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URI – Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

From the Executive Director

URI – Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

by Victor Kazanjian

Imagine watching the news or viewing your Facebook feed each day and seeing a constant flow of positive stories of people from different religions, spiritual practices, and indigenous traditions working together for the good of their communities and the world. Try hard! Being flooded every day with stories of human atrocity and environmental destruction, you may find this positive scenario hard to imagine. Yet it is exactly what my daily experience has become since taking the role of executive director of URI – the United Religions Initiative – in 2013.

Photo: William Swing and Charles Gibbs – Photo:    URI

Photo: William Swing and Charles Gibbs – Photo: URI

I joined URI at a time of transition. URI’s first chapter was its founding chapter. Considerable time was necessary to incubate this new organization or, more accurately, this new organism. URI has a unique structure – a decentralized, global network of independent grassroots interfaith peacebuilding groups with a loose and light-framed organizational structure. This incubation period lasted almost two decades under the careful and excellent leadership of its founder, William Swing, its founding executive director, Charles Gibbs, URI’s Global Council (its board of directors), and staff.

In the nearly 20 years since its Charter-signing, URI has become the largest grassroots interfaith peacebuilding organization in the world. It has developed a new approach to building diverse and cohesive communities among people of all religions and cultures engaging the causes of conflict and injustice. The impact has been profound. URI’s global network today includes more than 1,000 grassroots groups, called Cooperation Circles or CCs. The network plays a critical role in reducing violence and building cultures of peace, justice, and healing in more than 100 countries where URI is active.

Responding to the Shadow

There is so much shadow in the world today, so much that is intended to divide human beings from one another. Humanity seems to be in a death spiral toward division and destruction. Prejudice and religiously motivated violence are increasing. Renewed fears of nuclear war threaten our daily existence. Earth’s ecosystems are being destroyed, and with that the future of our children’s children. It is not a pretty picture. And so we ask ourselves, what can we possibly do in the face of all this?

At URI, we do what we have always done, that is, what needs to be done. We weep for those suffering. We grieve with those who mourn the loss of loved ones. We ask forgiveness for our treatment of one another and Mother Earth. And then the URI Community goes to work. Every day, women and men, young and old, of every belief and of all cultures, go to work, as the Charter says, to promote enduring daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence, and to create cultures of peace, justice, and healing for the Earth and all living beings.

Photo: Victor Kazanjian

Photo: Victor Kazanjian

When I think about URI, one simple phrase comes to mind.  “We Unite.” Throughout the URI Charter, the phrase “We Unite” is a resounding refrain. We unite to build cultures of peace and justice… to heal and protect the Earth... to build safe places for conflict resolution, healing and reconciliation… to celebrate the joy of blessings and the light of wisdom in both movement and stillness… to use our combined resources only for nonviolent, compassionate action… to awaken to our deepest truths, and to manifest love and justice among all life in our Earth community.”

Through URI, people who would not otherwise interact, or historically have been in conflict, unite on solutions to break down harmful religious and cultural barriers.URI CCs engage people of different faiths and cultures to work together on issues that improve their communities, fostering conditions that reduce the potential for religiously motivated violence and increasing the wellbeing of all people. URI’s work combines interreligious bridge-building with community-based humanitarian actions that address critical issues like conflict resolution, healthcare, education, human rights, environmental sustainability, indigenous rights, poverty alleviation, women’s empowerment, and youth leadership. This dual strategy of grassroots relationship and action is at the heart of URI’s success.

Collaborating Globally

As a global network, URI connects CCs to one another across the world, creating unprecedented opportunities to share strategies and collaborate in interfaith peacebuilding efforts. Cooperation Circles are self-organized and self-funded, and are supported by URI’s 21 regional offices through:

  • training – essential skills in areas of interfaith dialogue, intercultural understanding, communication strategies, and organizational management,

  • local assemblies and collaborations – where CCs are given opportunities to share best practices and support one another, and

  • increased visibility of the CCs work – through listservs, websites, blogs, social media channels, and publications.

URI’s global office in San Francisco coordinates the global network and provides funding for the regional offices and their programs. URI’s work at the United Nations connects the voices of the grassroots with institutional leaders and policymakers. 

URI is governed by a democratically elected board, the Global Council, chosen by the CCs. URI’s Advisory Board – the President’s Council – gathers interested professionals and philanthropists who support the work of URI through fundraising and serving as ambassadors for URI. The URI Foundation oversees URI’s investments on behalf of the organization.

Defying the conventional wisdom that issues of injustice, conflict, and violence are best engaged by organizations with a heavy central infrastructure and an exponentially growing budget, URI’s decentralized, network-based, light-framed organizational approach is giving people around the world the power to transform their struggles and build cohesive, connected, peaceful communities.

As extremism grows around the world, military actions have continued to fail to deliver sustainable solutions to these conflicts. During his 2015 testimony before the US Senate Armed Services Committee on Global Threats and National Security, former Secretary of State George Shultz presented URI as the kind of positive, non-military approach bringing people of different beliefs together to work on peace that America needs to support.

URI’s work can be seen in four major areas.

1. Where active violence is occurring, URI Cooperation Circles intervene by bringing together combatants in dialogue, using conflict resolution and peacebuilding strategies to build relationships and create the conditions for developing lasting peace.

