United Religions Initiative (URI) Offers an Alternative
Concern about climate is finally surfacing globally. Along with insurance companies, spiritual leaders, religious institutions, faith traditions from the indigenous to the established, universities, nonprofits of every kind, and millions of individuals have embraced the need to take better care of the Earth. Lunatic claims like ‘Jesus is coming back soon so don’t worry about the environment’ are on the wane. The accelerating degradation of our weather and its consequences keep raising people’s consciousness. If you still have doubts, read what is already happening in Malawi or, in this issue, how a return trip to Africa confirmed Eileen Flanagan’s call to be a climate activist.
So why does the collective interreligious (including humanist) weight of opinion about climate change and the environment end up so puny in the face of economic, political ‘realities’?
Answering that question is like baking a six-layered cake. After all the dismal analysis, though, perhaps the most important antidote for those who want to make a difference now is connectivity, a word akin to relationship, the root structure of interfaith culture.
Over and over again local communities create an exciting agenda, a team and timetable, and exhaust ourselves reaching the goal. All well and good, except for what it misses – which is sharing our goal with those across the city and around the world to strengthen and begin to coordinate the campaigns we share.
Typically, we don’t have the means, the information, or the time to get networked with our natural allies. So we stay parochial, without any power to influence the good beyond our local community’s programs. This self-absorption is compounded by the temptation nonprofits have to imitate corporate life, to be competitive rather than collaborative, to be uniquely branded, hierarchical, frequently conflicted, and ‘successful’ if our programs are well attended and come in under budget. Such an approach is inadequate today. We need new organizational structures and income streams which support connectivity and collaboration.
URI Environmental Activists Enjoy Special Advantages
The 5,000+ who drew up URI’s Charter in the late 1990s were mindful of these difficulties. They worked hard to design a new kind of organization for fulfilling their commitment to “to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings," and to “act from sound ecological practices to protect and preserve the Earth for both present and future generations.”
As a result, structurally URI is more of an organism than an organization, more a network of aligned interfaith activists than a corporation with a core business, divisions of labor, and command-and-control management. URI membership, which is free, comes with infinitely more autonomy, diversity, and flexibility.
As long as your group has seven members representing at least three religions, and embraces the Charter, your group is eligible for membership, a membership that does not preempt your membership or affiliation with any other organization. For instance, TIO is a member of URI, but also a member of the North American Interfaith Network and Religion News Service.
Each member (Cooperation Circle or “CC”) creates its own agenda and program, gets a vote regarding international trustees, and is networked with 586 (and growing ) CCs in regional groupings (Africa; Asia; Europe; Latin America and the Caribbean; Middle East and North Africa; North America; and Southeast Asia and the Pacific).
An additional group, the Multiregion, is for circles with a cause that is international and not tied to a particular place. Thirty-two circles currently belong to the Multiregion, each enjoying an international platform and ability to network with allies locally and globally.
In terms of environmental activism, URI’s combination of interfaith commitment, local autonomy, and global connectivity is generating remarkable, self-organizing results. All 586 URI circles, for starters, are committed to “healing the Earth and all living beings” and expressing that commitment in large and small ways.
Among the 32 multiregional circles, each of which has its own URI website, five are primarily focused on the environment:
A Circle of Healers CC: Gathers healers from all traditions and all practices who bring healing to the Earth and to all living beings.
Environment Satellite CC: Strives to encircle (like a satellite) and provide support to the entire URI “constellation” (of councils, committees, CCs) so that URI can more fully realize our shared commitments under the URI Charter to “create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings.”
Global Civil Society Apps: Re-Engaging the Biology and Politics of Starvation CC: Brings best science and social science to the biology and politics of starvation, cultivates public awareness of the “extreme poverty-malnutrition-starvation-famine-violence continuum,” and seeks to depoliticize the tragedy.
Spirituality and the Earth CC: Links the People of the Earth to foster and facilitate communication and cooperation among all those who feel a spiritual connection with the Earth.
Three other multiregional circles make “healing the Earth and all living beings” a high priority in their programming – The United Religions Initiative at the United Nations CC, the URI Global Youth CC, and this publication, The Interfaith Observer (TIO) CC.
Among the remaining 554 URI regional circles, a number have a high-priority environmental commitment. Best known is the Interfaith Power and Light CC, with a membership of 550 congregations whose shared purpose is “to be faithful stewards of God's Creation by responding to global warming through the promotion of energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy.” What began in California has grown into a national movement, and “California” was dropped from the name.
Generating New Income Streams and Connectivity
The Environment Satellite CC, committed to supporting environmental projects throughout URI, secured funding last month for a third year of grant-giving. In 2012 a dozen grants from $500 to $2,000 were awarded. Three went to India to support sustainable livelihoods for tribal people in the Bankura District of West Bengal; an innovative eco-awareness education program, together with the planting of trees and medicinal plants in Kerala; and a program of awareness raising and environmental action by primary school youth in Jharkhand through plantings along a highly-polluted river. Nine similar grants went to circles in Uganda, Malawi, Morocco, Palestine, and the United States.
URI’s Charter was signed in 2000, so this global organization is barely a teenager. It will take many years to live up to the full promise of its new organizing principles. Multiregional leaders, for instance, currently are in extended discussions about improving how they operate. Developing networks in regions as vast as Africa or North America is a long-term task. Tensions between a decentralized structure and the reality of a core global staff and Global Council will probably never go away, but the struggles can provide significant learning along the way as URI leaders, local, regional, and global, grow into new relationships and develop new programs.
An emerging synergy suggests this network is doing something right. Circles with shared aims such as women's rights, conflict resolution, interfaith education, and environmental improvement discover each other and share best practices. Circles activate and connect around globally recognized U.N. days such as the International Day of Peace and see how their local event contributes to a bigger world-wide effort. Extraordinary stories of grassroots community action influencing policy-makers inspire other groups. Slowly we are starting to take advantage of an organization that has multiplied for us all the opportunities for interfaith capacity-building, networking, and influence in the culture at large.
The mission statement of the Environment Satellite CC, five years old, says, “Our purpose is to create wise environmental grassroots and global partnerships to aggregate, amplify, and catalyze moral imperatives among all traditions to live in sacred relationship with the natural environment and the community of life.” If connectivity is the missing link in empowering a serious global response to climate change, the modest seeds being planted by URI circles and like-minded, newly connected groups everywhere represent the possibilities of a much more hopeful future.