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Parliament Ambassador Bridging Global Interfaith Organizations

As a Parliament Ambassador, Karen Hernandez focuses on illustrating the West Coast’s interfaith work through profiling organizations from San Francisco and beyond. This month’s post features the United Religions Initiative (URI) located in San Francisco.

From left: Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat, Parliament Ambassador Karen Hernandez and Father Gerald Musa from the Imam and the Pastor Panel, then presenting on contemporary and historic Christian – Muslim relations in Nigeria and Nigerian History at the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia.

Founded by The Right Reverend William Swing, San Francisco-Based United Religions Initiative has been building bridges the last 14 years at the grassroots level around the world. As noted on their website, URI’s Mission Statement says,

URI is a global grassroots interfaith network that cultivates peace and justice by engaging people to bridge religious and cultural differences and work together for the good of their communities and the world. We implement our mission through local and global initiatives that build the capacity of our more than 600 member groups and organizations, called Cooperation Circles, to engage in community action such as conflict resolution and reconciliation, environmental sustainability, education, women’s and youth programs, and advocacy for human rights.

At the crossroads of incredible interfaith work, URI is an organization that, when they say works at a grassroots level, they mean grassroots. Governed by Trustees, with 12 Trustees newly elected, for a total of 28 Trustees from over 16 countries, and with staff in all the major regions of the world including Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Multi-Regions/Transnational, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, as well as the North America Region, and with active participants in 640 Cooperation Circles, in over 84 countries – URI epitomizes grassroots interfaith work at its best.

Designed purposefully to enable the voices of those on the ground and those dedicated to the harmony of and in their homelands, the crux of URI is the Cooperation Circles. The Cooperation Circles are holistically independent and they fund, as well as organize themselves. Some circles are less than ten participants, and some have thousands of participants. Some of the amazing work the Cooperation Circles have done worldwide include rescuing child soldiers in the Ugandan civil war; brokering a truce between factions of the Christian church in Kerala, India; helping religious and cultural minorities in the conflict-prone province of Mindanao, Philippines have their voices heard by government officials in Manila; as well as facilitating urban reforestation in New Delhi, India. URI has proven time and time again that working at the grassroots level can and does make quite an impact in the world.

URI and the Parliament have a rich history together. Besides myself as a bridge of both organizations, long-time colleague at URI, Sally Mahe, has been building bridges with both organizations for years, and Sande Hart, URI’s Interim Regional Coordinator for North America, is also actively working with the Parliament.

Building off of a quote by Mahatma Gandhi, URI’s Executive Director Victor Kazanjian often speaks about URI as a movement. “Gandhi-ji said, ‘I offer you peace. I offer you love. I offer you friendship. I see your beauty. I hear your need. I feel your feelings. My wisdom flows from the Highest Source. I salute that Source in you. Let us work together for unity and love.’ Let us work together for this unity and love, and for justice and for peace for all through interreligious understanding and cooperation. For this light, this love, is at the heart of all religious and spiritual traditions, and also at the heart of this movement that we call the United Religions Initiative.”

As I find myself an Ambassador of the Parliament and a Consultant with URI, I am living and working in-between these two amazing organizations dedicated to peace work, interfaith work, and letting people create this work in a way that is tangible, successful, as well as incredibly powerful and life-changing, for people all over the world. Both URI and the Parliament are committed to creating sustainable peace and relationships. This, for me, is incredibly important, and I am proud to serve in this capacity where I can be a witness to this movement in our lifetime.

The Parliament and URI Call for Peace and Prayers in Africa

As our united prayers continue for the peoples of the Central African Republic, Nigeria, and Kenya, we now mourn the lives lost through escalating acts of violence throughout the continent.

The global interfaith communities of URI and the Parliament call for love and solidarity to bring our human family closer and to hold our guiding institutions accountable to ending violence.

“We send strength and resolve to our sisters and brothers who work fearlessly in the face of present danger, and offer our support to the interfaith and community-building efforts we know will bring peace and healing to these regions,” said United Religions Initiative’s Executive Director the Rev. Victor H. Kazanijan, Jr. in a statement after bombings in the regions of Western and Central Africa this past week.

