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Empowering Grassroots Interfaith in India

By Liam Chinn


Recent major media stories about religion in India have focused mostly on tensions between Hindus and both Christians and Muslims over issues of conversion and the consumption of beef. Flying under the media horizon are 180 United Religion Initiative (URI) Cooperation Circles in India, referred to as CCs, self-governing groups which support URI’s commitment to daily interfaith cooperation, ending religiously motivated violence, and promoting peace, justice, and healing. CCs in India have four coordinators working in the nation’s north, south, east and western regions. They are particularly active in youth projects, women in interfaith, cross-cultural dialogue, and environmental issues.

It is not TIO’s custom to republish annual conference reports. But how better to summarize the scope and depth of the positive interfaith impact being made in grasssroots India than with this report. It was written by Liam Chinn, on the staff of URI’s support center in San Francisco. Ed.

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This beautiful program … the engagement and participation of the attendees, proves the ability of this organization to make the world a better place. It is like new rays of sunshine breaking through.”                                – Hira P. Gangnegi of the Harijan Sewak Sangh CC

On November 26, 2014 we completed an exhilarating URI India National Assembly in India, held at Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar. The atmosphere was electric with the powerful emergence of URI’s India community in full display. It is an honor to share a few highlights with you.

Participants at the Dec. 2014 URI India National Assembly – Photo: URI

Participants at the Dec. 2014 URI India National Assembly – Photo: URI

Sessions were all highly participatory. With 75 Cooperation Circles represented, CC members were given the opportunity to lead, share, and learn through interactive hands-on exercises. One leader remarked that the assembly felt like being part of a “community learning and growing together.”

URI India national coordinator Biswadeb Chakraborty – Photo: URI

URI India national coordinator Biswadeb Chakraborty – Photo: URI

It was a true display of teamwork from the regional team: all four zonal coordinators exuberantly took turns leading sessions, each bringing unique gifts. Global Council trustees were active, co-facilitating sessions and providing spiritual and intellectual leadership on interfaith matters. The agenda was well-rounded, covering practical topics such as enhancing CC participation in the URI network, along with more complicated issues like developing strategies for environmental protection where interfaith cooperation is critical. There was much to say at each session. 

Biswadeb Chakraborty, URI India national coordinator and regional coordinator for the East Zone, masterfully served as the assembly facilitator, keeping spirits high and moving the sessions seamlessly forward. He also co-facilitated Energizing the Network sessions, fostering greater understanding among CCs about URI, the benefits of the network, and the importance of communication. 

North Zone regional coordinator Hira Paul Gangnegi and URI Global Council trustee Vrajapati Das opened the assembly, teaming up to lead CCs in creating a URI India timeline, which grounded the gathering.

Global trustee Dr. Kazi Nurul Islam presented the history of URI in Bangladesh, sharing an interesting story about his unprecedented engagement as a Muslim with the only Sikh Gurudwara in Bangladesh.

Vrajapati Das, URI Global trustee – Photo: URI

Vrajapati Das, URI Global trustee – Photo: URI

West Zone regional coordinator Qutub Kidwai and Vrajapati led a session to refamiliarize CCs with URI’s PPPs – “Preamble, Purpose, and Principles.” And they gave CCs an opportunity to provide concrete examples of putting certain principles into practice in their daily work. It was inspiring to watch Vrajapati – as a trustee – facilitating by zig-zagging and leaping through the audience to deliver the microphone to participants wanting to share! 

Along with Qutub, youth leaders from India and Sri Lanka, including Isaac Thomas of Thirikkannamangal CC and youth ambassador Suchith Abeyewickreme, shared their ideas and aspirations for promoting greater youth engagement. The youth presenters were very dynamic. By the end of the session assembly participants clearly felt that it is critical to immediately create opportunities for meaningful involvement of youth in CCs. 

South Zone regional coordinator Abraham Karickam stimulated CC creativity in a session that challenged us to create a project concept that addresses an environmental issue through grassroots interfaith action. Participants voted on their favorite concepts, and prizes were awarded accompanied by a raucous round of applause.

An outdoor session at the conference – Photo: URI

An outdoor session at the conference – Photo: URI

Storytelling is the core communication method for sharing lessons and inspiring grassroots interfaith work. Abraham magnificently demonstrated both the art and effectiveness of storytelling as a communication medium that fuels the URI network. He started the lively training session with two stories containing powerful interfaith/intercultural lessons. 

After CC leaders shared and collected stories in small groups, everyone united on a beautiful large lawn outside the venue, forming the largest storytelling circle I’ve witnessed during my time with URI. Under the soft hue of the fall sun, CC leaders took turns telling stories that captured the imagination and hearts of the circle participants. One person told of successfully intervening and brokering peace in a community on the brink of violence over a proposed interfaith marriage. Another shared tales of Hindus providing protection for Sikhs in their communities during the horrific anti-Sikh violence that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

As the assembly came to a close, the goodbyes and expressions of gratitude in all directions were surprisingly emotional. The overarching feeling expressed among CCs was that stronger bonds had been forged which will bear fruit through partnerships in the coming days and months ahead, and that a giant step forward had been made in finding clearer focus and resolve in their capacities as members of URI. It was truly inspiring to see the URI India team beautifully foster this evolution into the next chapter of URI.