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Joy at the Grassroots

Report from a Year on the Interfaith Road

Photo: URIThe faces … it is the faces of people from communities around the world that I remember most from this past year, visiting global grassroots interfaith groups. A year ago, I began my work as executive director of United Religions Initiative (URI), a rare opportunity to contribute to an extraordinary movement dedicated to building peace among the peoples of the planet.

A year later, it is the faces of new URI sisters and brothers that I carry in my heart, along with feelings of connection, commitment, and community from sitting in circles of women and men, youth and elders, from a myriad of cultures, religious traditions, spiritual practices, and humanistic beliefs gathered for the purpose of peace. Defying the conventional wisdom that religious and cultural differences are barriers to community and causes of conflict, these people are weaving together communities of caring from the threads of their diversity. Cultural and religious differences are resources not barriers as they engage humanitarian and environmental issues that affect the people of the world.

URI executive director Victor Kazanjian (in the glasses) with H.H. Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, URI Global Council chair Kiran Bali, and URI UN representative Patrick Nickisch in Rishikesh, India. Here, they visit a cow care program with Project Hope, a disaster relief agency.How far can you travel in a year? URI’s 664 grassroots groups, called Cooperation Circles, in 85 countries, are divided into eight regions, seven geographic and one transnational. I visited each one.

In Africa I met leaders in Nairobi (Kenya) and Kampala (Uganda), in the Middle East and North Africa it was Amman (Jordan). In Asia, we met in Delhi, Mumbai, and Rishikesh, all in India. The South East Asia and Pacific trip included Manila (Philippines), Melbourne (Australia), and Auckland (New Zealand).

In Europe I went to Vienna (Austria), Bonn  (Germany), Antwerp (Belgium), and Amsterdam (Netherlands). The leg to Latin America and the Caribbean included Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Santiago (Chile). In North America, I visited Chicago and New York City. Back home to San Francisco, we hosted URI’s Multiregion leaders and, subsequently, 38 Indigenous leaders from six continents who came together for a Multiregion Global Indigenous Gathering.

Best of all, we were able to gather URI’s global trustees from each region, staff from 18 offices, and members of the President’s Council for eight days together. Here, face-to-face with such dedicated peacebuilders, I found myself completely swept up in the spirit of our work.

Being with representatives from nearly all of the 85 countries comprising URI’s global community has been a feast of human kindness and commitment! Throughout the year, I kept being inspired by the work being done in conflict transformation, economic empowerment, education, environmental sustainability, health, Indigenous rights, intercultural and interreligious dialogue and understanding, nuclear disarmament, violence mitigation, women’s empowerment, and youth leadership.

My most basic learning from a year of listening and learning: peace and justice begins at the grassroots. Cooperation Circles are the heart and soul of this organization, the foundation upon which a sustainable movement towards peace and justice can be built. Ultimately this effort requires work at all levels of society – local and national governments, public sector institutions such as education and social service, the private sector, and transnational organizations like the United Nations. But peace and justice is not possible without the grassroots. And while we strive to be active in all levels of peacebuilding, at its core, URI is a grassroots network.

Grassroots Interfaith

The word “grassroots” is used a lot these days – mostly as a catchall phrase to denote anything not having to do with government or private sectors. But real “grassroots” means empowering the voices of people in local communities to determine what it is that they need to create the life they desire. It also necessitates equipping people at the grassroots with the skills and resources that they need to engage local challenges and realize local dreams.

A gathering of Faiths 2gether Uganda – Photo: URIIn Kampala I spent time with Faiths 2gether Uganda and Twekolere Women’s Development Association, both Circles using music as a method for countering violence by bringing people together across lines of religious and cultural difference, working to empower their communities. I witnessed the remarkable work of the Bwaise Youth Employment Centre, created by courageous young people around themes of youth economic empowerment in one of Kampala’s poorest communities.

The Uganda visit also included a two-day gathering of Circles from nine African countries: Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Sudan, and Tanzania. These leaders participated in a training program called “Energizing the URI Network,” emphasizing the importance of story-telling and relationship-building for social change. As I listened to each Cooperation Circle share their story, I was filled with hope that even in situations of horrific violence and terrible injustice, the spirit of life and love can triumph. The same kind of powerful grassroots engagement was evident in every region I visited.

There were more regional assemblies in Amman, Mumbai, Nairobi, and Santiago – where I witnessed grassroots leaders working face-to-face, providing inspiring examples of the importance of relationship in peacebuilding, particularly interfaith peacebuilding. Our global work connects us virtually, through email and the internet. But the movement we are part of is built on the power of sitting together and looking into one another’s eyes, of taking hold of each other’s hands. It comes in committing ourselves to one another in love and friendship, and to working side-by-side for peace and justice. At each assembly I felt moved to share the words of Mahatma Gandhi, as he looked into the eyes of those around him and 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.”

After three decades of work as a community organizer, a teacher of peace studies, a grassroots activist, and now through witnessing URI, I am convinced that without the power of love, the most sophisticated strategies for peacebuilding are but hollow branches bracing against the winds of injustice and violence. Violence and injustice require the dehumanizing of the other. We know this in both interpersonal and geopolitical contexts. Therefore, an essential component of all peacebuilding and justice-seeking is the re-humanizing power of love.

URI and the larger interfaith community are based on love and a deep appreciation of the many beliefs and perspectives that comprise the human family. While the media often presents a world descending into the chaos of violence and despair, my first year on the job is a stunning reminder that at the grassroots – in communities across the globe – local interfaith circles of committed peacemakers are hard at work building bridges of understanding, confronting religiously motivated violence, and creating cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings. The impact of this work is tangible. My joyful report is that local interfaith groups are changing their communities and transforming the world.