Bearing witness to, and responsibility for, the Earth

“What gives you #TangibleHope in the world today? How do your values and/or belief systems come into conversation with this #TangibleHope?”

Katherine Hreib, Environmental Network Coordinator at the United Religions Initiative:

Recently during a moment of meditation I returned to a place where I grew up: the meek woods of New England. I’m clothed in a dark night sky polluted only by the glow of the stars, where the cool air invites a deep openness of breath and cradles me in silent aloneness. When I allow myself to return to the woods of Massachusetts in my memory, or when I take an afternoon to visit the Pacific shores near my new home on the west coast, I am reminded of how my sense of well-being, confidence and stillness mirrors my experience of the natural world.

Just as my sense of peace relies on both my physical and spiritual well-being, so too do I rely on the natural world for physical and spiritual health. In this sense my relationship to the natural world—the land, waters, skies, winds and light— is just as much physical as it is non-physical. In an era of climate change and accelerating environmental degradation we are asked to confront how the changing Earth impacts and will continue to impact our access to necessary resources like water and nutritious sustenance, as well as our emotional and spiritual well-being under various ecological stresses like air pollution and saltwater intrusion.

The Earth is our provider. In turn she only asks for our attention, our care, our being-as-witness to her and all that she does. We are to watch the land as we plant, to observe how new life comes into being and to how her many rhythms influence our lives.

As witnesses we are also responsible to attend to the signs and symptoms of illness and weakening. We must direct our eyes to the eroding Bayou of New Orleans, to the sea-life washing ashore the Pacific coast, to the floods around the world that disrupt antiquated agricultural calendars and practices, and even to how industry prods, pillages, and blackens the Earth in the name of a certain type of economic growth.

These past few weeks mark for me a special moment of responsibility: The call to stewardship comes from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North Dakota to halt the construction of the four-state Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

The DAPL is a proposed 1,172-mile oil pipeline that has potentially devastating consequences for the All Earth— frequent oil spills, water contamination, biodiversity loss, to name a few; infringes upon the sacred lands, waters, resources and legal standing of the Standing Rock Sioux; and signifies a disregard for the growing consensus to move towards a zero-emissions, non-exploitative, renewables-based energy economy.

The call is loud and clear. Over the past few weeks I’ve received email blasts asking for supplies for the Standing Rock Sioux and for those standing in solidarity with them and for rides to North Dakota to join the growing number of Earth allies. I’ve seen a growing number of people raining their virtual-voices on Twitter, expressing their dissent and care for the Earth and solidarity with those who are on the front lines of justice for the Earth, for life, for sacred land and tradition.

However, on Friday September 9th, we were met with a devastating statement by a federal judge denying the Standing Rock Sioux’s request for an injunction to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. The tone suddenly changed: environmentalists and allies, sighed a sigh of disappointment. The decision was a clear instance of the privilege of profit of the fossil fuel industry over the voice of a people calling for the protection of drinking water and sacred lands.

But within an hour of the federal ruling the US Department of Justice, the Department of the Army and the Department of the Interior issued a statement effectively halting construction on an especially sensitive area along the pipeline’s construction bordering Lake Oahe, a large reservoir on the Missouri River. This is a clear sign that our calls were heard, and that—as the statement reads—“thousands of demonstrators [came] together peacefully, with the support from scores of sovereign tribal governments, to exercise their First Amendment rights and to voice heartfelt concerns about the environment and historic, sacred sights.”

By raising our voices as One, we showed that we are committed to upholding our responsibilities as stewards of the Earth and as caretakers of our fellow human.

In addition to calling for the protection of sacred waters, the diversity of voices calling for the federal government to respect the sacredness of indigenous wisdom led the Department of Justice to declare a “need for serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.”

This is a moment of tangible hope. It is a moment of hope for the Standing Rock Sioux, for their ancestors, and for the caretakers of Earth’s wisdom; it is a moment of hope for all those touched by the waters of the Missouri River, for environmentalists across the country, and for all of us who dream of a healthy and abundant Earth for ourselves and our grandchildren.

When we find ourselves wondering if the fight for resources is an invitation for divisiveness and territorialization, we ought to keep in mind that scarcity and vulnerability is an opportunity for new solidarities and innovation.

———————————

katherineKatherine joined the URI team in September 2016. She is responsible for building a strong and diverse network among environmentally focused CCs. A recent graduate of Columbia University, Katherine studied sustainable development, taking special interest in climate change law, environmental anthropology and the sociological impacts of environmental degradation. She is especially concerned with how climate change, while a common problem, has diverse local manifestations with strong negative implications for certain geographic and cultural communities. After working with groups in eastern Uganda, upstate New York and Staten Island, she understands the importance of privileging local knowledge and community engagement in the fight to address climate change issues. Katherine believes environmental justice and interfaith peacebuilding are of the same root and must addressed hand-in-hand. In her free time she enjoys live music, writing prose, camping and reading all things philosophy.

Every Tuesday, the #TangibleHope Diaries series features responses from North American grassroots peacebuilders on what gives them tangible hope in the world today. See you next week! Learn more here.

A Requiem of Hope

 

“What gives you #TangibleHope in the world today? How do your values and/or belief systems come into conversation with this #TangibleHope?”

