During the first concerts, different choirs would participate throughout the festival, performing different songs, before gathering together at the end for a combined piece. When Tiffny Weighall took over planning the festival four years ago, she transformed it into a festival with different types of musical expression.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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 link. 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.
All too often when discussing interfaith work and dialogue, we are quick to think of cooperation amongst the major Abrahamic traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. After all, they are the most popular religions in the Western world. However, interfaith cooperation in North America is hardly limited to these three traditions.
At age 95, interfaith activist Rita Semel is old enough to remember the Holocaust and a long history of anti-Semitism, both internationally and at home. The current social and political environment in the United States, in which Jewish sites are under increased threat, conjures up memories for Semel of the infamous Kristallnacht Operation ordered by Nazi Germany in 1938.
With this long view of history, Semel has a message for the country right now: be unified.
“We all have to work together and stand together to get through this,” said Semel, co-founder of the San Francisco Interfaith Council (SFIC). “There are people in our country who are afraid of someone who is different. People feel it’s okay to express those feelings. The atmosphere in the country has made it easier to express hate.”
Specifically, Semel is concerned about the instances of anti-Semitism across the country, which have risen since the recent election and transitions of political power. All across the United States, Jewish synagogues, cemeteries, and community centers have been vandalized and the subject of bomb threats and other acts of violence. So far in 2017, there have been over one hundred instances of anti-Semitic threats and violence.
SFIC is a Cooperation Circle of the United Religions Initiative (URI) that is taking steps to counter this religious intolerance. So far, they have set up a new rapid response team to promptly respond to anti-Semitic incidents. Members of the interfaith council sit on this rapid response team to provide support, guidance, and direction to anyone affected by hate.
Several hundred miles away, in Phoenix, another URI Cooperation Circle, Arizona Faith Network (AFN), is facing their own struggle with anti-Semitism.
Their community recently experienced two instances of anti-Semitism in their state. On February 27, the Valley Sun Jewish Community Center in Scottsdale and the Jewish Community Center in Tucson both received bomb threats, as part of a fifth wave of threats against Jewish community centers so far this year. In addition, in late 2016 a synagogue in Sun City was defaced during Hanukkah.
Similar to SFIC, AFN has established rapid response teams to contact communities affected by religiously-motivated violence. The Rev. Erin Tamayo, executive director of AFN is at the center of this work.
“The movement to speak out against anti-Semitism is strong right now,” she said. “A lot of communities are feeling targeted at this point. It pulls at our heartstrings [because] it could be any one of us who is a target for hate or violence. It’s our responsibility to stand in solidarity with one another.”
In response to these recent incidents, as well as the rise of Islamophobia and other incidents of hate across the country, AFN plans to host more interfaith gatherings. To start, they held a lunch for local Christian clergy (including bishops), imams, and rabbis to have discussions and get to know each other. Next month, they will be hosting a larger interfaith gathering.
Following the recent bomb threats, one of the members of AFN’s rapid response team, Rev. Dr. Andy Burnette, wrote a letter of support to the Jewish community on behalf of the organization. In just a few days, the letter was signed by nearly 200 interfaith leaders and educators across Arizona and delivered to the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix, the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center, the Jewish Community Center in Tucson, and other local jewish organizations.
“All of our traditions call us to speak out with love in the face of hate and to stand with those who are persecuted,” Burnette proclaimed in the letter. “Know that no act of hate can separate us from you. Though our faiths are varied, our commitment to love and justice unites us.”
For Tamayo, the Biblical Psalms are what inspires her to fight for justice and the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan, in which a Samaritan man helps a Jewish traveler who had been left for dead, as a model for reaching out and helping those in need.
As a Jew, the words of God similarly have driven Semel to devote her entire life to interfaith work.
“God gave us a world that is broken, and it is our job to fix it,” she said.
Semel has taken this message and let it guide her through life, emphasizing that everyone needs to work together in the fight for interfaith justice.
“Everybody can play a role. Nobody does anything alone. We have to work together, find things we share in common, and work on that,” she said. “Everyone wants the same thing, a peaceful life. If we all realize we want the same thing, we can work together in ways to change that. It’s not easy, but I really and truly believe it is possible.”
