As Regional Coordinators for the United Religions Initiative, one of the core parts of our job is to listen to our members – to understand what their local context, the projects and programs they are working on, their dreams for the future and current struggles. While the phone, email, Zoom and Skype are great tools to do this, nothing can replace the opportunity to do this listening face-to-face. So, we set out on a 9-day trip to visit our grassroots members and like-minded interfaith peacebuilding organizations to build relationships; discern trends; help make capacity-building connections to resources, organizations and individuals; and discern how to URI can continue to grow in response and service to our member’s needs and request.
As part of a URI staff exchange, Nivy Balchandran, Regional Coordinator for URI in Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands, traveled to the U.S. to join Sari Heidenreich, Regional Coordinator for URI in North America, on this trip from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Concord, New Hampshire. We spent countless hours in conversation, getting to know one another and sharpening each other’s skills in community-organizing, capacity-building, communications, outreach and more.
We have been so enriched by this time on the road that we want to invite you to join us on this journey through the video and photo essay below! If you have questions about any of the topics, programs or organizations we mention below, please do not hesitate to reach out and ask for more information or an introduction to them!
Sari Heidenreich and Nivy Balachandran
Roadtrip Day 1: Newtown, Pennsylvania
We spent a fabulous day with peacebuilders in Newtown, Pennsylvania, a small town outside of Philadelphia. Our first meeting was with community leaders at a historic local restaurant that used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad. Over lunch, we had riveting discussions about the local community and context. Nivy also shared stories about the Australian context and how it compares and contrasts to current trends in the U.S.
That evening, we met in the library of a local mosque with the board of the Interfaith Community of Lower Bucks (ICLB) where, after a year and a half of learning about the United Religions Initiative , the group voted to join URI as a Cooperation Circle (CC). They originally heard about URI after Natalie Kaye, our wonderful host during our time there, saw May Peace Prevail on Earth: An Interfaith Christmas Special produced by URI that aired on CBS in 2015.
One of the most beautiful parts of the meeting was reading URI’s Preamble, Purpose and Principles together. It was moving to see how connected this document helped them feel to URI’s mission and global community. We then spent time reflecting on ICLB’s history, aspirations and explored how they might get to know, learn from and share with other members of the global URI family.
Roadtrip Day 2: Newtown and Glenmore, Pennsylvania
We started the day with a drive to the home of Janice Kelsey, from the Solar C3ITIES Cooperation Circle. Solar C3ities works all over the world to help individuals and communities use food waste and animal and human manure to create clean cooking fuel and rich fertilizer.
They only have a handful of sites in the United States and Janice’s home is one of them! Amidst lively conversation, Janive gave us a tour of her biodigeststers and we learned the ins and outs of biogas production. Janice also shared how these digesters can be life changing as digesters contain waste, help stop the spread of diseases and produce energy – win win win. We broadcasted our whole conversation over Facebook Live so you can experience it for yourself by clicking here. Janice also treated us to a home cooked lunch of veggie burgers and shakes and sent us on our way back to Newtown.
Later that evening we were honored to be the guest speakers at The Peace Center‘s annual meeting, where we shared stories of hope from URI Cooperation Circles from across the globe – from the U.S.A. to Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Australia. We were touched by the warm reception we received and how enthusiastically the audience responded to the stories of URI peacebuilders. It reminded us that, as an organization, in addition to supporting the grassroots peace building work of our CCs, URI has a key role to play in sharing and fostering hope within the network and beyond.
That night, we went to bed energized and full of cake, provided by our generous hosts Natalie and Ivan Kaye. The Kayes not only hosted us in their home and made us feel so welcome, but Natalie organized all of our meetings while we were there and opened many doors for us to meet new organizations and peacebuilders. These days and the ones to come reaffirmed for us what a privilege it is to be able to travel, and not only meet people doing this work, but carry with us, through stories, the work of so many URI CC’s around the world.
