[WATCH] Building Peace in Difficult Times: Learning from Global Activists

In the past year, communities across the U.S. and Canada have seen an increase in incidents of hate and discrimination. In the U.S., a divisive election season has left myriad communities fractured and relationships broken. Today, many activists across our region are feeling overwhelmed by the realities of their new social and political climate.

However, we must remember that we do not exist in isolation. For years, many communities outside of North America have been involved in building cultures of peace, justice and healing in difficult contexts. We have much to learn from them.

That’s why, on April 5 we hosted a webinar with United Religions Initiative members from Venezuela, Nigeria and Spain entitled “Building Peace in Difficult Times: Learning from Global Activists”:

These seasoned interfaith activists shared personal stories about how they have successfully learned to operate in difficult political and social climates. They shared wisdom and insights from their experiences building peace in the midst of fierce political divisions, unethical governments, and a cultural shift towards xenophobia (including against Muslims, Jews and immigrants). These United Religions Initiative members also provided practical examples of how they remain grounded and avoid burnout.

Too often, we North Americans think of ourselves as teachers and educators of those in other countries. This is a chance for us to flip that script and position ourselves as learners and listeners to our brothers and sisters from Africa, Europe and South America. Watch the video for an informative and inspiring conversation.

Special thanks to the Charter for Compassion for supporting this webinar by lending us the use of their webinar-hosting account. 

Our Speakers:

Sergio Arévalo – Barcelona, Spain

Sergio works for the UNESCO Association for Interreligious Dialogue of Catalonia, a United Religions Initiative Cooperation Circle, as the coordinator of The Night of Religions of Barcelona, an annual event that highlights the city’s religious diversity; and of Bridge Builders of Barcelona, a forum for interreligious interactions among the youth. He holds a degree in philosophy from the Autonomous University of Barcelona and a master’s degree in Interreligious, Ecumenical and Cultural Dialogue from the Ramon Llull University. He has been writing for Dialogal, the journal of interreligious dialogue, since 2010. 

Dr. Emmanuel Ande Ivorgba – Abuja, Nigeria 

Emmanuel is the West African Regional Coordinator for the United Religions Initiative and a visionary, scholar, researcher, social innovator, peacebuilder and author of several books. He is the recipient of the 2014 Unsung Heroes of Compassion Award for his service to humanity and his peacebuilding efforts in Nigeria. Emmanuel holds a PhD in Philosophy and Religion, specializing in Metaphysics and Comparative Religion. He also serves at the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations – Education First Summer School, is the founder of the Creative Minds International Academy, a Nigeria-based model coeducational school empowering students with tools and opportunities for critical thinking and is the convener of the Annual International Conference on Youth and Interfaith Dialogue in Nigeria, which hosts over 350 participants from more than 10 countries annually.

Veronica Sartore – Barcelona, Spain

Veronica collaborates with the UNESCO Association for Interreligious Dialogue of Catalonia, a United Religions Initiative Cooperation Circle, as a member of the organizational team of The Night of Religions of Barcelona, an annual event aimed to highlight the city’s religious diversity; and as coordinator of the religious diversity group of Bridge Builders of Barcelona, a forum for interreligious interactions among young people. She holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Padova and a masters degree in Philosophy from the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. She been writing for Dialogal, the journal of interreligious dialogue, since 2012.

Shinji Marina Tirado – Caracas, Venezuela

Marina is a Zen Buddhist nun and Zen practitioner since 1990.  She is 
president of the Circulo De Cooperación para el Diálogo (Circle of Cooperation for Dialogue), a URI cooperation Circles in Venezuela whose purpose “is to develop intercultural dialogue to promote peace, mutual comprehension, forgiveness and reconciliation.” Marina also hosts a radio program, “Today Exactly Now” on RadioComunidad on Thursdays at 2 p.m. She is a graphic designer and independent producer by profession. 

Across the country, interfaith groups rally to support refugees, immigrants, Muslims

In this time of fear, anxiety, and unrest, United Religions Initiative Cooperation Circles across the country are hosting events to promote interfaith dialogue and demonstrate support for refugees, immigrants and the American Muslim community. These three examples show what solidarity looks like and the true colors of humanity in these difficult times.

In Uptown Charlotte, North Carolina, 250 people gathered in a park one evening.

