New Leadership at United Religions Initiative
On the freeway headed for a Saturday morning breakfast with Victor Kazanjian, I wondered to myself: “Why on earth would United Religions Initiative (URI), an international, interfaith network saying goodbye (after 17 years of superb leadership) to Charles Gibbs, a white Episcopal male priest, choose another white Episcopal male priest to be its new executive director!?”
I had some clues, having read his resume. Fortunately, I didn’t ask the question so baldly. And by the end of breakfast the question had been answered. It had to do with vitality, imagination, and experience, not his faith tradition, race, or gender. As well, Victor Kazanjian brings a prodigious track record supporting a lifelong passion for creating and supporting healthy, robust, peaceful interfaith culture in the world.
Victor’s grandfather, Harold Case, a progressive Methodist pluralist (before pluralism entered the interfaith lexicon), was Boston University’s president during Victor’s growing up years. President Case started an African Studies department at BU in 1953. That same year he approached Howard Thurman. He convinced Thurman, the country’s first intentional interfaith minister, to leave San Francisco’s historic interfaith, interracial Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples he’d helped found a decade earlier, to become Dean of Marsh Chapel at BU. Dr. Thurman, Victor remembers, turned out to be “like a wonderful member of our family” during his childhood and, in the long run, “the most important spiritual influence in my life.”
With a degree from Harvard, Victor enrolled in Cambridge’s Episcopal Divinity School and began working in church-based community organizing projects. As seminarian and then priest, he founded two after-school programs in parish settings, created an outreach program to local gangs, organized bilingual liturgical and service activities, and ended up directing program development for Boston’s Episcopal City Mission for three years.
In 1993, still in Boston, Kazanjian became dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at Wellesley College and created the multifaith program he still directs, with a staff of 17. In 2010 Wellesley added dean of Intercultural Education to his portfolio.
Since going to Wellesley, he has been an influential international voice addressing the spiritual lives of students, multicultural peacebuilding programs, and all manner of transformational education. He has been Guest Fellow at Harvard Divinity School, where he chairs the Harvard University Board of Ministry. He went to Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, India, as a Fulbright Scholar of Peace Studies and participated in the Malaviya Centre for Peace Research, where he still teaches in the summer. His bibliography is lengthy. And he led in raising $10 million for chapel renovation and a new Multifaith Center at Wellesley.
Along the way Kazanjian co-founded and serves as president of Education as Transformation Inc., an international organization based at Wellesley that works with colleges, universities, K-12 schools, and related institutions exploring the effect of religious diversity on education and strategies to address it; the role of spirituality in educational institutions; cultivating values and moral, ethical development; and fostering global citizenship.
Credentials? Victor Kazanjian has them. Frankly, he seems born for his new URI executive role. Each part of his far-reaching experience is tuned to interfaith and can contribute to his toolkit in the work ahead.
Credentials, of course, are not the full measure of a candidate, particularly if you are charged with leading a huge, fragile, complex, sometimes conflicted, glorious network over which you never have much control. Is this person suited for this task?
URI is one of a kind, an organizational experiment with nearly 600 independently organized, self-governing, and self-funding “cooperation circles” in 86 countries, a global network that enjoys delicious achievements matched with daunting challenges. (TIO affiliated as a URI circle as soon as this journal began publishing two years ago.) The draw for someone as gifted as Kazanjian, I think, is the challenge of URI’s high calling – its global commitment to promote daily, enduring interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence, and to create cultures of peace, justice, and healing for the Earth and all living beings.
He is also drawn to URI’s open processes and the possibility of more collaboration among URI circles and with other global interfaith enterprises. He is well-versed in the needs and transforming skillsets networks of decentralized leaders require to thrive, including the use of Appreciative Inquiry, a core discipline in URI’s formation. He has followed and supported URI since its inception.
Victor, 54, didn’t bring his credentials to breakfast. We were both in jeans and t-shirts. He listens with care and laughs easily and often. He’s full of stories, and he sees the task ahead as the opportunity of a lifetime.
My politically correct question disappeared. In the end, this is not about him but the work to which he is called. Is he up to it? It is hard to imagine anyone better prepared to grow and nurture the world’s largest grassroots interfaith community. To me, Victor Kazanjian feels like a blessing, and we do well in sending him our prayers and good will. He goes to work in San Francisco in mid-October, after crossing the country with his wife, Michelle Lepore, who has been hired as assistant dean of admissions for alumni volunteer relations at Stanford University.