childhood, he was learning how to be a kid. And more than anything, that meant learning how to love unconditionally. As he put it, his challenge is learning how to truly love someone who isn’t ready to take accountability yet. It is not a simple process, to be sure. His approach, he said, is: “I love you, I forgive you, but I’m gonna keep my distance. When you’re ready, I’m always here for you.” He makes a point of talking to everyone, even members of rival gangs, which is not considered a particularly advisable thing to do in prison.

Needless to say, most of the prisoners aren’t used to this sort of attitude from an fellow inmate – but Addolfo said he has found that when they get used to it, they eventually respond. That is essentially his struggle: learning how to live the faith of “love your neighbor” each and every day.

I’m telling you the stories of Cedric and Addolfo tonight for two reasons. The first is because I believe they are truly my spiritual teachers. Indeed, I believe they are spiritual teachers for us all. I say this with some hesitation – only because I do not in any way want to patronize them or over-romanticize their situation. Still, as we find ourselves in the midst of this season of forgiveness and reconciliation, I can’t help but wonder if there are countless spiritual teachers out there just like Cedric and Addolfo, locked far away from us, forgotten by everyone but their families.

This Yom Kippur, I’m thinking of Cedric’s letters to his mother, his brothers and his community – and his burning desire to bring honor back to his life and to those he loves. I’m thinking about Addolfo sitting alone in a cell in a super max prison, finding inner peace for the first time, and struggling to live up to the teaching “love your neighbor as yourself” in a place almost wholly devoid of anything resembling love.

Of course these spiritual lessons come at a huge price – to them and to us all. And that brings me to the second reason I’m telling you their stories. It’s because I sincerely wish to God they weren’t my spiritual teachers. They shouldn’t be. And if they are, then shame on us.

I don’t know any other way to say it: we live in a country that loves to lock people away. The US has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. We’ve locked up 2,000,000 people in our country. And to our further shame, 70% of these inmates, like Cedric and Addolfo, are people of color.

But our shame grows even deeper than this. Our country – the United States – is the only country in the world – in the world – that sentences children to life in prison without possibility of parole. Right now there are approximately 2,570 child offenders serving life without parole throughout the US. 99 of them are right here in Illinois. The total number in the rest of the world is zero.

The shame yet deepens: outside of the United States the practice of handing down juvenile life sentences has become so unthinkable, it is now illegal as a basic principle of international law. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – which the US has still not ratified – prohibits life imprisonment of children. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice requires that imprisonment of children can only be imposed as a last resort and that it be limited to the shortest length of time necessary to protect society. And the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the United States is a party, requires that in sentencing children, states must “take account of their age and the desirability of promoting their rehabilitation.”

Now when it comes to innocence cases, I think we can all agree on the clear injustice that is being committed. No one condones imprisoning the innocent – least of all children. However, when it comes to locking children up, the injustice should be no less obvious to us. There is compelling evidence, for instance, to indicate that Cedric Cal is totally innocent of the crime of which he was convicted. But in a deeper sense, this is not and should not be the issue. The issue is that when we sentence children to life sentences for their crimes – even of murder – we as a society are essentially giving up on them..

It should come as no surprise that there is clear racial component to this shame.Here in Illinois, for instance, 82% of our imprisoned child offenders are people of color. And as my stories to you obviously indicate, there is an obvious socioeconomic component to consider as well. But again, on a deeper level, if we look deep into the heart of it, even this should not the basic issue. We simply should not be locking away our children and throwing away the key. When we lock children away without even the possibility of parole, we affirm that they are no longer our problem, that they simply do not matter to us any more. When we lock them away, we deem them irredeemable.

We say this even though we know there is considerable evidence to the contrary. Science has shown that teenagers are not yet completely formed, either physically or emotionally. Although children are able to grasp the concepts of “right” and “wrong” at a very young age, the nuances of weighing long term risks and benefits are lost on even late adolescents, making them more prone to take risks, more vulnerable to peer pressure, and less likely to understand the perspective of others or the consequences of their decisions.

