The Parliament of the World’s Religions is your partner in preparing for and observing UN World Interfaith Harmony Week. We connected with the 2019 winners of H.M. King Abdullah II World Interfaith Harmony Week Prize and will be bringing you special interviews with the winners where they will share about their on-going work and their experiences in observing World Interfaith Harmony Week. Today we are featuring the first place winner, Cape Town Interfaith Initiative (CTII).
The Cape Town Interfaith Initiative has a special connection to the Parliament of the World’s Religions. By their own records, CTII was born out of the 1999 Parliament of the World’s Religions hosted in Cape Town which brought together more than 7000 global interfaith activists. At the 2009 Parliament in Melbourne, delegates of CTII were presented with an official plaque as Cape Town was initiated into the Parliament’s Partner Cities network. In the lead up to the 2019 UN World Interfaith Harmony Week, our team connected with the Chairperson of the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative Executive Board, Berry Behr, to congratulate them on the great work being done in preparation for WIHW.
We were especially excited to learn that their event Love of Neighbour - our Prayers for our City was selected by the World Interfaith Harmony Week Initiative for H.M. King Abdullah II World Interfaith Harmony Week Prize.
Our team connected with Berry once more for a special interview on the work of the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative, the event, and the WIHW prize.
Hi Berry, can you share with us the mission of CTII?
Cape Town Interfaith Initiative envisions and embraces a country and peoples unified by interreligious and spiritual understanding and respect. Our ideal is to live this truth ourselves, as individuals, working together for our common purpose which is Interfaith Harmony.
Congratulations on winning 1st place, can you tell me what the inspiration for the event?
Prayers for the City was started some years ago by CTII and was always held within the City bowl, often attended by the presiding Mayor. Last year, the organisation was undergoing some intensive restructuring so the event was not held. This year, we wanted it to be different, significant and meaningful to the people of Cape Town who cannot always come into the city.
One of our associated community organisations, Faith Hope Love Communities which was established last year by James Ellman, a founding member and former Director of CTII, invited us to bring the prayers to an economically challenged area called Elsie’s River. We were inspired by a recent community project to reclaim a piece of land that was known as a criminal hotspot. Local residents got together and cleaned up the plot, painted the two border walls and decorated the other borders with brightly painted tyres and some plants.
There were no resources available for the event. James approached the local Imam who agreed to start our event with the Call to Prayer at the Mosque, and allowed us to park our cars in the relatively secure area of the Mosque premises. We would then walk in silent contemplation as a group, the three blocks to the chosen site for our Prayers.
On Friday 1 February at another WIHW event hosted by CTII, James received the news that his mother in law had died in Johannesburg and his wife, who had been taking care of her, needed his support. So the FHLC Chairman, Patrick Engel, stepped in to help with last minute pieces that needed tying up. We discovered that the chairs we hoped to borrow from a nearby organisation were not available and chair hire became our only expense for the entire event, because the Board of CTII agreed to allow the expenditure. It cost R430 to hire the chairs and they gave us R200 back when we returned them on Monday.
It sounds like you had many blessings and many setbacks, what did you learn while hosting the event?
That you can fit 40 chairs into a Toyota Fortuna! And that friendly co-operation can make miracles happen, that community from the heart is what creates a neighbourhood and that the power of collective Prayer is incalculable.
Let’s talk about community, you had some great support from the local faith communities, are there any memorable experiences of these communities from the event?
The Muslim community producing refreshments at the Mosque and then carrying the table down the road to our meeting place. Such open hearted generosity and kindness, which we never expected! And another cameo moment – two little sisters singing so sweetly on behalf of the Baha’i community.
CTII has a long history of fostering interfaith harmony, what does it mean to you to be acknowledged by the WIHW initiative at this global scale?
Firstly, it is an enormous encouragement to us and an affirmation that the work we are doing is meaningful and has a much larger influence than perhaps we imagined. Secondly, it means sustainability at least for a time, and will help us to generate more funding so that long term sustainability becomes a real possibility for us, for the first time ever. We are in awe and our gratitude is immeasurable. It is truly a miracle for us.
The World Interfaith Harmony Week Initiative and Prize work to provide a platform to organizers and organizations like you, how do you hope being recognized by WIHW and winning the prize will affect your future work?
We now have the means and the platform to really get our message out and promote the work of interfaith, mainly through education but also through community projects that demonstrate love for God, love for neighbour, love of Good, love of neighbour.
You mentioned that the prize will go a long way in helping the sustainability of CTII, are there any upcoming projects that you would like to share? And any ways in which interfaith colleagues locally and around the world can get involved?
CTII and our partners, FHLC, both have many ongoing projects. CTII’s main project is our schools programme, which brings together Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Hindu children in a two year experience that includes community service and learning about each others’ traditions.
We are open to collaboration and any shared learning experience with other organisations, and always welcome financial support.
CTII also has various educational programmes such as a dialogue series called Open Hearts Open Minds and a monthly sharing called Sacred Connections. Future projects – we have a subcommittee working hard to create a legacy Sacred Space for our city, and we have a vision of establishing an Interfaith Seminary where people can learn, grow, be introduced to each other’s traditions and become Interfaith/Interspiritual ministers.
Do you have any suggestions or advice for other interfaith organizations interested in hosting their own World Interfaith Harmony Week event?
Whatever you do, do it with your whole heart and with joy. There is a saying, I am not sure who said it: “When play becomes deep enough, it can heal the world.” I believe that when we share joy, we become friends and when we become friends, we can build together a community and a world of common purpose, for the good of everyone. I also want to remind people to remember Nature. We talk about the Natural Kingdom as if it is separate from us, but of course it isn’t. Love and respect for humanity must expand to include love and respect for Nature and all of life.
A special thank you to Berry and the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative team for their work and their continued commitment to the interfaith movement. Learn more about Cape Town Interfaith Initiative and their programs.
Want to learn more about the 2019 World Interfaith Harmony Week Prize Winners? Read the announcement here.