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Voices of Hope

URI Testimonies

Voices of Hope

The United Religions Initiative enjoys a kind of latitude and scope that invites the whole world in, but does so while honoring each of us and where we come from. That approach makes it a very personal experience for those in the network. You can’t meet all the thousands of members of URI Cooperation Circles, but you can find those who have similar interests and goals and what they are up to.

TIO invited a handful of URI participants, newbies and founders from around the world, to briefly share what they find important about this global community. They come from Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu, Mayan, Pagan, and Protestant traditions.

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Not Your Conventional Organization

by Despina Namwembe

Despina Namwembe  –  Photo:    URI

Despina Namwembe Photo: URI

To be a part of United Religions Initiative (URI) is to realize that other people on earth are equally important in their diversity. URI is an organization but also goes further in building deep individual relationships that help people organically grow into loving others both far and near. URI encourages people to get to know one another by using appreciative inquiry and acknowledging our unity in diversity – considering others as human beings first and their unique identities second.

URI is not your conventional organization. Instead of working in the typical hierarchical fashion, it takes seriously the voices of its members. This notion is the basis on which URI operates. Guided by the Charter that was created by people from around the world, both young and old, women and men and all people from different social, political and economic backgrounds, URI is inclusive of people from all backgrounds and beliefs. It took years of participatory crafting to create the document so no one can say ‘our voices are absent from the Charter.’ Having been a part of URI from my youth helped me to enjoy its existence and later portray its Charter as a living document in the day-to-day lives of people in Africa working at the grassroots to build peace.

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Creating Hope in Your Community

by Fadi Hindi

I immigrated from Baghdad, Iraq to the United States fleeing a war-torn country that faced numerous challenges. I born during the first Gulf War, which was a time of major religious persecution. Iraq has suffered from years of structural uncertainty, conflict, and instability under a government incapable of enforcing the rule of law and providing a minimum of security.

Fadi as a child  –  Photo: FH

Fadi as a child Photo: FH

As a Roman Catholic, I was caught in the crossfire of two different battles: one for a Kurdish autonomous country and one for a religious cleansing of Iraq by Islamic terrorist groups. I still have nightmares of what I saw early in life. My family’s home was close enough to the blast area that every night we slept in our basement, praying to God that we would live to see another day. Every morning I would wake up to find homes destroyed and innocent bodies lying in the streets. I was six years old.

A philosopher centuries ago said your vocation comes where “your talents and the needs of the world cross.” That happened to me when I was introduced to United Religions Initiative. URI is global, decentralized grassroots interfaith network that cultivates peace and justice by engaging people to bridge religious and cultural differences and working together for the good of their communities and the world.

Why did I join the movement? My answer can be phrased in one word: hope.

URI brings hope to millions of people who have a special space in their hearts for social justice and mobilizes them to take action in their local communities.

URI brings hope to bridge the gap we currently face with religious and cultural differences.

URI brings hope to millions of refugees seeking to live another day.

URI brings hope so that no one has to relive my story ever again!

I challenge you to create hope in your own community, experiencing it with an open mind and an open heart so that you can soak up the rich diversity of thought, personal background, and perspective that it has to offer. My intention is to help people learn that they do not need to be afraid of not having the right answers, but rather discover that the questions they ask and the experiences they have will help further their understanding of who they are, what they believe, and who their life’s mission is calling them to be.

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A Far Better Place

by Don Frew

Don Frew  –  Photo: DF

Don Frew Photo: DF

In 2002, having just been elected to the first Global Council of the United Religions Initiative, I attended the URI’s first Global Summit in Rio de Janeiro. One evening there was a long procession of religious representatives in their regalia processing down the length of Copacabana beach. At the end of the beach, as the sun was setting, we arrived at a stage area, where religious music had started up at.

A woman came up to me and said “Hurry! They need you to bless the city!” I was pushed into line with several other religious representatives. When it was my turn on stage, the MC shoved a mic at me and, rather than asking for a blessing, asked me “Why do you do interfaith work?” I thought a moment, reflecting on the amazing week of interfaith work we had all just shared, and told the crowd and, as it turned out, CNN Latin America:

“Sometimes, people in my faith tradition ask me, ‘Why should we do interfaith?’ And I tell them, “We all want to see change in the world, whether it’s increased literacy, or improved child health, or reforestation, or increased rights for women, or whatever. We want to see peace, justice, and healing for the Earth. Well, the only true change comes through changing people’s minds. And nothing has the power over minds and souls that religion has. So a group like the URI, working to create understanding and cooperation among religions, has the potential to be the most powerful force for positive change on the planet. As a priest and a person of faith, concerned not only for my brothers and sisters, but for the World, how can I not be involved.” And they understood.