Roadtrip Day 3: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Highland Park, New Jersey
After saying goodbye to Natalie and Ivan (top left), we were treated to breakfast by Abby Stamelan Hocky, Executive Director of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia and Anneke Kat, Program Associate and Walking the Walk Program Manager (bottom). Over coffee and sandwiches at a hip Philadelphia cafe and roastery, we learned about each other’s programs, brainstormed ideas, and made connections to enhance one another’s work. We heard about the absolutely amazing work they’re doing through Walking the Walk, a year-long interfaith bridge building program for youth, and other community-based programs. The Center has an innovative and comprehensive approach to place-based interfaith community developing and organizing.
From there, we jumped back into our zippy red hatchback and drove up to Highland Park, NJ. One of the greatest gifts of this trip was the opportunity for us (Nivy and Sari) to have deep conversations along the way. Not only were we able to share reflections, insights, and ideas to enhance our URI work, we also shared about our own faith journeys and stories, and walked away from the trip with a deeper understanding of Hinduism, Indian culture and philosophy (thanks to Nivy!), and the history, nuance and diversity of the Christian faith and what it looks like to live life and do peacebuilding work based on Christian values (thanks to Sari!). We were also eerily surprised to discover how many shared parallels our lives have — including both growing up as third culture kids in different parts of the world, our connection to the Middle East, our love of eating too much food, and passion for always improving the way that we support URI CC’s and the interfaith peace building movement.
Once we arrived in Highland Park, we met with GreenFaith‘s Estrella Sainburg to learn more both about their work in New Jersey and around the country. GreenFaith is a URI North America Affiliate and Estrella shared with us about their history and passion for helping everyone understand their connection to the Earth and ways that they can mobilize to heal and protect it. We were really inspired by Estrella’s commitment to community organizing and it inspired both of us to draw more on those principles as we do our work of creating the infrastructure for interfaith peacebuilders around the world to connect to one another.
Estrella was also a gracious host that evening and provided Sari with not only a comfortable place to stay but a wonderful evening with friends and food.
Roadtrip Day 4: New Jersey
We had an unexpected day without meetings due to some cancellations, so we took the day to recharge! Sari was able to meet up with one of her best friends from college and spend time at the beautiful Jersey Shore and Nivy spent the day with her great uncle who live nearby.
Roadtrip Day 5: Bedford Hills, New York
Antioch Baptist Church in Bedford Hills, New York has been involved with the Unity Made Visible Cooperation Circle for many, many years. This beautiful church was where we first met our host Paul Storfer. Paul, who is Jewish himself, calls this place his second spiritual home because of the incredible way this community opens itself up to any and everyone. We felt so welcomed and moved to be there: it reminded us what an honor it is to be invited into someone else’s place of worship and be with them as they pray (in this case, often expressed through beautiful and passionate choir music).
Paul and Sandi, treated us to a delicious lunch of Ethiopian food. With hands messy with lentils and injera, we learned more about the history of Unity Made Visible and the ways they have used music, over the years, to bring people together. Paul, an accomplished musician, fondly shared stories of using music to bring people together at Seeds of Peace Camps, in the United Nations General Assembly for World Interfaith Harmony Week, and in scores of other activities locally. Over the years, UMV also used creative methods, such as pick up soccer games, to build bridges in the community.
For dinner (are you sensing a theme here? It was a trip of eating and talking!), the four of us met up with Deborah Moldow — a founding member of URI, a member our United Nations team, and longtime member of the local Cooperation Circle — at a Nepalese restaurant. We met for dinner at 6:30 and, even after the restaurant closed at 9 o’clock, we still spent a half an hour talking outside on the sidewalk. Opportunities like these are such a privilege. It is a real honor to be able to spend hours upon hours getting to know not only URI members and their work but brainstorming with them about how URI can better serve them, other Cooperation Circles and the entire interfaith movement.
Our meeting also took place on the 17th Anniversary of URI’s Charter signing, so we ended the evening by standing on the sidewalk signing Happy Birthday to URI, accompanied by Paul’s iPad guitar.
Day 6: New York City
On Monday morning, we took the train into New York City and grabbed breakfast at a hip vegan place in Harlem before heading to a meeting with Rev. Chloe Breyer and Kusumita Pedersen from the Interfaith Center of New York. It was a privilege to hear about the diversity of programs the Interfaith Center runs – from a summer program to train teachers to teach religion, to retreats for community leaders to sink their teeth into social justice issues. They also do a lot to intentionally engage with immigrant faith communities and encourage all community leaders to think about their place in engaging with civic life in New York.
