Interfaith News Roundup
February 15, 2019
Caught My Eye!
An estimated 150 million people are participating Kumbh Mela, a Hindu religious festival which happens every 12 years. (This year comes on a 6-year anniversary, for a half-Kumbh, but the numbers indicate it will be the largest ever.) The festival includes bathing in the Ganges River where it meets the Yamuna River as an exercise in spiritual renewal. Housed in a huge tent city, Kumbh Mela is promoted at the largest gathering of people on the planet. It lasts through February until March 4. Planning included securing 30,000 police and security forces, 4,200 large tents, 122,000 portable toilets, 20,000 trash cans, and a $600 million budget.
Compare this spiritual fervor with what is happening in Greece, birthplace of Western civilization. Historically, the Greek Constitution embraces the Orthodox Church, making it the country’s official religion. But a vote is scheduled this month by the Greek Parliament which would bring an end to this church-state relationship, making Greece a secular state, neutral towards religion. Salaries for current priests would continue; support for new ones must come from the Church. The priests are very unhappy, as are many Greeks, which is the second most religious state in Europe, after Romania, but the change to secularism is predicted to prevail.
More than 1,000 churches in the US now have volunteer-run security teams, mostly armed, who guard their congregations. They lament the need to do so but turn to the many examples of violence that has taken lives of those in worship to explain why they do so. “People have come to recognize they can’t just rely on calling 911 during an attack as a security plan,” says Carl Chinn, founder of Faith Based Security Systems. On the other hand, many congregations and their leaders think that bringing guns to church is an altogether bad idea, with the Methodists and Mormons forbidding it.
The anti-secrecy organization Wikileaks, much embroiled in American politics, last month released confidential files from the Vatican, which has an international reputation for being able to keep secrets. The stolen documents gloss the struggle two years ago between Pope Francis and the Knights of Malta, a Catholic lay religious order concerning contraceptives being distributed in certain countries by the Order in its charitable work. What alarmed church officials was realizing that if these papers could be accessed and released, what about the documents from other, more controversial matters, such as abusive clergy, challenging Roman Catholicism today?
Religion News Service reports that evangelical Christian support for Donald Trump has plummeted 13 percent since the first of December. “At the beginning of December, The Marist poll found 73 percent of white evangelicals approving the job Trump was doing as president, compared to 17 percent who disapproved. Six weeks later, Marist’s numbers are 66 percent and 23 percent respectively.” Several reasons are cited for the shift, shutting down the government being the most important. And whereas 80 percent of evangelicals voted for him, today of that number only 52 percent say they would do so again. (That must include Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the president’s press secretary, who thinks that God chose Donald Trump to be president.) The big question now: Are these figures a bump or a trend?
What is best and worst in today’s media world is dramatized in two stories last month involving Washington DC, race, and abusive behavior. First, a new denomination created for black men and their families is promoting spiritual practices to turn back the Trump administration. Motivated by the US government shutdown, the Church for Black Men and Families in Washington DC is observing a 24/7 sustained time of prayer and fasting to seek the peaceful removal of Donald Trump from presidency. Pastor Jomo Johnson points to scripture to explain the effort: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.” (Proverbs 20:2) Not a big story, this didn’t make it into major media, but it was covered. Information about the new denomination and its goals are readily available on the web.
The second story involves an African American group self-identifying as Hebrew Israelites, who proselytize on the street using derogatory, racist language, and who instigated a struggle between a Native American drummer and a group of Catholic students attending an anti-abortion rally in Washington DC last month. On TV and in the initial news reports, the story told about rich prep-school Catholic kids abusing the indigenous drummer at length. The results went viral. But it turns out that the Hebrew Israelites, using nasty, xenophobic language, were the instigators, not just part of the scene. This changes the whole narrative.
The teenagers and the drummer, it was eventually reported, all wish they had sat down and talked to teach other. Major media news sources were reluctant to correct their stories, even after the facts emerged. To their credit, the New York Times and Religion News Service subsequently offered profiles of Hebrew Israelite groups. They claim to be the real Jews of the world and forbid white people from joining them.