I believed that then and I believe it more strongly now. Understanding, compassion, and cooperation between religions is our last, best hope for peace on this planet. Globally URI is at the forefront of promoting these ideas through its ever-growing family of CCs, CC members, and people whose lives are affected and improved through the grassroots work those CCs are doing. The World is a far better place for having the URI in it!

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Making this World a Better Place

by Maria Crespo

Different circumstances brought me, a strong, active, Argentine Catholic lay woman, to URI and the world of interfaith. I say URI and the interfaith world, not ignoring other interfaith organizations but finding URI´s approach the most appropriate for the times we live in.

Maria Crespo – Photo: URI

Maria Crespo – Photo: URI

URI is a decentralized organization in a world that has become global. URI is giving voice to very diverse people in the era of communication. URI is getting people together in a world torn by segmentation and polarization. URI builds safe spaces for conflict resolution, healing, and reconciliation in a world that desperately needs them. URI is speaking of shared leadership in a world that has been hit by totalitarianism. URI is amplifying the wisdom of Indigenous people in an endangered environment. URI practices equitable participation of women and men in a space where women are frequently left aside. URI is offering youth a platform to be leaders today when we hear others speaking of youth as the leaders of tomorrow. URI calls us to awaken our deepest truths and manifest much-needed love and justice. URI involves us in compassionate, cooperative action to address the challenges of the world today. URI brings stories of hope to us when there is too much violence and pain around us.

Serving as director of Cooperation Circle Support in URI, I witness the impressive efforts of our members to make this world a better place. My admiration for each and every one of them is accompanied by my sincere commitment and prayer. May URI fulfill its purpose of ending religiously-motivated violence and creating cultures of peace, justice, and healing for the Earth and all living beings through the promotion of enduring daily interfaith cooperation! May Peace prevail on Earth!

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Enchanted by Interfaith

by Gard Jameson

Carl Jung declared that “enchantment is the oldest medicine in the world.” My journey with URI has been one of the most enchanted dimensions of my life, from its beginnings to this moment. My involvement with interfaith began in the mid-1970s in the Bay Area with Bettina Gray, one of the pioneers of the interfaith movement.

Gard Jameson – GJ

Gard Jameson – GJ

Moving forward several years, while I was at Wesley College I got a call from Peter Laurence, another pioneer in interfaith work, co-worker with Victor Kazanjian on the initiative to see “Education as (spiritual) Transformation” (look for their forthcoming book). Peter asked if I might be interested in participating in a bold new interfaith initiative happening at Stanford. Any excuse to return to my Alma Mater is enough to get me to agree! But 200 religious leaders from around the globe, demographically split in every way imaginable, coming together to develop a vision to transform the planet through interfaith dialogue and the respectful sharing of values – Wow! There was no way I could turn down the offer.

While at Stanford, I learned of chaordic organizations from Dee Hock, of holding contemplative space from my spiritual sister, Deborah Moldow, and about Appreciative Inquiry from David Cooperrider. I was paired to do AI with a marvelous soul, Min Duc, a Vietnamese abbot of a Buddhist monastery in San Jose, California. He shared how he became known as the monk who runs fast, while serving in Vietnam and attending to victims of the war, in particular to a young boy who had had his leg blown off by a land mine. “Each time I returned to the medic station, I ran faster,” he confessed. And so must we!

A few years later, our interfaith work in Nevada under the auspices of the National Conference for Community and Justice took a dramatic turn and was required to reinvent itself. Our group received permission to be the first Cooperation Circle in Nevada, becoming the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada. My journey from there, with a URI-NAIN Connect in 2005 in Las Vegas, and membership on the URI North American Leadership Council, has only continued to make evident to me that URI is destined to be a major force shifting the culture of our planet toward a more sustainable, peaceable future.

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Riffing on URI

by Kiran Bali

Kiran Bali – Photo: KB

Kiran Bali – Photo: KB

The URI is just oh, so cool.
We are living and breathing the Golden rule,

Joining hands with those from all walks of life,
Working together, keeping positive action rife,

Planting and nurturing seeds into roots,
Nourishing and energizing the beautiful fruit.

