A Digital Door Opens for Interfaith Activists
Peacemaking with "the Other"
by Paul Chaffee
What does living life as an ‘interfaith activist’ mean? Millions have joined the cause in recent months, so we can well ask ourselves: What do interfaith activists share in common within our own communities and in the world? A quick, simplistic answer might be that all of us are striving towards peacemaking with ‘the other.’ Perhaps our ranks are multiplying in correlation to the polarization that seems to have gripped small and mighty communities the world over, dramatically promoting the fear and loathing of ‘the other.’
If peacemaking with ‘the other’ binds interfaith activists together, the next question is: Who is ‘the other’ in my life, or, perhaps, who are they? It turns out that we define ‘the other’ in dozens of ways, in dozens of contexts.
Last month United Religions Initiative (URI) North America sponsored a webinar on interfaith activism, titled “Building Peace in Difficult Times: Learning from Global Activists.” By dint of URI’s more than 800 affiliates in 101 countries, a spectacular panel of interfaith activists from utterly different cultures was invited. The four panelists all have graduate degrees variously in philosophy, world religions, and interfaith relations. They enjoy leadership roles in their respective countries and are networked regionally and globally. They all are on-the-ground, get-it-done collaborative activists in the trenches, doing tough, often dangerous interfaith peacemaking work. They seem to come from one family. Each is driven to work for a more just, peaceful world. All are preoccupied with healthier interfaith relationships with ‘the other,’ a familiar theme. Opposing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia is an important issue they share.
That said, almost everything else about them is different – where they come from, the cultures where they thrive, what they do, their goals and strategies, and how they define ‘the other.’
● Shinji Marina Tirado lives in Caracas, Venezuela. The country is in a state of chaos, with tens of thousands protesting in the streets, violence and mass arrests, a decaying currency, a lack of food and medicine, all this set in the midst of a totally polarized population. ‘The other’ is the political other. So what is an interfaith activist to do?
Shinji Tirado is a Zen Buddhist nun and director of the Bodaishin Zen Center. She is a graphic artist, an independent producer, and has a weekly radio program called Today Exactly Now. She is also president of the Circulo De Cooperación para el Diálogo (Circle of Cooperation for Dialogue), whose purpose “is to develop intercultural dialogue to promote peace, mutual comprehension, forgiveness and reconciliation.”
The Zen Center she directs has a tacit agreement to not talk politics, and it is an island of safety and peace. She helps organize interfaith prayer meetings and meditation sessions. But, she says, interfaith proponents want to do more, to make a difference. Forty different religions have banded together and are planning a national day of peace and spiritual transformation. Interfaith dialogue programs are thriving and human rights championed.
Marina is also working on her own communication skills. In her daily life, she says, “I work at putting myself in the place of ‘the other.’” Listening carefully and with respect has become more important in this time of crisis. “There is an emerging sense that we need to help each other.”
● Dr. Emmanuel Ande Ivorgba lives in Abuja, Nigeria, a country, he noted, of 170 million souls and 300 ethnicities, making it a “state of states.” The ten percent following traditional African religions are living peacefully. Not so much for the 50 percent of Nigeria which is Christian, mostly living in the south; or the 40 percent which is Muslim, mostly in the north. “We are working to change the culture,” says Emmanuel, in a country where many, many Muslims have never met a Christian and many, many Christians have never met a Muslim. With widespread poverty and few jobs, and with the body-blow that Boko Haram terrorists have visited on the country, violence is always a threat in people’s daily lives. With the threat of religious war in the air, education has become a powerful tool for peace.
Emmanuel is a visionary, scholar, researcher, social innovator, peacebuilder, and author of several books. He received a 2014 Unsung Heroes of Compassion Award for his service to humanity and his peacebuilding efforts. He serves as the West African regional coordinator for the United Religions Initiative. For five years he has sponsored annual conferences on Youth and Interfaith Dialogue, which are now pan-African events drawing 350 young people together each year. More than anything else, though, Emmanuel is a teacher who has created several schools, including the Creative Minds International Academy, a coeducational school empowering students with tools and opportunities for critical thinking.
