Breaking Bread More Powerful Than Hate in Countering Anti-Sharia Protests

Leaders in interfaith communities knew they had to meet protest with peace when the largest anti-Muslim grassroots organization in the U.S. announced demonstrations to take place on June 10.

“It was incredible to see the turnout [of counter-protesters] who were there to show solidarity,” said Kate Chance, interfaith coordinator at the Islamic Networks Group (ING), a nonprofit organization that counters bigotry through conversation and interfaith engagement. “I thought it was really peaceful as a whole,” she said of the Unity Rally she attended in San Jose, Calif.

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High School Interfaith Activists Organize for a More Tolerant Future

Across the country, interfaith activism is spurring in high schools across the country. These grassroots activists are inspiring their peers to learn about different religions through clubs that promote dialogue and service.

In 2014, Sophomore Jaxon Washburn found himself with a diverse group of friends at Arizona College Prep School in Chandler, Ariz. At lunchtime, they ended up discussing each other’s cultures, backgrounds, and beliefs. These conversations led to a desire to start a formal interfaith club. Soon, the World Religion and Tolerance Society (WRTS) was born.

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A Greater Understanding of the Human Experience

In April, the United Religions Initiative was honored to win the One Billion Acts of Peace member contest with the prize being for one URI member to attend the  Conference on World Affairs. That member was Kari Cameron, Associate Director of the Center for New Americans at Interfaith Works in Syracuse, New York. Below is her reflection on the experience.

Is learning an act of peace?  As I attended the Conference on World Affairs I was able to relax and learn for the sake of learning.  I had no responsibilities and no agenda. This conference is put on by the University of Colorado and is in its 69th year. Through the generosity of Peace Jam (and my good luck that comes through on occasion in the most unexpected and fabulous ways), I was able to take a short break from my job as a social worker in Syracuse, New York, and visit stunning Boulder for this symposium on just about everything.  If a subject involved anything to do with this world and how we live in it, there was a session with a panel of experts.  I learned about the politics of the South China Sea, the realms of influence of ISIS, and watched a fascinating documentary that used rotoscopic animation to recreate history.

But where does Peace Jam fit into all of this?

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Young women from US, Kenya, Israel brought together in Cooperation Circle program

This story is from the Center for Religious Tolerance, a URI Cooperation Circle based in Florida doing work around the world. 

You know something important is happening when the same good idea springs up independently on three continents. In Kenya, Israel and the United States, girls and young women are exploring the history of women’s rights, discussing the issues that face them today, and forging a new activism. In 2018, CRT will bring representatives from three successful local programs to Washington, DC to launch the Seeds of Change project.

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Photo Essay: Festival of Faiths, Louisville Kentucky 2017

By Jaya Priya Reinhalter, URI Global Council Member for North America

This April I attended the annual Festival of Faiths in Louisville Kentucky. This was the festival’s 22nd year in action and it has become a nationally acclaimed interfaith event of music, poetry, film, art and dialogue with internationally-renowned spiritual leaders, thinkers, and practitioners. The festival’s programming works to honor the union between thinking globally and acting locally.

The theme of this year’s festival was “Compassion Shining like the Sun” and focused on the vast number of approaches to living a compassionate life, including through environmentalism, a wide range of faith traditions, different political persuasions and more. Louisville – home to the  Center of Interfaith Relations -is the first “compassionate city” to take up the Charter for Compassion as its guiding set of moral principles. In the following photographic essay I have tried to capture just a few of the special moments.

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In Hawaii, National Day of Prayer celebrated with 21 faith expressions

This report of the National Day of Prayer celebrated with 21 different faith expressions was submitted by Annaleah Atkinson of the Interfaith Roundtable of Kaua’i, a URI Cooperation Circle. Photos by Jeffrey Pears. 

The first national day of prayer was declared in 1775 when the Continental Congress designated a time for prayer in forming a new nation. In 1789 President George Washington, the first President of the United States recognized that a day of public prayer be observed.

On April 17, 1952 a bill proclaiming an annual National Day of Prayer was unanimously passed by Congress and signed into law by President Harry Truman. The annual National Day of Prayer was designated as the first Thursday in May, and signed into law by President Ronald Regan on May 5, 1988.