On behalf of the Parliament, Executive Director Dr. Mary Nelson says, ”We call on the common values of love and compassion that arise out of our faith to respond in these positive ways to strengthen and support those who are seeking healing. We pray for the peacemakers, the Muslims and Christians in African nations bravely banding together in the face of violence, upholding faith and their moral will to protect one another.”

The Parliament and URI acknowledge that acts of terrorism and violence run counter to the teachings of peace, love and tolerance that lie at the root of all religious and spiritual traditions.

The global interfaith community welcomes all praying for peace to join us in solidarity.

The Parliament and URI Issue Joint #LoveAlert for #Kansas

Global Interfaith Movement Acts for Kansas on Holy Weekend

 

We, the global interfaith community, cherish the principle of shared humanity and champion the Golden Rule as the guiding principle of each of the world’s great spiritual and religious communities. We unite as neighbors in our call for harmony, compassion, and peaceful relationships everywhere.

Sunday’s tragic hate shootings in the Kansas City area urgently signal why interfaith cooperation must become stronger to ensure all people are exposed to the beautiful lessons we learn from each other in diverse communities.

We invite all people to join with the United Religions Initiative (URI) and the Parliament of the World’s Religions in coming together to amplify action for peace:

“The hearts and prayers of our interfaith and inter-cultural family go out to those affected by this terrible tragedy,” said the Rev. Victor H. Kazanjian, Jr., Executive Director of URI.  “Around the world, we affirm our promise to cultivate peace in the midst of difference, to promote enduring interfaith cooperation, and to show love in the face of hate.  May peace and healing find those shaken by this loss.”

Dr. Mary Nelson, Executive Director of the Parliament concurs, “in the face of violence and hate, we people of spirit and faith are challenged to proactively reach out in love and reconciliation.  Now is the time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

From Thursday April 17 through Sunday, April 20, we call for #LoveAlert messages to spread the goodness of interfaith cooperation around the world.

Ways to observe your solidarity include:  Fasting, lighting candles, and inviting your neighbors to your interfaith community events.

Use our tools to overcome hate! The Parliament’s  Faiths Against Hate webinars  train interfaith advocates and URI’s Talking Back to Hate campaign’s toolbox is full of effective best practices in a variety of materials.

Interfaith cooperation is happening; we as partners in the movement for peace affirm that deep interfaith relationships bring everyone closer together to overcome fear and embrace others as neighbors.

By bravely speaking out and acting together, we at the Parliament and URI invite all to work with us to correct injustice and make peace possible for all.

 

Remembering Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati

Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati

Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati

Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, a former Brooklyn Jewish housewife turned Guru, lost her battle with pancreatic cancer last week at her home, Kashi Ashram, an interfaith spiritual community, which she founded 35 years ago in the central Florida town of Sebastian. A memorial service will be held at Kashi Ashram on Ma’s birthday, May 26, and will be open to the public.

Thousands followed Ma’s teachings and way of life through a network of affiliated communities and charities throughout the globe. As actress Julia Roberts said, “There are a few people in one’s life that create only the warmest and most powerfully positive impact imaginable. Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati was one of those people to me and my family. She was a beautiful person who shined with love and understanding in all ways. Kashi Ashram was created out of her devotion to all who sought her wisdom and ideas. Her transition was deeply sad news and yet, as with all she did, it has brought me even closer to her words and her teachings. May we all look upon one another with loving kindness in her name and in the memory of all Mothers who love and teach us all.”

Founded by Ma in 1976, Kashi Ashram blends Eastern and Western philosophies. The Ashram sits on 80 acres at the banks of the St. Sebastian River and has dozens of temples and shrines to many diverse religions and spiritual paths. People from all walks of life are welcome and embraced at Kashi and encouraged to worship and coexist in harmony. Kashi Ashram affiliates have been opened in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, and Santa Fe.

Ma was the founder of Kashi Church Foundation, The River School, The River Fund, Kashi School of Yoga, the Village of Kashi, and By the River affordable senior housing. Her present and past affiliations include Trustee Emeritus of the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Advisory Board Member of Equal Partners in Faith, Advisory Board Member of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, Advisory Board Member of the Gardner’s Syndrome Association, Delegate to the United Religions Initiative, Member of the Board of Directors of the AIDS care organization Project Response, and member of the Parliament’s General Assembly. Ma also founded orphan centers in Uganda and India.