Kusumita is also Vice Chair of the Parliament of the World’s Religions so it was a great opportunity to brainstorm how URI can engage with and support the upcoming Parliament in Toronto, Canada in 2018.
In the afternoon, we headed to Manhattan for a meeting with Alyn Ware, Global Coordinator for Parliamentarians for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament. He has worked for a long time with URI’s United Nations Representative Monica Willard on bringing the voices of the world’s faith and religious communities on this issue to the United Nations. We talked all things nuclear nonproliferation, including the history and negotiations of the Iran Nuclear Deal, North Korea recent events and much more! Alyn gave us a fabulous primer on the current status of the movement as well as ideas for how grassroots interfaith groups can get involved in advocacy around this issue.
From there, we met with Rick Ulfik, the founder of We, The World, a URI North America Affiliate. While Sari has known Rick for several years, this was Nivy’s first time meeting him in person and it provided a real opportunity to learn more about his background in music, filmmaking and teaching! He left all of these things to start We, The World, with a vision of helping create more cohesion and sharing in the social justice and peacebuilding movements. We, the World’s flagship program, 11 Days of Global Unity, is a great way for URI members and others to join in and be a part of this global vision.
Day 7 and 8: Concord, New Hampshire
Driving from New York to New Hampshire was our longest stretch of driving this trip. Thankfully, after only one missed turn and hours of deep conversation, we arrived just a few minutes late to the Greater Concord Interfaith Council’s (GCIC) annual potluck. GCIC is the newest Cooperation Circle in URI North America and we were excited to see many hands raised when we asked the full room who knew what URI was and what their relationship was with GCIC!
After a wonderful night at the home of Suzanne and Curtiss Rude, we met the next morning with three members of GCIC at a local bakery, where we got lost in conversation for almost three hours (again…notice the theme of eating and talking). We asked them the question we had asked every other group on this trip, “How can URI better serve you?” We invited them to dream about what URI membership could mean for them and their local work. As with the other times we asked this question, it opened up the door to an even deeper and richer conversation about interfaith peacebuilding; and we were inspired to hear about the relationships and bridges being built among the local clergy and lay leaders who serve on the Interfaith Council.
We were then treated to lunch at the local Domino’s by Rik Yeames, who is both owner of the shop and active member of GCIC. Like Natalie, Rik also saw the Interfaith Christmas Eve Special and from there became passionate about connecting to URI. Rik also caught the International Day of Peace bug and has been spearheading celebrations of the day (September 21) in Concord in addition to a fundraising effort around the day. A Piece of Pizza for Peace engages pizza shop owners to donate a portion of their sales from September 21 to a local and global peacebuilding organization. You can find out about how to join this effort by clicking here.
The last meeting on our whirlwind tour was a stop by the office of Kenneth Barnes, a civil rights lawyer and board member of the Kids4Peace New Hampshire Chapter. Kenneth gave us an overview of the work of Kids4Peace, which recently joined URI as a Cooperation Circle in the Multiregion. Kids4Peace is an international organization that works in Israel, Palestine and the U.S. to build relationships among Jewish, Christian, and Muslim young. They run camps for young people in the U.S. as well as the Middle East. We discussed URI and the work our CCs are doing to build peace in conflict areas around the world and brainstormed how lessons learned through dialogue across differences in overseas conflict areas can be implemented locally and in different contexts.
We ended our last day in Concord at the local candy shop and stocked up on maple sugar candies and maple syrup – New England specialties.
Day 9: Manchester, New Hampshire
We ended our trip with an entire day set aside to reflect on what we had learned, how this trip would change about the way we do our jobs and how we would help convey this experience to others within URI.
So much good work is being done in all corners of the world, and URI seeks to provide a platform for exchanges among peacebuilders from around the world and build the movement for interfaith peace globally. It is a joy and honor to do this work to support and amplify voices for peace!