Gratifying Stories You May Have Missed
The best story from the past month revealed that Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian, is being allowed to flee the death-threats she’s received and leave her home country. But the price has been horrendous: eight years in jail for blasphemy against Islam, and a year in hiding after the Pakistani Supreme Court exonerated her; the government resisted letting her leave the country following incarceration. Her crime involved asking for a glass of water. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws remain among the most unjust legislation on the planet. Asia Bibi’s story is a bright star on a dark night.
A liberal Democratic legislator representing the state of Delaware, Senator Chris Coons, is a progressive Presbyterian who has gained a reputation for cultivating bipartisan legislation by being open about his faith. A supporter of America’s separation of church and state, he nevertheless is happy to share his values, build relationships with Republicans, and gather with other politicians to pray. At a National Prayer Breakfast at a time when President Trump was banning certain Muslims from entering the country, Senator Coons went up to the Trump and said, “I believe it [the ban] is wrong. I believe it is against everything in my faith and everything that this breakfast is about.” Then it became biblical: “I said, ‘Mr. President, I also want prayer for you today.’ He looked at me, and then I said, ‘We’re called to pray for our enemies.’” Trump has said he likes Chris Coons, a rare concession for a Democratic senator.
Evangelical, conservative Christians tend to get the most press when it comes to religious leaders and the media in America, particularly when it comes to issues like abortion, LGBTQ rights, and anti-immigration policies. For the first time in decades, the religious left is finding its voice in America, led by groups such as Faith in Public Life founded by Presbyterian Rev. Jennifer Butler. The same issues resonate for them, but from a totally different perspective. The bottom-line issue: What will it take to get the opposing sides into the same room working on win-win solutions?
The Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada will step back from its long conflict with Rev. Gretta Vosper, an atheist, allowing her to maintain her ordination and UCC affiliation. The decision surprised everyone, including her congregation, West Hill United Church, where she was called as pastor in 1997. She had ‘come out’ as an atheist in 2013, which was not a problem for the congregation but settled badly with denominational leaders. (TIO told this story in its April 2013 issue.) The Conference’s Rt. Rev. Richard Bott said the recent decision hinged on holding two important truths at the same time: “our faith in God” and “our commitment to being an open and inclusive church.”
Pew Research, following international research, reports that active religious people tend to be more happy than unchurched people. The survey distinguished between “actively religious,” “in-active religious,” and “non-affiliated” – with the active crowd self-identifying as most happy in most countries. They also tend to be more involved in their communities and better voters, but no better than anyone else at limiting their caloric intake!
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Mussie Hailu Tapped to Direct URI’s new Office of Global Partnerships
Ambassador Mussie Hailu has been named director of the new Office of Global Partnerships at United Religions Initiative (URI). A founding member of URI and now a member of its senior Global Staff, Mussie will work with URI staff at the Global Office in San Francisco, as well as staff in Australia, Ethiopia, Kenya, New York, and the UK. He will be networked with 20 regionally based offices.
Hailu is a bridge-builder par excellence, making Africa the most interfaith-networked continent on the globe. He generated an African version of the Golden Rule poster and has circulated a million and a half copies. He has reached out using these skills to build relationships in the Middle East and in Asia. Mussie serves as a URI representative to the African Union, the Economic Commission for Africa, UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), the United Nations, and other intergovernmental organizations.
Indeed, Hailu has been following an international-interfaith-partnership vocation for some time, and URI has appropriately recognized it and created a global support structure for developing new partnerships. The heart of Mussie’s work, says Victor Kazanjian, URI’s executive director, will be to continue “establishing 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 levels.”
Interfaith activists everywhere can be thankful for the critical work Mussie Hailu does. Those who have had the privilege of knowing and working with him will be joyful that he got the job!
Header Photo: Kumbh Mela in Allahabad – Photo: Seba Della y Sole Bossio, C.c. 2.0