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What Makes URI Unique?

Getting from the Idea to the Act

What Makes URI Unique?

by Paul Chaffee

In The Coming United Religions (1998), William Swing wrote “I began a long and inward journey in February 1993. During a 24-hour period in my life, I moved from being a person totally uninterested in interfaith matters to a person totally committed to being a catalyst for the creation of a United Religions.”

Photo:   URI

Photo: URI

In 2000 the United Religions Initiative Charter was signed, a document thousands of participants had helped define and ratify. The Purpose statement at the heart of the Charter reads: “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.”

Interfaith groups everywhere are qualified to join URI as Cooperation Circles (CCs) if they have at least seven members, represent at least three religions, and embrace the URI Charter, captured succinctly in its Purpose statement. CCs don’t pay dues to URI. They raise their own funds, choose their own themes, concerns, and projects, in line with the Charter’s values and vision. They are networked with each other and enjoy leadership resources and support from a global staff. As of last week, URI has 1,010 Cooperation Circles in 108 countries, with more joining every month. A multi-million-dollar endowment campaign to sustain and continue developing the network is moving towards completion, and enthusiasm among URI followers is palpable. Next month URI is sponsoring an international peacebuilding conference at Stanford University.

How Does this Work?

Where does the excitement bubble up from and how is it sustained? Developing large religiously based nonprofits is an expensive, high-risk enterprise, exponentially higher for interreligious organizations, and more so when you go international. Being able to raise significant funds and secure great leaders is critical but not enough to explain URI’s kind of growth. How have they done it?

The organization enjoys some natural advantages. Headquartered in San Francisco, having a visionary who is also a gifted fundraiser, depending on an ‘invisible body’ of San Francisco supporters, enjoying a committed team of local religious leaders from numerous traditions – all this was useful in forming a dynamic global organization.

A continuous commitment to keep up with digital communications helped the cause. “At the start URI was relationship-dependent,” says Isabelle Ortega-Lockwood, URI’s current director of Global Communications and Strategic Planning. “Communication was grassroots, word-of-mouth. It was all about a bold, exciting, seemingly impossible vision.” Ramping up communications was not easy. URI’s decision-making board comes from around the world, and its early attempts at telephone conference calls can be painful to remember. Some early newsletters were printed, mailed, and discontinued; too little bang for the buck. Slowly, step-by-step the electronic efforts bore fruit. URI websites and digital programming became more attractive and effective. Local CCs began using communication tools never before available. The long, widely dispersed planning that preceded the Charter-signing seeded countries around the world with committed leaders, many of them gifted communicators.

“By 2000, when the URI Charter was signed, there was talk about how we were going to virtualize or digitize this community into a networked system,” continues Ortega-Lockwood. “Branding URI took place in 2010, an opportunity to set a standard for digital interfaith dialogue and action.”

Photo:    Pixabay

Photo: Pixabay

URI.org now is a large, integrated digital arena supplemented with regional websites in Europe, Latin America, North America, and the Multiregion, which accommodates more than 70 CCs serving international constituencies. URI.org’s built-in database can instantly tell you, for instance, that 254 CCs in the network have identified the environment and climate change as a primary focus of their work. This environmental community within the URI community has its own network and communication tools. Peacemaking, leadership training, medical services, empowering women, and many other categories are similarly connected. The primary website is able to translate digital text into 103 languages. And, of course, URI Facebook pages abound.

Still, robust systems still can’t account for the fact that in a typical month 15 or 20 interfaith groups from around the world ask to join the network. Welcomes are made, relationships begun, and the stories multiply. Remarkably, the ‘secret sauce’ comes from social technology, rather than digital technology, and represents a huge shift in how we treat relationships within our own communities, traditionally so hierarchical and full of rules. 

As Sally Mahé details in her story here this month, Appreciative Inquiry (AI), an organizational methodology, gave wings to URI’s creation shortly after the day that transformed Bishop William Swing’s life back in 1993. David Cooperrider, who originally conceived of AI, and Diana Whitney, co-author of the best book about AI, The Power of Appreciative Inquiry (2nd edition, 2010), took on the task of designing and engendering the kind of global interfaith entity its founder envisioned.

Appreciative Inquiry sets problem-solving on the shelf and essentially focuses on what a group most desires. It approaches a community’s highest aspirations with the same rigor and discipline that problem solvers bring to their solutions, and it naturally develops participant enthusiasm in the process. Instead of fixing what’s wrong, it seeks to create what is right, right in the eyes of the participants.

Working Appreciatively

In short, empowered by digital technology and directed through social technology, URI has grown the largest interfaith network on the planet. Several factors helped this happen appreciatively, starting with how the organization describes itself: “URI’s is a global grassroots interfaith network that cultivates peace and justice by engaging people to bridge religious and cultural differences and work together for the good of their communities and the world.” In a deeply conflicted world, these few words become a beacon of hope and an opportunity for engagement for those seeking ways to serve.

From the start everyone is respected and has a voice in this network, a frequent organizational promise that is rarely met in most institutions. At URI the notion extends throughout the establishment, including the expectation that everyone in the network is welcome to take on particular activities they volunteer for, rather than being assigned. Participants explore where their enthusiasm is centered and are encouraged to get engaged at that level.

Photo:   Jasmin Brutus

The self-interest of each affiliated Cooperation Circle and its particular goals are also recognized and respected by the network, with freedoms rarely granted to affiliates in most hierarchical organizations.

The network has no membership fees. Your group is expected to pay its own bills. Leadership training and networking provided by the ‘hub’ improves local philanthropic possibilities for everyone.

The Charter encourages hospitality, gender equity, institutional learning, and evolving as an organization.

A year ago, URI’s Multiregion held a two-hour Zoom session. (Zoom is a computer program which brings you face to face in conversation with others.) Eighty-eight participants from 60 Cooperation Circles in 19 countries participated in a two-hour video summit. Each Circle took up to two minutes to introduce themselves to the rest. Not too much detail in such brief introductions, but you make new acquaintances, experience sharing a global vision, and find yourself connected to people who care about what you care about.

On another occasion the TIO editorial staff spent 90 minutes on Zoom talking with three young women, writers and leaders from a group of interfaith activists in northwestern India and Afghanistan. They are members of Ayepo (Afghanistan Youth Empowerment and Peace-building Organization, a URI Cooperation Circle). It was a once-upon-a-time unimaginable connection, a clear, free, open conversation focused on writing about interfaith in Afghanistan and the US. Last May TIO published “Religion’s Response to Refugees” by Anashwara Ashok, a graduate student and member of Ayepo. It is a searing indictment of religions doing too little.

A Revolutionary Charter

Those who wish to dive deeper into this remarkable global interfaith network should peruse the 21 principals at the heart of the URI Charter. It is counter-cultural in ways that people take to heart, offering programmatic and financial freedoms unheard of in most nonprofit membership structures, while inviting your CC’s input on all URI decisions, particularly decisions that affect you and your community. Plus, it doesn’t cost you anything except your interfaith commitment and willingness to be active in the cause.

TIO became a URI CC before we published our first issue in 2011. And, full disclosure, I served as secretary on the initial URI board of directors for six years, leaving it only when other interfaith responsibilities called. To this day the whole experience has been personally fulfilling. Even more memorable is the joy you derive from interacting with hundreds of people and more who are as passionate about an inclusive, peaceful, interfaith culture as you are and who bring enormous gifts to the task. That has a lot to do with why new people keep coming.

Header Photo: Pxhere