Wherever he goes, Dr. Ivorgba takes on tough issues. He spoke of the campaign to rid Nigerian education of its dependence on corporal punishment, in particular, flogging. Inspired by a similar program in India, his schools took on the campaign, to the huge dismay of parents, most of whom practiced flogging. Slowly, after long conversations, parents have been convinced that “flogging children is no longer fashionable.”
The same kind of resistance comes in his campaign, as an interfaith activist, to bring together faith traditions in friendship, shared values, and collaborative peacemaking. Sitting down with religious leaders throughout the country is turning the tide, and the annual youth conference is raising a new activist generation of interfaith religious leaders.
● Sergio Arévalo and Veronica Sartore joined the webinar as teammates working in Barcelona, Spain. They are at one with the Venezuelan and Nigerian opposition to religious prejudice, in particular anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. But primarily ‘the other’ they confront is secularism. A boredom with and frequent antagonism towards religion, particularly among young people and the growing sector called ‘none,’ as in no religious affiliation, or ‘spiritual but not religious.’ So what does an interfaith activist do? In a phrase – promote hospitality and cultural sharing.
Sergio and Veronica are involved with the UNESCO Association for Interreligious Dialogue of Catalonia and its Night of Religions program. Steering away from theological dogma and institutionalism, they were inspired by a program in Berlin that promoted aspects of religion that were interesting to a secular public. Barcelona’s Night of Religions became a time for congregations to throw open their doors and welcome all visitors. It has become the largest religious event in the city.
Congregations sponsor ‘cultural’ activities and invite in the public – concerts, lectures, meditation sessions, and rituals. Each year a theme is proposed and explored in all sorts of settings. Last year it was the role of women in religion. This year the theme will be welcoming ‘the other.’ In addition to the Night of Religions, Sergio and Veronica also work with Bridge Builders of Barcelona, an ongoing forum for interreligious interactions among youth.
In the long term the goal is to educate a new generation of Europeans in the compelling aspects of religion and interfaith relationships. Veronica says the idea that inspires and keeps them in the cause is that “We belong to each other.”
Global Digital Dialogue
The free 90-minute webinar featuring this panel, which you can watch below, was astonishingly good. Zoom technology (easy, inexpensive, and high quality) meant the four presenters, a moderator, and a Spanish-English translator were on your computer screen in real time. From Spain to Nigeria to Venezuela to Argentina, back to the the U.S. and to my screen – clear images and voices. (The electricity in Nigeria went out, but a backup source let us see and hear Emmanuel most of the time.) Interfaith communicators around the world have longed for this kind of technology for decades. It is here, and Zoom is probably the best platform at the moment. The webinar was beautifully moderated by Sari Heidenreich, regional coordinator for URI North America. The four panelists are all members of URI affiliated organizations, a dramatic example of why a network like URI can be so valuable to everyone in the interfaith movement.
Webinars are becoming a major fixture in global interfaith dialogue. Among others, you can find them on the websites of the Interfaith Center of New York, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Religions for Peace-USA, and United Religions Initiative. They open the door to extended face-to-face interfaith dialogue with sisters and brothers from around the world without contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to the travel and hotel industries.
Equally important, a webinar is presented in real time – but you can download and watch it any time you want, giving the event ‘legs’ and continuing value as we go forward. The web gave us an unimaginable library. Now webinars open the door to a new kind of global community, using digital communication for collaborative strategies and mutual support in causes such as religious prejudice and climate warming.
Two things stayed with me after seeing “Building Peace in Difficult Times.” First, about diversity – interfaith activists don’t look alike or dress alike or live the same kind of way. It is not a style, a class, or a particular issue. Rather, interfaith activism comes in all sorts of flavors, personal, political, spiritual, religious, academic, and secular flavors. And we define ‘the other’ in all sorts of ways.
But just as impressive is how all of us are active peacemakers with ‘the other,’ however that is defined. In Marina’s words, “There is an emerging sense that we need to help each other.” And in Veronica’s words, “We belong to each other.” The notion that humankind is a single family continues to be a revolutionary, largely unexamined assumption that must be understood and embraced for the survival of us all. Webinars like “Building Peace in Difficult Times” are a fabulous tool when we join Emmanuel Ivorgba in saying, “We are working to change the culture.”