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Local environmental activists find support, connection in national learning group

Climate justice is at the forefront of social justice movements across the country, especially amongst URI members and Cooperation Circles. As individuals and groups engage in the fight for climate justice in their local communities, they can report on their work and connect with other environmental activists in outside communities in the newly formed URI Environmental Cohort Group.  

“We discuss how we can network with each other to better support one another, to create capacity building within URI, and how we can address sustainable city challenges,” said group member Dave Randle.

Being a group of interfaith activists, the members are very interested in engaging with different perspectives.  This resonates with URI Environmental Network Coordinator and the group’s co-facilitator, Katherine Hreib.

“In my work, I often have conversations with people, but it often feels like we’re saying the same things over and over again, agreeing on the same issues, and it doesn’t feel like we’re moving anywhere,” she said. “This group is a good place to start breaching out of that. [There are] so many different voices, not only with people coming from different faith traditions, but also people living in different cities around the country. We try to be comfortable with differences within the group. We allow for there to be disagreements, and not try to agree on everything.  That’s not what this group is about; it’s about transforming our opinions so we can be more effective community builders.”

In what Randle describes the “age of advocacy,” more activist and socially aware groups are forming across the nation. True to that form, this group was founded late last year by Hreib and URI North America Regional Coordinator Sari Heidenreich .

“We were thinking about how we could form dialogue groups within the interfaith community around climate action, specifically because there was so much anxiety after the election about what was going to happen to environmental justice.  We wanted to form a supportive space for conversation, research sharing, and networking,” Hreib continued.

Heidenreich added, “The group started in December of last year when we really identified that there was a need for supportive community among activists. We heard this need echoed from folks that shared they would like to connect with other individuals doing similar work across the country.  Starting the group was really a response to the needs we heard from grassroots activists, which were being catalyzed with the changes we were seeing on a federal level.”

URI North American Regional Coordinator and URI Environmental Network Coordinator Katherine Hreib co-facilitate the learning community.
URI North American Regional Coordinator and URI Environmental Network Coordinator Katherine Hreib co-facilitate the learning community.

The group, co-facilitated by Hreib and Heidenreich, meets bi-monthly, and works to address a variety of issues.  After catching up on a personal level, they discuss how they can better support the work each member is engaging in. In addition, the group periodically holds teach-ins with guest speakers. The last teach-in addressed a vital question amongst environmental activist: how to communicate with and talk to those who don’t necessarily share the same beliefs as you.

“We talked about how we have conversations about climate change with people who don’t necessarily believe in climate change or that it’s caused by humans,” said Heidenreich. “We had two members of the group, who operate in areas where a lot of people think like that, share what they do in those situations and how they approach those conversations in ways that are compassionate and can actually lead to coming to understanding.”

One of the two members described, Maria Cerniauskas, lives in Johnson City, Tennessee, a bastion of traditional beliefs and climate change denial. She emphasized the importance of communicating the urgency of this issue to this group, and how it affects all of humanity.

“I think these issues are not partisan. These issues are so big, they impact everybody,”  Cerniauskas said. “Everyone drinks the groundwater, everyone breathes the air.  We’re all living on this planet, and we all want our children’s children to be okay.  In order to address the challenges faces us, we must work together in unity.”

Dave Randle brings a Christian perspective to the group.  As an ordained environmental minister, Dave is drawn to do his work though calls from the Bible. Specifically, he cites the creation of Earth in Genesis.  

“Our world is not to be looked at as a hostile enemy to be conquered, but something to be harmonized with,” he said.

Soon, Randle plans to take his advocacy to the United Nations, which is hosting a high-level political forum around Sustainable Development in July.  Specifically, this forum will provide a review of the goals set amongst UN countries to meet certain energy goals by the year 2030.  He hopes to make connections and learn about these solutions surrounding global sustainable development and share them with the cohort group.  

This is exactly what Heidenreich hopes for the group.

“The goal of the group for me is to support environmental work that’s happening across the region. For me, the purpose is to support people working at the intersection of interfaith work and the environment, connecting them with each other, so they can form both supportive networks and learning communities.”  

Beyond the activism, advocacy, and networking, the cohort group is a place for members to connect with like-minded people. Heidenreich, in particular, as being more than just a professional development and networking group.

“I look forward to our meetings, because I know it’s a gathering of friends, even though most of us haven’t met in person or don’t know each other well. It’s a place to have high-trust and productive conversations, and a way to make our work better and more effective.”  

