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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.
Dedicating words of spiritual guidance to the inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama January 21, this Huffington Post feature shares a beautiful prayer from CPWR Trustee, Dr. Tarunjit Singh Butalia:
“O Creator and Sustainer of Life. Bless our nation with strength and humility, confidence and compassion, safety and shared security, as well as prosperity and loving kindness. May we continue to stand up for the weak and oppressed so we can be a light to the world for the dignity of all human beings. May we be respectful of our sacred environment and engage in civil discourse that leads us towards national progress. Bless this great nation and its citizens, our President, and our elected representatives so we can work together to create a more perfect union for all.”
CPWR Trustee Butalia is a Sikh faith leader with progressive results facilitating interreligious relations. Butalia’s benediction reflects the shared spiritual will of faith traditions in support of the national community and its global relationships.
CPWR staff offer our warmest wishes for peace and progress to President Obama as he begins his second term, and to CPWR’s new and continuing Trustees beginning the 2013 term.
Dr. Tarunjit Singh Butalia is a member of the Interfaith Committee of the World Sikh Council – America Region (WSC-AR) and served as the Secretary General of the organization for 2004-2005. At the national level on behalf of WSC-AR, he is on the Presidents Council and Steering Committee of Religions for Peace – USA as its Moderator, and serves on the Board of Directors of the North American Interfaith Network as its Vice-Chair.
from the Huffington Post
To mark the beginning of Eid and in accordance with the Sunnah, or practices of the Prophet Muhammad, many Muslims wake up early in the morning and pray Salat ul-Fajr, or the pre-dawn prayer. After brushing their teeth, taking a bath and wearing perfume, they have breakfast before heading off to perform special congregational prayers known as Salaat al-Eid. Many Muslims recite the takbir, a declaration of faith, on the way to the prayer ground and give special charitable contributions known as Zakat al-Fitr.
Eid al-Fitr is a day of great merriment and thanksgiving. Muslims celebrate by gathering with friends and family, preparing sweet delicacies, wearing new clothes, giving each other gifts and putting up lights and other decorations in their homes. A common greeting during this holiday is Eid Mubarak, which means, “Have a blessed Eid!”
by Tom Odula
from The Huffington Post
NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenyan clerics across the religious divide vowed Tuesday to not allow sectarian violence to erupt following attacks on churches over the weekend that killed at least 15 people.
The Inter-Religious Council of Kenya said Muslims will form vigilante groups alongside Christians to guard churches in Kenya’s North Eastern Province, where the latest attacks occurred.
Adan Wachu, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims and the chairman of Inter-Religious Council, said the weekend attacks, which are being blamed on an al-Qaida-linked militant group from Somalia, are meant to trigger sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims. Wachu said clerics will actively preach against retaliation to prevent violence from spreading in Kenya like it has in Nigeria, where attacks on churches by a Muslim sect has ignited a spiral of violence.
by Jon Gambrell
from The Huffington Post
LAGOS, Nigeria — A human wave of more than 20,000 surrounded the Muslim faithful as they prayed toward Mecca Friday, as anti-government demonstrations over spiraling fuel prices and corruption showed unity among protesters despite growing sectarian tensions in Africa’s most populous nation.
While violence sparked by religious and ethnic divisions left about 1,500 people dead last year alone in Nigeria, some hope the ongoing protests gripping the oil-rich nation will bring together a country that already suffered through a bloody civil war.
“It shows that Nigeria is now coming together as one family,” said Abdullahi Idowu, 27, as he prepared to wash himself before Friday prayers.
by Saumya Arya Haas
from Huffington Post
I never learned much about religion until I started hanging out at Muddy Waters Coffee Shop on the corner of Lyndale and 24th in Uptown, Minneapolis.
I was raised to be a priestess (of Hinduism), grew up surrounded by world scripture and philosophy, and was taught by learned scholars and mystics. But my religious education didn’t really begin until I started talking — and listening — to other people from other ways of life. I had a great foundation but it had to evolve beyond what I could experience as an individual. Understanding is a journey, and it’s nice to have company if you can get it.
When Muddy’s opened in the late 80s, it was grungy, grubby and the bathroom was frightening. The only food on the “menu” was Pop-Tarts and SpaghettiOs. Punks, goth kids and all the other wonderful misfits of Minneapolis risked splinters from the rickety picnic tables to enjoy caffeine and conversation in precious Midwestern sunlight. I would come with my friends but talked to everyone. I got over my fear of homeless people and started seeing them as just people. Some reminded me of the wandering sages of my almost-native India, people who lived by choice or necessity on the fringes and accumulated hardship wisdom the rest of us shied away from.
All the scriptural education in the world is not worth one good hour-long conversation with a stranger about their beliefs.
by Valarie Kaur
from Huffington Post
This essay is based on an excerpt from the author’s journal when she was sixteen years old.
Usually on Sunday mornings, my father’s outside on a tractor, my mother’s making aloo pronthas, my brother’s watching cartoons, and I’m sleeping in. Sometimes, my mother crams the whole family into Baba Ji’s room to sing shabads and recite Scripture together. But on this Sunday morning, my grandfather has asked me to come with him to the gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship some miles away. At sixteen years old, I dutifully follow.
I’m still rubbing the sleep from my eyes as I slip off my shoes. Wrapped in a long head scarf, I follow my grandfather inside. One step takes us from our small farming town in California’s Central Valley into an entire world transported from India.
