Unleashing the Holy at The Guibord Center
“Religion Inside Out” – that was the tag line the Rev. Dr. Gwynne Guibord, an Episcopal priest, attached to The Guibord Center (TGC), a unique non-profit organization. Less than four years old, it is making its mark on the interfaith landscape in Southern California and beyond.
Growing Up Interfaith
Dr. Guibord came to the world of interfaith “honestly,” as they say. Her father, of French Canadian origin, was born in Michigan and reared Roman Catholic. Her mother is from the American South, raised a Southern Baptist. Gwynne and two younger sisters were raised in the Methodist Church. While in college, her father felt irresistibly drawn to Judaism and converted. “He was a very very very faithful Jew,” she reports, emphasizing the word three times. “He was on the Board of Directors at his synagogue. And I witnessed the negotiation between my parents. I found it very compelling because they each maintained their faith perspectives and practiced their separate faiths with integrity.”
The sudden death of her sister, Cindy, at 36, from an abrupt onset of an acute form of leukemia, was a watershed moment for Gwynne and the entire family. Cindy had also converted to Judaism before she died. “My mother had prayed to her Christian God for a miracle to save her daughter and, when it didn’t materialize, she was enraged and decided to become Jewish as well. What I said to her at the time was that Judaism had formed monotheism and, in fact, ‘the Jewish God is the same as the Christian God. However, if this gives you peace of mind at 3 a.m., it’s not for me to say you can’t become Jewish.’” Her mother, still alive in her 90s, remains a faithful Jew. “In some ways I became involved in interfaith work because of my family, but probably in self-defense,” Gwynne mentions, grinning.
After Cindy’s death, Dr. Guibord had a number of experiences drawing her into “a very strong calling into the Church.” She became the consultant for Interfaith Relations for the Episcopal Church in the U.S. At the same time, she served as the Officer of Ecumenical and Interreligious Concerns for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.
A particularly unnerving experience during that period was being invited to a special Muslim/Christian dialogue encounter in Syria. Tensions were running high in the group as they talked, she recalls. At one point one of the Imams was so annoyed he started to leave the session. In a breach of protocol that she herself now recalls with amazement at her own “chutzpah,” Dr. Guibord placed her hand firmly on the Imam’s arm and asked him not to leave, saying that his input was vitally important. A woman from his own culture would never have made such a brazen move, she admits. But she prevailed and the Imam stayed the course.
Her Episcopal responsibilities ended in 2011. Realizing she was not ready to retire, she founded The Guibord Center, which now includes a full-time administrative assistant, a cinema crew, and social media personnel. TGC exemplifies how one person, gifted with vision, savvy, and collaborative skills, can engender a garden of interfaith delights benefitting us all.
A New Kind of Interfaith Project
The Center began by sponsoring a popular “Religion 101” series which allowed attendees to listen, learn, and ask questions of religious leaders from the world’s major faiths, then morphed into field trips to LA’s houses of worship.
An ongoing Special Speaker Series has included Joshua Dubois, former head of the White House’s Faith-Based Neighborhood Initiative; Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, noted Jewish scholar of the New Testament; Sister Joan Chittister, the brilliant, provocative nun; Pastor Chip Murray, one of LA’s most distinguished black pastors; Brian McLaren, a prominent Christian pastor, author, and activist; and Steven Charleston, a Choctaw elder and Episcopal bishop.
Major community events, TGC’s flagship activity, are held at the historic and elegant St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in downtown LA. All are free of charge, always videotaped and accessible afterwards on their internationally recognized website.
Out of Darkness into Light was a concert last year featuring the Yuval Ron Interfaith Ensemble. Based on “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” the concept grew out of a dream that Pir Zia, leader of the Sufi Order International, shared with his followers. One might note, no matter how artistic or esoteric the subject, TGC programs always include a solid, practical social action dimension. In this case, gift cards were gathered and given to organizations caring for the hungry and homeless in Los Angeles.
Another standing-room-only event came in September 2011, the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. Finding Hope in the Holy was an inter-generational service which concluded Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for The Common Man,” filling the sanctuary with the triumphant sounds of trumpets and kettle drums.
More recently, Saving Grace: A Faithful Response To Violence Against Women and Girls spurred a relationship with the Carter Center, headed by President Jimmy Carter. TGC hosted an evening of religious leaders coming together to confront misogyny in scripture and then – using storytelling, dance, and ritual – helped facilitate a process of healing for all the women present, many of them victims of both institutional and familial violence.
As part of the evening program, Dr. Guibord screened a new public service announcement she had produced to combat violence against women. Rather than showing battered women, though, the PSA featured only men, described by Dr. Guibord as “healthy men in the interpretation of their faith scriptures.”
Fathers from diverse religious backgrounds are seen teaching their sons to respect and honor women, and to reject any misinterpretation of their texts which allows for violence against women and girls. That PSA was subsequently viewed by thousands of people in the U.S. and abroad. Dr. Guibord gave the video to the Carter Center. As a result of subsequent conversations with them, she was invited to be a participant next February at the Carter Center’s Human Rights Defenders Forum “to convene human rights and religious leaders with the goal of developing concerted strategies to advance the right of women and girls.”
She has been much honored over the last 30 years. Medals, trophies, and framed awards line her study, intermingled with Russian icons, crucifixes, menorahs, Buddhist, and Hindu sculptures. Her driving passion for interfaith is evident everywhere.
Getting to the Heart of Every Faith and Religion
“Our Religion Inside Out tag line indicates that we want to get to the core, to the heart of every faith and religion. And our mission is to bring people together to challenge assumptions, to unleash the holy, and affirm the faith that transforms the world.”
How does one unleash the holy?
“We unleash the holy by getting at the root of our faiths, by embracing that rootedness, and by understanding that in a very profound way we are truly interconnected to that rootedness. . . .We may use different words, we may chant different rhythms but, ultimately, our hearts are the same, and we see one another in the experience of the other. When we truly are interconnected, then it all comes together, in the most profound and miraculous way.”
Dr. Guibord’s face is alight and her voice full of hope as she continues, “If I can name you when I see your face, then I can understand our collective experience of the holy, and I can see parts of that holiness – that you have – within me. Then when there are good times and bad times, I am going to be there with you and for you.”