We also know, through neurological research, that the brain does not fully develop until late adolescence, around or after the age of 18. Doctors have now provided a medical reason for the various behaviors identified as typical in adolescents: they are not capable of behaving like adults because they lack the developed brain structure to do so.

Psychological research also tells us that, it is precisely because their characters are not yet fully formed that children are uniquely susceptible to rehabilitation. It is reasonable to assume that given the chance, many child psychology experts say, even those young adults who commit the most serious crimes will be able to grow into mature and responsible adults.

When we deem our children irredeemable, we ultimately treat them as somehow disposable. Now anyone who has ever parented an adolescent knows that there are those moments when we are tempted to go to these dark places. But of course we resist these impulses because we know it would simply be unthinkable – unthinkable – to give up on our children.

And yet that is just what we are doing to our children in this country. In 26 states – including the state of Illinois – we are locking our children away and telling them they will have to live the rest of their natural lives in prison. We are the only country in the world that locks away its children forever.

I know these aren’t easy issues to talk about. Violent crime and criminal justice are perhaps the most gut-wrenchingly painful issues there are. The violation that results from violence goes deep and lasts life long. But having compassion for victims does not an should not exclude our compassion for perpetrators. We can and we must hold them together, especially when it involves children. This is, after all, the very essence of reconciliation – a spiritual ideal we have been wrestling for the past eight days. How can we, how will we, dig deep and discover reservoirs of compassion for all?

I’m sharing Cedric and Addolfo’s stories with you tonight because I believe we have much to learn from them this Yom Kippur. They have a great deal to teach us about how we might live our lives – and the ways we should live as a society. On this night of our vows, we must vow to do better by them, and by all the “child offenders” that are locked away in prisons throughout our state and our country.

I’d like to end by reading a letter. I received it from Cedric just this week:

Salaam Alaikum (Peace be unto you)

Dear Rabbi Brant,

May this missive find you in good spirits and health. Thank you for coming to spend a moment in time with me, to hear some of my life story to share with your community. Thank you for acknowledging our humanity. For we who are incarcerated are human beings that lost our way who are trying to find our way back. As you celebrate Yom Kippur as an individual, community and a nation, I hope that the spirit that comes forth from such activity gives you a determination to serve the voiceless and disenfranchised who desire to reconcile with the community and become productive citizens.

For once one atones, he/she has entered into God’s mercy and is absolved from past sins and transgressions and is free from it never to be judged again. I was a rebellious youth who lacked knowledge and suffered great chastisement from Allah/God. I believe I have atoned to God but yet I’m still despised and rejected by society because of being convicted of a crime. What will be the atonement process of prisoners and society at large? What will wipe the slate clean like God does for the Jews after Yom Kippur?

How long shall a child be held responsible for these transgressions? I was a 17 year old boy but I am 36 years old now. As a child, I thought as a child – now that I am a man I put away childish things, so says the Scriptures. I never experienced manhood outside the confines of prison. I truly desire the opportunity to be a father, the opportunity of marriage and to have a wife and children. To vote in an election. To own property, have a bank account. All these little thiings we take for granted, some of us have never even experienced.

I humbly ask that you lift your voice to deliver youth from inhumane sentences. We are your children. A mistake or error should not, must not, define our lives. We are redeemable. We are the product of society’s neglect and degenerative culture. I have been ashamed, abased for being such a child. I’ve repeated and made the determination to never return to such past transgressions again. I need society to give me a chance to prove myself worthy to be accepted back into the community.

I hope your speech to the larger community takes on the spirit of forgiveness and mercy. Then the action of bringing your collective voices to change a law that is against the principles of atonement. It would be a great demonstration of your forgiveness of us who transgressed the community. And a great proof that God is Most Merciful of those who show mercy.

May Allah (God) bless us all with the light of understanding.