To read about the work of URI members around the People’s Climate March, click here. If you would like to get involved in interfaith work and/or the United Religions Initiative, click here to find the Cooperation Circle nearest you.

This piece was written by URI North America Storytelling Intern Ryan Polsky. You can read more of his work here

Across U.S., URI members participate in People’s Climate March

Last week, on April 29, URI leaders marched in the nationwide people’s climate march.  At the principle march in Washington D.C., along with sister marches in other cities, they were answering a call to advocate for environmental protection and awareness, particularly with recent political changes in the country. 

Fred Fielding, a United Religions Initiative Global Council Trustee and president of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, attended the People’s Climate March in Oakland, California.

“It was a good day to have an interfaith presence, especially around climate change.  It’s a moral issue – not just a political issue – how we treat our planet,”  he said. “Beyond that, for many folks, it’s a spiritual issue.  Interfaith organizations have a role in sharing that wisdom, and the understanding of how we need to relate to our planet in order to care for it and ourselves, so our resources, habitats, and all living things on this planet have a chance.”

Maria Cerniauskas was part of a team of organizers that put together the local march in Johnson City, Tenn. Cerniauskas is also a part of the URI Northeast Tennessee Chapter Cooperation Circle.

“I was born into a world with possibility, where I had a relative sense of security regarding the necessities of life. I didn’t question whether the water was healthy, I didn’t suffer respiratory illness from the air I breathed, I was blessed. That gave me the opportunity to go forward and enjoy life. I want that for future generations,”  Cerniauskas said.

This is what motivated her to help organize a day of activities focused on caring for the environment.

Slentz attended the principle march in Washington, DC.

“I can’t in my conscious see what’s happening with the planet, see where it’s going, the suffering it’s caused, and do nothing,” she said.

Pastor Paul Slentz passion for the environment and belief that people of faith need to stand up, led him to travel from his residence in Nashville, Tennessee, to the principle march in Washington D.C  along with tens of thousands of people. Slentz is a steering committee member of Tennessee Interfaith Power and Light and has worked cooperatively with the URI Nashville Cooperation Circle.

“The reason why I was there is because I feel it is so important that people who care about the Earth speak out. I really think we’re doing such terrible harm, and the consequences are getting clearer and clearer,” he said. “ Also, with the current administration taking action that is so hostile to good care the Earth, I feel that it’s important for all people, especially people of faith, to not be silent, and to speak out and let it be known that we care deeply about this.”

In Washington D.C., Slentz he joined other interfaith groups and Methodist pastors in an interfaith section of the march.  As they marched in unbearably hot conditions, a powerful moment occurred in the early afternoon.

“Everyone sat down right at 2 p.m., and then either thumped their chest with their hand or clapped like a heartbeat.  Having thousands of people do that at once all at the same time was a very moving moment for me.”

The unity of this moment struck the pastor.  

Pastor Slentz participated in the People’s Climate March in Washington, DC.

“To know we’re all connected in this struggle together, knowing there are lots of people who are allies, along with everyone else marching in other parts of the country, is one of the most important reasons for having the march.  It was definitely an inspiring, encouraging extra boost for the work ahead.”  

In organizing a march in Johnson City, Tenn., Maria Cerniauskas and other organizers faced challenges not seen in major cities such as Washington D.C., New York, and Los Angeles.

“Being in a very conservative part of the country, an overwhelming number of our neighbors voted in the current administration and continue to be very happy with the way things are going.  In order to use this as an opportunity for real bridge building, dialogue, and raising awareness around issues that affect everybody, we had to take a very different approach than other marches,” she shared.

They made and marketed their event as extremely child- and family- friendly, which they felt was particularly important given that the next generation is the one who will be dealing most directly with the effects of climate change.

Cerniauskas saw important symbolism in this approach.   

The participation of children was an integral part of the march in Johnson City, Tenn.

“My responsibility is to be a mother to those who aren’t my biological children.  I look at all the faces in the parade and think of other parent’s children in other parts of the world that are going to be impacted by the actions of my country.  If I keep quiet, I am colluding, and therefore I’m culpable. It’s a moral issue.”  

The event in Johnson City consisted of three parts: a family bike ride in the morning, a march, and a tree planting ceremony. Over 700 people participated.  In the end, the event was extremely successful in bringing people together to rally around climate justice. Even local law enforcement noticed the turnout.