Click here to read article featuring remembrances of Arlo Guthrie

Click here to read the full obituary

URI: Cultivating Peace from the Inside Out

URI Youthby Rev. Charles P. Gibbs
Executive Director, United Religions Initiative

At the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia, I had lunch with Dadi Janki, the senior leader of the Brahma Kumaris, who had been an inspirational friend for fourteen years. Dadi told me the story of a queen who lost a precious necklace and sent people to the farthest reaches of her kingdom to search for it. The search continued unsuccessfully until the day one person went up to the queen and pointed out that the necklace wasn’t lost, but was around her neck.

“That’s the way it is with peace,” Dadi said. “We spend so much time looking here and there for peace when it is inside us all the time, waiting to be discovered and cultivated.”

When I think about United Religions Initiative (URI), an organization I helped found in 2000 and which I have served as executive director of ever since, I think about this, about cultivating peace—both the peace inside us as individuals and the peace inside our human community.

At our annual fundraising event in San Francisco this year, we honored one of our member organizations from Barcelona, Spain, the interreligious dialogue arm of the UNESCO Centre of Catalonia. In her speech, Elisabeth Lheure, a URI Trustee who is also a mediator for the Centre, spoke of its success in facilitating the funeral of a prominent Muslim in a Catholic church in a diverse Barcelona suburb where there was no Muslim worship space large enough.

“That was possible because of almost six years of daily working in that area,” Elisabeth told us. “Six years during which we seeded empathy and understanding; six years during which we’ve had workshops on religious diversity at schools, exhibitions about religious pluralism, some open doors days of the different religious communities, etc., and of course a very active interfaith dialogue group. Six years during which we’ve done several direct mediations of religiously motivated conflicts.”

Six years of cultivating peace.

In the hundred-plus years since the convening of religious leaders at the first ever World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, the interfaith movement has grown tremendously. And it has also evolved, from a movement focused on dialogue among leaders to one that acknowledges the importance of personal transformation and grassroots relationship-building—of cultivation—to interreligious peace.

Much like the first Parliament, URI was inspired by a top-down vision, a vision of United Nations-type body where disputes could be aired and mediated in the conference room rather than on the battlefield. The idea for it came to then-Episcopal Bishop of California, the Right Reverend William E. Swing, in 1993 after he was asked by the United Nations to host a large interfaith service in San Francisco for the 50th anniversary of its charter signing. He asked himself, “If the nations of the world are working together for peace through the UN, then where are the world’s religions?”

But the resistance he encountered among dozens of leaders he queried led him somewhere else entirely: to the people. At the grassroots of the world’s religions, more than anywhere else, he found people ready to open hearts, link arms, and create a new global hope through interfaith cooperation.

Today, URI is a vibrant community of nearly half a million people working around the world toward a common purpose – “To promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings.”

What this means in practice is different for each of the 500 locally-rooted interfaith Cooperation Circles that make up our network. For some, it means simply opening up a dialogue where none has been before. For others, it means working across religious lines to provide humanitarian aid and health care, build schools, or plant trees. For still others it means spreading a message of tolerance through art, music and the media. But all share in URI’s vision, and count themselves part of our global community.

Community is, in many ways, what URI’s work is all about. We believe that peace comes when people start seeing themselves as part of one another, as part of a whole, interdependent web.

When Peace Kawomera, a URI Circle in Uganda, organized Muslim, Jewish, and Christian farmers to work together to grow and sell fair-trade coffee, they not only reaped the benefits of cooperative production and marketing, but they began to see that the “other” could be their friend, their coworker, and their partner. This personal and relational transformation is the smallest seed of peace, the seed of an active community of citizens working together locally and globally to make their shared world a better place.

What we do at URI is cultivate those seeds: help people reach inside of their own hearts, their own homes, their own communities, find that peace for themselves and then extend it into the world through cooperative action. If we can succeed in that, in laying the groundwork for peace and positive change from the ground up, then we will have come a long way toward reaching the vision of interfaith harmony sparked by that seminal interfaith gathering of 1893. We will have found our necklace.