Photo: Victor Kazanjian

Photo: Victor Kazanjian

In Pakistan and Yemen, URI helps train young people of all religions in peacebuilding, forging powerful partnerships and shaping a positive future for the same youth targeted by the Taliban and other extremist groups.

In Nigeria, CCs work amidst extreme violence to create connections among Muslims and Christians, providing a peaceful alternative to terrorism. Pastors, imams, and traditional healers have become friends and partners through URI. One CC in Caracas, Venezuela brings a peaceful meditation center to the heart of the conflicted nation.

In the Middle East, amidst constant outbreaks of violence, Christians, Druze, Jews, and Muslims gather to model the possibility of peaceful coexistence. The Trust WIN, one URI CC, builds trust and understanding among Israeli and Palestinian women – Muslim, Christian, and Jewish – through meeting in each other’s homes, visiting each other’s communities, performing service projects together, and visiting each other's holy places.

2. Where the legacy of violence and war have left deep scars on communities, URI Cooperation Circles are creating coalitions of people from different groups who are working together to restore relationships and rebuild communities and countries.

In Sri Lanka, URI CCs work in 1,500 villages in partnership with Sarvadya, a nonprofit which provides comprehensive development and conflict resolution programs to villages, organizing interfaith coalitions to help rebuild the country after years of war.

In Bosnia/Herzegovina and Serbia, deeply rooted ethnic prejudices are being transformed by the young peacebuilders of Youth For Peace, Bosnia, a CC whose work builds bridges of understanding and cooperation.

3. Where conflict has not yet erupted into violence, but issues of poverty, injustice, human rights violations, and deteriorating social conditions are tearing apart societies, URI CCs work to address issues of economic development, education, health, women’s empowerment, and youth leadership.

Photo:    URI

Photo: URI

In countries like India, Cambodia, Argentina, and Colombia, URI interfaith groups are working to make the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals a reality – fulfilling the universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

4. Where ignorance and prejudice erode civility and fragment communities, URI CCs build bridges of interreligious and intercultural understanding, enabling diverse communities to establish cohesive relationships.

In Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, interfaith understanding that dispels stereotypes through education and community-based action programs is at the heart of URI’s work.

In Europe, URI CCs continue to affirm diversity as an essential value, a task made more urgent by the current refugee crisis.

Where We’re Headed

URI is growing rapidly. CCs in an expanding number of countries are touching the lives of millions of people. To meet the challenge of rapid growth, URI has embarked on a strategic planning process that engages people at the grassroots in evaluating URI’s on-the-ground impact and setting the direction of the organization. Rather than relying on outside experts to tell communities what they need, URI believes that with regular support and the right resources, communities can solve their own problems and build a positive future for all people.

URI’s Strategic Plan focuses on areas of growth and impact, capacity building and leadership, global connection and visibility, and organizational sustainability. Implementing the Strategic Plan has begun and provides focus for our work over the next three to five years. One aspect of implementing the Plan is the creation of the Office of Global Partnerships. URI is shifting our focus from a primarily inward-facing-approach to a balanced inward-and-outward-facing approach. The Office of Global Partnerships will represent URI in different contexts globally and establish partnerships for URI with different NGOs, interfaith organizations, peace and civil society organizations, policy makers, governmental and intergovernmental organizations, the private sector, foundations, UN agencies, and any other relevant organizations at national, regional, and international level that share URI’s values. 

Photo: URI

Photo: URI

URI has also launched the URI People Uniting Campaign for long-term sustainability and growth. It includes an international fundraising effort to establish a core endowment and raise funds for strategic initiatives to sustain and grow the work of URI’s global network. The People Uniting Campaign, seeks to raise at least $50 million to establish an endowment to support the core operations of URI globally in perpetuity. Bishop Swing, URI’s founding president, refers to this Campaign as his succession plan. And he’s right, the People Uniting Campaign will establish URI as a permanent force for good in the world. In addition to a core endowment, through this campaign we will also expand our annual fundraising regionally and internationally. We will bring in new members and grow our impact to meet the world’s challenges, to reach new regions, to expand our training programs, and to increase the visibility of URI across the United States and around the world.

If we were to write a litany of the places where URI is already present, it might sound like this.

Where war is raging… URI is there.

In places traumatized by terrorism… URI is there.

In countries recovering from war and violence… URI is there.

In refugee camps around the world...  URI is there.

In San Francisco, and the Bay Area…  URI is there. 

All across the United States... URI is there.

In the Middle East, Africa, and Asia… URI in there.

In Europe, North and South America… URI is there.

Through groups working across geographical regions... URI is there.

And at the United Nations… URI is there too.

Where lives have been destroyed by poverty… URI is there.

Where children have no access to education… URI is there.

Where human rights are threatened… URI is there.

Where hate crimes are committed… URI is there.

Where women’s lives are violated... URI is there.

Where the Earth is at risk... URI is there.

In all these places, URI is there as People Uniting,

People Uniting for interfaith cooperation and community action.

People Uniting for peace.

People Uniting for justice.

People Uniting for healing.

The URI E-Newsletter is called “You Are I.” This beautiful idea defines both our beliefs and our aspirations. When people of different religions, spiritual expressions, and indigenous traditions come together respecting and celebrating differences and uniting for peace, justice, and healing, something incredible happens. They come to see each other no longer as “other” but as part of a single human family living in a sacred relationship with one another, with the Earth, and with all living beings.