A Sea of Change and a Silver Lining
by Paul Chaffee
From the halls of the White House to community discussion groups, for the past eight years the United States has been generally open and supportive of interfaith dialogue. Even before Barack Obama proved himself an interfaith activist, George W. Bush reached out to the country’s Muslim communities in a variety of friendly ways.
Following the bombing of the Twin Towers in New York, Bush said, “Here in the United States our Muslim citizens are making many contributions in business, science and law, medicine and education, and in other fields. Muslim members of our Armed Forces and of my administration are serving their fellow Americans with distinction, upholding our nation's ideals of liberty and justice in a world at peace … Islam is a vibrant faith. Millions of our fellow citizens are Muslim. We respect the faith. We honor its traditions. Our enemy does not. Our enemy doesn't follow the great traditions of Islam. They've hijacked a great religion.”
Going back even further, for more than a quarter century, the interfaith movement has been quietly, steadily growing multi-religious relationships and networks, locally, nationally, and globally. Most communities, for instance, have evolved from having a Church Council to having an Interfaith Council. Very little attention has been paid, but thousands of leaders of grassroots faith groups have crossed the street, met ‘the other,’ and started their own interfaith dialogue, rarely if ever covered by major media. Scarboro Missions has posted more than 40 free, curated interfaith curricula, a treasure trove that’s gone mostly unnoticed except in TIO. The Parliament of the World’s Religions drew 10,000 interfaith activists to Salt Lake City a year and a half ago, and United Religions Initiative, headquartered in San Francisco, currently supports 838 interfaith organizations in 99 countries, and growing each month – all this with very little press coverage and less television.
But oh what a sea change is going on today. Mostly triggered by terrible events, unfortunately.
The 9/11 tragedy injected adrenalin into the interfaith movement from coast to coast, with women in particular reaching across the religious divide to find friends and colleagues who share many of each other’s values. Terrorist activities around the world have added intensity to these bridgebuilding efforts.
But the recent election in the United States and the Trump administration have changed everything. Today there is high energy and a new vigor in America’s faith and interfaith communities determined to stand with the undocumented, to champion their local Muslim and Jewish communities (when they are oppressed), and to demand that the government join the rest of the human family in paying serious attention to climate change and making health care a basic right. As a headline in World Religion News put it last month, “Religions are uniting after a spike in hate incidents.”
This month’s TIO spends a lot of time with this unfolding change, this revival of collaboration. For good reason, nearly half the issue is devoted to “Interfaith Women Collaborating.” March 8 is International Women’s Day, and you’ll find a fascinating story here about the hundred-year plus history of the annual event. The women’s march on Washington, D.C. the day after Donald Trump took over the government is one of dozens of examples of how women are leading in championing the values intrinsic to the interfaith movement. Inside TIO this month you’ll read about major efforts women are generating, a silver lining to the distressing developments in our body politic.
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In the midst of this uproar, there is a quiet reason for rejoicing at TIO. Megan Weiss, TIO’s webmaster and digital wizard, has built a ‘library’ cataloging nearly 2,000 stories published and aggregated here in the past five and a half years. A massive task, and it is done! Kudos to Megan.
This library, which she describes in “TIO’s Library - Formatted, Catalogued, and Ready for ‘Check-out’,” means you can quickly dive into whatever interfaith arena interests you and find interesting content. Quick and easy. Read her story to take the tour.
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In this issue Marcus Braybrooke memorializes Father Albert Nambiaparambil, an interfaith pioneer who led in generating the interfaith movement to India and the rest of the world. This past month we also lost another interfaith leader, James B. Wiggins, one of the quiet giants who has brought interfaith values and culture into mainstream America for more than 50 years.
Professor Wiggins, with his Texas drawl and sharp sense of humor, was a lovely human being. He had a distinguished academic career at Syracuse University, serving on the faculty for 38 years and as chair of the Department of Religion for 20. Simultaneously, from 1983 until 1992, he was president of the American Academy of Religion, the largest scholarly and professional organization in the academic study of religion.
At his retirement from Syracuse, Jim was approached to be executive director by the Interreligious Council of Central New York, now known Interfaith Works. The invitation led to a new career doing grassroots interfaith work in the Syracuse area, including social service provisions and an anti-racism campaign. Nationally he served on various boards, including the North American Interfaith Network. Decades ago Jim was the first one to hire Huston Smith to teach religion, and Jim shared Huston’s interfaith passion for the rest of his life.
I’ll remember Jim Wiggins best as a good friend, as is his dear wife Betsy. She is a community interfaith activist whose remarkable work caught the attention of Harvard’s Pluralism Project and has been featured on national television. The Wiggins shared an interfaith vision and served together on the NAIN board.
Jim participated in the original editorial board of The Interfaith Observer (TIO), supported it financially through the years, and sent me notes about stories he particularly liked. A gentleman, a scholar, and best of all, a kindred soul who believed in a healthy interfaith culture and went out of his way over and over again to engender such a world.