Sholom Aleykum,
Cedric Cal

 

This article was originally published in it’s complete form on rabbibrant.com

Sitting in the Heart of the World

by Ellen Grace O’Brian
Vice-Chair, CPWR Board of Trustees

As a practitioner of yoga, I was aware of the Parliament of the World’s Religions as the watershed interreligious event that opened the door to yoga in the West through Swami Vivekananda’s dynamic presence at the first convening in 1893. What I didn’t know was that beginning in 1993, this powerful global event was now occurring approximately every five years and was open to everyone with an interest in the interreligious movement. Although I had heard about the Parliaments in Chicago (1993) and South Africa (1999), it wasn’t clear to me how to participate and that it was something that could so profoundly affect my life and my community.

Curiosity has a way of helping us discover doorways that we didn’t know existed. In 2002, I learned about a local group of people meeting in someone’s home to talk about the next Parliament event slated to convene in Barcelona in 2004. Between homemade soup, networking, and sharing about why we thought it could make a difference to bring people together, I found myself on the path to the fourth global parliament event. This local connection with people who had been to other parliaments, and those who, like me, were just learning about it, was invaluable. It provided inspiration as well as information. Little did I know I was already engaged in one of the hallmarks of the Parliament: bringing people together in ways that empower and equip them to solve the problems we face in our world today.

When I checked in at my first Parliament in Barcelona, I was overwhelmed by the abundance of programs and events, the sight of so many people from different religious traditions and far reaches of the globe engaging in dialog, and the inspiration that pervaded everything from the meeting place to the program book. After a time of prayerful consideration about what I should chose amidst such rich opportunity, I dove in. One of the things I decided to participate in was a dialog with others who were concerned about the rise of religiously motivated violence in our world.

The dialog group I was assigned to included a Hindu man from India; a Muslim woman from Egypt, a Christian seminary student from the US, a Catholic woman from Rome, and a Lutheran man from Switzerland. We were provided with some questions to reflect upon and discuss. Why was this issue important to us? What in our own experience had contributed to why we cared about violence in our world? What could we see ourselves doing we returned home to our own communities that would make a difference?

As I sat with this group of people from religions, countries, and viewpoints different from mine, something became apparent that changed everything for me: we all shared a deep concern about this issue and a belief, grounded in our diverse traditions, that peaceful change was possible. The experience of connection across differences was profound, I felt like I was sitting in the heart of the world. We were inspired to return home and engage in action. Then it came to me. I live in a large, diverse, metropolitan area. I realized that if people who were concerned about the rise of violence in our own community gathered together, that group would look very much like the one I was with in distant Barcelona. And, with a similar rich diversity, we could find ways together to begin to solve this problem.

When I returned home with this inspiration from the Parliament, I reached out and was joined by leaders from different faith communities, educational institutions, government and nonprofit organizations, students and community members who met to convene a community nonviolence conference. Inspired by the Parliament model, hundreds of people have attended these conferences over the years and brought forth their own commitments to action.

Whenever I think about what the Parliament does, or what it means to attend such a global gathering, I remember my experience of sitting in the heart of the world. And I think about what happens when people come together and share their deepest concerns and aspirations for a peaceful world.

Rev. Ellen Grace O’Brian is the Spiritual Director of the Center for Spiritual Enlightenment, a ministry in the tradition of Kriya Yoga. She was ordained to teach in 1982 by Roy Eugene Davis, a direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda. She is the author of several books on spiritual practice and is the editor of the quarterly magazine, Enlightenment Journal.

Rev. O’Brian is the Founder of Meru Seminary, training leaders in the Kriya Yoga tradition, as well as Founder and Chair of the community nonprofit educational organization, Carry the Vision, which provides educational programs in nonviolence. She received the 2008 Human Relations Award from the Santa Clara County Office of Human Relations recognizing her contribution to positive human relations and peace in Santa Clara County. She serves as a member of the Advisory Council of the Association for Global New Thought; on the Executive Board of the International New Thought Alliance; and as Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.