“One of the police officers commented to one of the organizers that this was the biggest event [for rallying and raising awareness of an issue] event they ever saw in Johnson City. ”

On the other side of the country, Fred Fielding attended the march held in Oakland, California, on a very warm day, not unlike the one in Washington D.C. 2,800 miles away.  Along with Fielding, there were other URI members at the event, including people from the California Interfaith Power and Light Cooperation Circle.  This event featured 4-5 hours of speakers, followed by a march.  

Fielding was guided to participate in climate justice events by his faith.  


URI Leadership Council member Fred Fielding and Environmental Resource Cooperation Circle Chen Yin Noah shared about URI at the Oakland People’s Climate March.

“As a Christian, I believe we need to be good stewards and act in ways that have minimal effect on the planet…Dominion doesn’t mean to destroy.  It means you’re in charge, and you need to take care of things.  As a Christian, we need to take care of the planet.  It’s the only one we know of and where we can be, and it’s very special for that reason. You look at how, when we decide to take from the planet, it comes back to hurt others in terrible ways. We need to be better and more efficient with how we use our resources, and give respect to all living things.”  


Across the country in Nashville, Slentz echoes Fielding’s sentiment.

“I believe we have to have a four-fold response as people of faith: First, to be thankful; second, to take delight in the gift; third, to share it with all people and other creatures on this planet; fourthly, it is our responsibility to protect the planet.”

During these times of anxiety surrounding the safety and future of the Earth, more and more people of faith are learning what their tradition teaches about stewardship and preservation of our planet. As seen during People’s Climate March activities across the country, well-connected, interfaith-based groups can provide hope and solutions in the fight against climate change. URI is seeking to address this by helping grassroots activists connect with one another through an environmental cohort learning group. Click here to read about how participants in this group support one another. 

URI’s Environmental Resource Cooperation Circle recently compiled an environmental toolkit with action ideas collected from URI members across several continents. You can view the toolkit at this linkIf you would like to get involved in interfaith work and/or the United Religions Initiative, click here to find the Cooperation Circle nearest you.

This piece was written by URI North America Storytelling Intern Ryan Polsky. You can read more of his work here

Cooperation Circles invites others to Women’s Empowerment Weekend


The Oracle Institute, a Cooperation Circle member of URI, is excited to announce its summer retreat, A Women’s Empowerment Weekend, and to invite interested members of other Cooperation Circles to join us as we explore the Divine Feminine with speakers from various faith traditions. Attendees will also participate in a full moon ceremony, yoga, meditations, dance, shared storytelling, and an archetype association practice on our beautiful campus in the Blue Ridge Mountains.



Building bridges of understanding in high school

Swami Anjani, a member of the Kashi Ashram Cooperation Circle, was invited to speak last month at a high school interfaith event in Vero Beach, Florida. Below is her report. 

On April 22nd St. Edward’s School presented “Finding Common Ground: An Interfaith Conversation.”  The event was the brainchild of the Breaking Barriers Club, which is comprised of ten high school teenagers. Their President and Founder, Sana Shareef, will be entering her senior year in the fall.


The panel consisted of  Swami Anjani, from Kashi Ashram; Rev. Robert Baggott, Community Church; Rabbi Michael Birnholz, Temple Beth Shalom; Fr. Dennis Gonzales, St. Helen Church; Claudia Jimenez, Unitarian Universalist fellowship; Iman Khalid Latif, Chaplain at NYU and the NYC Police Dept; and Dr. John Esposito, Professor of Religion & International Affairs, Georgetown University.

Swami Anjani (far right) spoke at the Breaking Barriers Club.

After Sana Shareef set the tone with her opening remarks, each panelist spoke in turn. Imam Latif’s passion for Interfaith dialog and understanding brought the audience to its feet, followed by Dr. Esposito’s equally inspiring keynote address. The speakers then reconvened as a panel to respond to questions from the audience.

I was deeply moved by the emphasis on love and the focus on embracing all the amazing paths to God.I was inspired by the “call to action’ voiced by many of our panelists: it is not a time to take a back seat and allow hatred and suspicion to rule the hearts of our neighbors. We must put ourselves out there, one conversation at a time.

I am grateful to this group of young people for taking a stand and inviting us all along.