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.
Every year, United Religions Initiative Cooperation Circles all over the world host events to celebrate World Interfaith Harmony Week. This first week of February brings people of all different faith traditions together to create a culture of peace, love, and understanding.
In 2010, King Abdullah II of Jordan addressed the United Nations about his desire for faith-driven world harmony, and proposed Interfaith Harmony Week. This week, celebrated in the first week of February every year, seeks to unite the basic principles of humanity and kindness that each faith is built upon. Soon, this idea was turned into an official UN Observance Event. In 2017, events took place across the United States and Canada celebrating World Interfaith Harmony Week.
In Syracuse, New York, over 500 people gathered for the Seventh Annual World Interfaith Harmony Assembly. This year’s event, organized by United
Religions Initiative Cooperation Circles Interfaith Works and Women Transcending Boundaries, had the biggest turnout to date, with hundreds packing the University United Methodist Church to show support for one another. Representatives from twelve different religions participated in the assembly under the theme “Love is the Answer.” Each group took turns presenting when and why their faith teaches that love is the answer.
Next year, the assembly will take place at a place of worship from another faith tradition.
“It’s great that we have this event at different locations each year for everyone to get a unique experience,” said Danya Wellmon, one of the organizers of the event.
Bound together by World Interfaith Harmony Week, hundreds of miles away a group of people Danya has never met work towards the same goal — giving people a unique experience of their neighbor’s faith.
In Fremont, California, over 150 people attended World Interfaith Harmony Day, an event sponsored by the Tri-City Interfaith Council, which is a United Religions Initiative Cooperation Circle; the Fremont Human Relations Commission; and the Alameda County Human Relations Commission.
At the event, sixteen different faith communities set up tables with literature and artistic displays showcasing their tradition. After about an hour of people visiting these tables, participants were broken into small groups for discussion with people from different traditions. In these groups, each person took turns speaking about how their faith compels them to help their neighbors.
“This year, [rather than having a panel discussion] we decided to have people interact with each other at a lay level. You should see human beings and hear their stories. When you meet ordinary people, they share stories. Personal stories are very powerful,” said organizer Moina Shaiq.
Though across the country from one another, organizers of both these events felt the same way: the timing of World Interfaith Harmony week this year was especially appropriate given the current political atmosphere.
“You can see the rising anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and the increase of fear within people it’s caused, which is why we need these type of events,” said Wellmon.
At the event in Fremont, Muslims community members were able to share their concern and fear about living in the current political climate.
“People are starting to make the connection [of] why we are so sacred,” said Shaiq, who is a Muslim herself.
In Surrey, British Columbia, a community of people set out to make more of these types of connections happen — to unite people of different faiths and traditions together to show support and further understanding of one another, as well as to build solidarity with the victims and families who had lost relatives in the Quebec shooting. Despite the Third Annual Surrey Interfaith Pilgrimage being canceled due to heavy snow, a group of people still made the pilgrimage, which consisted of a long, cold walk through Surrey to visit seven different places of worship.
By the end of the pilgrimage, the group had visited six houses of worship — a Buddhist temple, Hindu Mandir (temple), Christian church, Muslim Masjid and two Sikh Gudwaras. At these places of worship, members of each faith welcomed the visitors, conversed, and built bridges. At the Hindu Mandir, participants were treated to a meal in a traditional spiritual offering ceremony.
“When we are confronted with deep loss, fear often emerges in our thoughts,” said participant Scott Reynolds “Walking and sharing a meal together is a tangible, bodily demonstration of unity that reminds us to let go of fear and move forward in love.”
Connie Watermon, one of the event organizers, stressed the possibility for interfaith work to create peace, and why these events are so important.
“Each one of us has the ability, individually and collectively, to be compassionate, selfless, and loving. These attributes are strengthened by religious values taught by all the world’s great religions,” she said. “Together we can create a better world by concentrating all the thoughts of our heart on love and unity, [and] then aligning our actions to reflect that thought.”
You can read more about World Interfaith Harmony Week events celebrated across Canada, the US and world, by clicking 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.
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.
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.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.