Our mission is a world full of love and peace,
Towards which we are playing an important piece,

As magnificent circles of cooperation,
Continuously promote social inclusion and integration.

Extending opportunity beyond color, caste, and creed
In promoting diversity, we endeavor to succeed.

By celebrating the divine colors of the rainbow,
Through which love and healing continues to flow,

Selfless service is indeed our passion,
Whilst extending to all beings our sincere compassion.

With our bedrock as the URI charter
We always strive to work smarter,

In tune with the URI purpose and preamble,
We play and perform as an ensemble.

Optimism in our each and every action, 
Creating a cycle of impactful reaction.

Transcending all boundaries of nations, 
Touching each other's hearts with care and patience,

Ensuring interfaith does not become exclusive,
Focusing deeply on being inclusive,

Extending our warm hands of friendship,
Creating exciting and creative partnerships,

Indigenous traditions, spiritual expressions and religions.
Learning from each other, to assist the process of bridging.

It is so cool is our URI network,
It defines and inspires our united work,

Through a motivating and empowering structure,
Helping each one of us create a safer and stronger future,

Through perseverance, collective action, and unity,
It is indeed URI which creates a strong sense of community.

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The Empty Middle – The United Circle

by Rev. Heng Sure

Rev. Heng Sure – Photo: RHS

Rev. Heng Sure – Photo: RHS

I recall attending the closing ceremonies of the first URI Global Summit at Stanford University in 1997. The entire plenary group stood in a very large circle, holding hands. There was initial awkwardness, as this was an impromptu closing to a stupendous week of growth and discovery. There was silence and we expected a closing blessing or speech-making.

I thought that perhaps, Rev. William Swing, the Episcopal Bishop of California and the founder of URI, would step forward and accept our applause and claim the role of leadership. In fact, to my delight, he didn’t. He stayed in the circle, holding hands on both sides. He said, “I challenge each of you to ask yourself what your responsibility is to this new baby we have just given birth to. The URI is not mine; if it doesn’t belong to all of us then it will not grow up healthy and strong.

“The power of the URI is the empty middle, marked by our united circle. What each of us puts into the circle, the space where we all meet as equals, will determine whether this week has been meaningful or not. If it’s business as usual, command and control, top-down, then the world doesn’t really need another male dominated, Protestant-led organization. But if we can put to use the power of the emptiness in the middle of this circle, if woman and youth and those religions who don’t usually get included, if the Buddhists and the Sikhs and the Indigenous and the Hindus and the Muslims can hold up their piece of the circle, then this week has given birth to something that can make a difference. What do you all say?”

My heart opened at those words and I knew I wanted to be a part of this vision. 

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A Place for Everyone to Shine

by Yoland Trevino

Yoland Trevino – YT

Yoland Trevino – YT

In 1997 I discovered URI after learning about it from David Cooperrider. I was at a training, and he told me about an interfaith gathering using Appreciative Inquiry. In June I attended my first URI event at Stanford University. The very next day, I called Sally Mahé, on the staff, and asked if young people were involved in the planning. She said “no.” I then said that I was not interested in attending because, while the idea was very important, if youth were not involved, the idea was not sustainable. I suggested that they invite young people to the planning, and she said they did not have the funds. I thanked her and said that I understood. The next day Sally called and said they approved funding for eight youth to attend. Today URI youth are actively involved and paving the path for the next generations.

When I first met Sally I was present as an indigenous person, not representing any religious denomination. She asked me to offer an opening prayer, and I offered a prayer of our Mother Earth as our Divine Mother. Rosalia Gutierrez and I organized an indigenous ceremony. After asking permission of Stanford authorities, I remember running around with a shovel and ceremonial items trying to find someplace do dig a hole in the middle of campus.

We were surprised and humbled that so many participants from different religions joined our morning ceremony. We ended the ceremony with music, and Rosalia led the dance. Years later, Rosalia and I would found the first indigenous Multiple Cooperation Circle in Latin America

A few years later, I was elected to represent the Multiregion on the Global Council. In 2005, during the Global Council gathering in Korea, I was elected to serve as Chair of the Global Council, a position I held for two terms, completing my service in 2012.

Now more than ever, we need URI to continue to foster and nurture cultures of peace and understanding.