The participants and speakers were diverse — coming from all different faiths — but they came with a common goal: to stand in solidarity with one another and with the immigrants, refugees and Muslim communities.

URI member Saad Haq holds signs made by his children at a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina.
URI member Saad Haq holds signs made by his children at a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The rally was organized by a local interfaith coalition, and members from the United Religions Initiative Cooperation Circle Being There participated. The rally was in response to a swell of fear and anxiety after an executive order signed by President Donald Trump ordered an immediate halt on all refugees, as well as citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Though this executive order has been nullified by the courts, at least for now, there has been an incredible outpouring of support for Muslims and refugees across the country, especially groups of people from diverse faith backgrounds.

Saad Haq, participant and part of the organizing team, said one specific part of the rally was indicative of the entire event.

“During the rally, it was time for our [the Muslim] fourth prayer of the day. As we were praying, non-Muslims kept a wall and shield around us, which was extremely symbolic,” he said. “It was really great that people came together in solidarity.”

Citing the Prophet Muhammad’s Hijrah (journey) from Mecca to Medina to escape murder, Haq said he believes Muslims have an obligation to welcome refugees into this country.

Haq is a member of the United Religions Initiative (URI), the world’s largest grassroots interfaith network. At URI, we believe in the sanctity and inherent worth and dignity of every religion, spiritual expression and Indigenous tradition. Our goal is to promote interfaith cooperation around the world and to create cultures of peace, justice, and healing for the Earth and all living beings.

URI members in Johnson City, Tennessee, continued the solidarity, where another diverse group of people gathered on the campus of East Tennessee State University (ETSU). This group included local interfaith groups, community members, and ETSU students and professors.

Community members gathered at a unity rally in Charlotte, NC.
Community members gathered at a unity rally in Charlotte, NC.

Community members gathered at a unity rally in Charlotte, NC.Father Pete Iorio and Leila Al-Imad of the URI Northeast Tennessee Cooperation Circle were present at the event to show their support.  As followers of the Focolare movement, they have a strong commitment to social justice.  They cite Jesus’ Eight Beatitudes, which he gave at the Sermon on the Mount, as their inspiration  to fight for and show solidarity with immigrants and refugees.

Al-Imad was encouraged by the amount of support not only at this event, but at rallies all over the country.

“A hand can’t fly alone, and we need everyone to work with and energize us,” she said. “The community pulled together and people came out.”

While some rally in dramatic and emotional times like these, others need a trusted group to retreat with and discuss solutions for moving forward. The Southern California-based women’s Cooperation Circle, Spiritual and Religious Alliance for Hope, commonly known as SARAH, hosted a virtual red tent conference call for this kind of discussion.

At the Women’s March in Los Angeles, Hart organized a physical red tent, where female participants could enter and debrief with other women. This conference call was mean to create that same experience in a virtual space.

At this conference call, a council of Muslim women from Orange County spoke to participants, and Cooperation Circle leader, Sande Hart, went over a list of action items. A strong believer in the Golden Rule, she is committed to staying fierce and active in this fight.

“To our Muslim sisters: We are here, we are your protectors, we are standing in the light, facing the darkness, with a blazing torch of compassion, and we will not let any harm to come to you.  We are here to say “not in my house,”” she said in an interview before the event.

Despite the recent election and executive action on immigration, Hart has hope that our society is progressing.

“People are rising, people are finding their power. It has inspired folks to get up and look at the power of their voice, dollar, and vote,” she said. “We’ve been woken up, and the question is, ‘How do we stay woke?’ And what’s most important to us is that we do not perpetuate the same cycle of behavior that got us here in the first place — the us versus them mentality.”

Though the future of this particular executive order is unclear, interfaith organizers continue to recognize the imminent need to build bridges between people of different religions, spiritual expressions and Indigenous traditions. In the coming weeks and months, URI Cooperation Circles will host and participate in events to deepen dialogue and show support for immigrants, refugees and the American Muslim community in the coming weeks.

These are just a sampling of the many wonderful interfaith events that took place across the country, click here to read about the activities of other Cooperation Circles.

If you would like to get involved, click here to find the Cooperation Circle nearest you. You can also read the “Interfaith Toolkit: Responding to Executive Actions on Immigration & Refugee Resettlement” to find ideas and resources for a variety of ways to respond individually or as a group.

This piece was written by URI North America Storytelling Intern Ryan Polsky.