Inside, the congregation sits on the floor. On the right, a sea of men in turbans of black, saffron, blue and red cloth; on the left, women in silk and cotton, solid-colored, tie-dyed and embroidered chunnis of all different colors draped over long braids and jooras. Children sit next to their mothers and fidgeted. A little boy runs around islands of praying people before escorted out to the jungle gym. The elderly lean against the walls, eyes closed; while the younger folks listen to the prayers, the older ones seem to reside within the prayers.
This essay is an excerpt from “My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, And Transformation” from Orbis.
The whole room revolves around the sacred space that holds the “living Guru”: the 1,400 pages of Sikh verse known as Guru Granth Sahib Ji. The sacred book sits on a table draped in fine silvery blue cloths folded back to reveal the sacred lines of Gurmuki script whose poetry is read, sung and contemplated. Hanging from the ceiling over the sacred book is a magnificent blue canopy embroidered with a single brilliant character in Punjabi script, the first mysterious and profound word of our holy text. Ek Onkar: God is One. As ever, its two linked circles dropped from a top line, the stem connected those shoots up and umbrellas over in a long elegant stroke.
As I wait in line to bow my head before the Book, my eyes fall on the swords and daggers displayed at its base. Sikhs wielded these kirpans to defend the faith for hundreds of years in India, and I grew up hearing epic tales of battle and torture and martyrdom: Guru Arjan Ji tortured in a red hot caldron, Guru Gobind Ji’s young sons bricked in alive, Baba Deep Singh holding his own severed head in hand as he fought in battle. These blood-soaked legends of Sikhs resisting the Moghul empire came down to us as stories of resilience and sacrifice — our ancestors died so that we might live. The kirpans represent an enduring commitment to fight injustice and stand tall for faith and community. But it’s hard for me to eye the sharp edge. Sikh girls aren’t taught to fight like that. I drop my dollar on the pile of donations, close my eyes, bow my head to the floor and whisper the only words I can summon: Ek Onkar.
I follow my grandfather and sit with him on the men’s side — my modest act of defiance in a culture that too often divides women from men despite the Scripture’s teachings on equality. We listen to the granthis, singers flown from India to sing shabads from the Scriptures accompanied by the tabla and harmonium; their voices — sad, meditative and beseeching — rise, dip and waver. As the voices soar, I close my eyes and move into deep reflection.
by Tony Blair
from the Huffington Post
The Alpha Leadership conference taking place today in London is a reminder that despite all the negative news about religion, a different face of faith is visible and real the world over. The Alpha course on leadership, which was begun under Nicky Gumbel of the Holy Trinity Church in London, has been taken by 18 million people world-wide and is all about spreading a gospel of compassion and service to others. A similar message is given out from the remarkable Rick Warren’s church in Southern California where his congregation now numbers in excess of 100,000 people and his global reach extends to every nation on earth.
But such work is not confined to the Christian religion. There are extraordinary Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist organisations that do great work and show selfless sacrifice in some of the poorest and most forgotten parts of the world. 40% of the healthcare in Africa is delivered by Faith groups, notably the Catholic Church.
When we began the Tony Blair Faith Foundation four years ago, there was a lot of scepticism as to whether there really was any interest in inter-faith understanding. Weren’t religion and religious people bound to be introspective and uninterested in the faith of others? Today we are active in 20 countries, thousands of people take part in our programmes and we have volunteers in over 140 nations. The truth is that the numbers of people who have Faith is growing, such growth is not at all limited to the developing world and it is simply impossible to comprehend politics in certain parts of the world – e.g. the Middle East – without comprehending the importance of Faith.
by Amy B. Dean
from the Huffington Post
Sometimes, as an activist, you look upon the world and think you will never be able to see the changes you seek in your own lifetime. It’s easy to despair, to succumb to the isolation and self-doubt that come from being a thoughtful person trying to change the status quo.
In those moments, I’ve learned to find renewal and hope not in myself, but in other organizers, in our shared values and experiences. Saul Alinsky wrote, “We must believe that it is the darkest before the dawn of a beautiful new world. We will see it when we believe it.” A shared belief in what is actually possible to achieve, despite what others may tell us: that is the organizer’s gift.
In one respect, this principle sounds self-evident. And yet, while our social movements are often full of talk about policy, tactics or messaging, values are regularly left to linger in the background. They become things that are left to theologians to debate, or we allow values to be a walled-off part of the political conversation.
by James R. Doty
from the Huffington Post
Why, in a country that consumes 25% of the world’s resources (the U.S.), is there an epidemic of loneliness, depression, and anxiety? Why do so many in the West who have all of their basic needs met still feel impoverished? While some politicians might answer, “It’s the economy, stupid,” Based on scientific evidence, a better answer is, “It’s the lack compassion, stupid.”
I recently attended the Templeton Prize ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and have been reflecting on the words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in conversation with Arianna Huffington: “If we say, oh, the practice of compassion is something holy, nobody will listen. If we say, warm-heartedness really reduces your blood pressure, your anxiety, your stress and improves your health, then people pay attention.” As director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University (one of the two organizations recognized in the Templeton Prize press release), I would agree with the Dalai Lama.
What exactly is compassion? Compassion is the recognition of another’s suffering and a desire to alleviate that suffering. Often brushed off as a hippy dippy religious term irrelevant in modern society, rigorous empirical data supports the view of all major world religions: compassion is good.