Shirin Ganji, Member of the Newmarket and Area Interfaith Council

————————————–

Verily, with hardship comes ease (Qur’an 94:5)

In my faith, I am reminded that misfortune is only a challenge of your character, and that there is rarely any difficulty that is not followed by relief. However, when faced with adversity, hope becomes questionable. It becomes the product of a constant self-struggle of whether to move forward or remain stagnant. But most of all, in any given moment it can be conjured up and it can be temporary.

However permanent or fleeting hope may be, it is, above all, empowering. In my experience, it has assisted me through moments of grief and distress.

Recently, I was on a road trip to Las Vegas, in which my purse with all my belongings including my passport, driver’s license, health card, SIN card, and credit cards were all stolen. Instantly, the desire for adventure came to an abrupt end, shrouding the night with concern and worry as I had a return flight to catch the next day. My friends accompanied me through this turn of events, and assisted me in every possible way. They inspired me to find hope in the matter and aided me in all the necessary procedures about reporting a stolen passport.

After searching all night, and slowly losing confidence in the search, they held my hands and each prayed with me for my safe return home. We each came from different backgrounds and belief systems but regardless, it ignited a beautiful expression of intent. It calmed me down, and deep in my heart everything felt like it was going to all wrap up nicely.

I retrieved a temporary passport from the Canadian embassy and managed to board a domestic flight to San Francisco, only to be faced with another road block. The airline had told me that, in order to go home, I was going to have to wait a day and cash up $2000. Out of fear of not being able to afford the trip back home I broke into tears in the middle of Union Square.

While sobbing in public, a homeless man from across the street made his way to the flower booth just outside the subway and purchased a flower. He offered me the flower and said: “Please don’t cry, everything will work out. I promise.” A man who seemed to have nothing consoled me in an attempt to spark optimism amidst a seemingly dark situation. I thanked him dearly, hopped on the train and called my booking company to get on the next plane to Toronto. Eventually, everything worked out! I got back home safely, and a month later, to my surprise, the Las Vegas airport sent me my purse with all of my belongings, as someone had returned it to the airport.

Throughout this experience, my hope was cultivated by the friends and strangers, from different identities, who supported me in my time of need. The questions of what I believe and who I believe in is left out of the equation. This is what inspires hope in me and in humanity: when we focus on the problems in front of us, and learn to lend a hand to every person who needs it.

What gives me tangible hope today is the collaboration between different faith groups and communities assisting each other in times of chaos and turmoil. Just as I was offered assistance through my journey, others require the same kind of treatment. Acknowledgement of this cause already insinuates a certain degree of awareness and how important it is to spread hope around the world.

———————————

Shririn Ganji is the co-founder of the Undergraduate Religious Studies Student Association, geared toward historical understanding of different religions and a more practical understanding of how religion is integrated in the public sphere. She received an Honors B.A from the University of Toronto, specializing in World Religions and Philosophy. She derives most of her inspiration learning about the various religions and cultures that exist in the world, and how many of these traditions are linked, and intertwined together.

Every Tuesday, the #TangibleHope Diaries series features responses from North American grassroots peacebuilders on what gives them tangible hope in the world today. See you next week! Learn more here.

 

Hope is only hope when…

“What gives you #TangibleHope in the world today? How do your values and/or belief systems come into conversation with this #TangibleHope?”

Bishop William Swing, President and Founder of the United Religions Initiative:

What fills me with hope is going out into the driveway in the morning to pick up the newspaper. I brace myself for the experience. I walk slowly and dawdle. I breathe in self-consciously. For a brief moment, I am in awe.  What is it that holds me in its power and glory? The sunrise!

Sunrise is so quiet.  No one owes it or can control it. Sunrise brings a blanket of undeniable freshness as if all the soiled garments of life had just been laundered.

It accentuates the beauty of everything it touches.

Sunrise has always worked its magic on me no matter where it has encountered me.  Picking blueberries in the hills of West Virginia, drawing water in jungle river in Papua New Guinea, walking hot streets in India, trudging roads above the Arctic Circle, walking into prisons, TB hospitals or mental facilities, filming in a desert in Judea, strolling along a beach in Rio de Janeiro, watching old couples ballroom dancing in China.

When the sun comes up, hope peeks through the gloom and whispers a word of promise.

It is morning in Burlingame, California, where I live, and I stand for the briefest of seconds holding my newspaper basking in the sunrise.  In my hand, I hold the incomprehensibly complicated news of a world gone mad, and on my face, I feel the light of infinite possibility. Hope is only hope when it is confronted by the specter of hopelessness.

I raised myself on the music of optimism.  “Oh its a good day for paying your bills and a good day for curing your ills.  So take a deep breath and throw away your pills, cause its a good day from morning till night,” says in 1940’s song. And I sang it on the surface of my life. But optimism only carries you as far as the edge of intractable suffering.  Then the journey can only be made by internalizing rays of hope that warm you from vast reservoirs of primal energy. Sunshine!  Or its equivalents! Or its Author!

Today’s prevailing hopelessness is captured in the phrase, “Religions have always fought in the past, and they will always fight in the future. You can’t change that.” There is a great deal of truth to that statement.  But there is a great deal of error in it, as well.  Religions have not always fought.  As a matter of fact, people of different and conflicting religious claims have consistently discovered practical ways of living side by side in far-flung locales and at various moments of history. They do today, all over the world, but this news will not be in the newspaper that I hold in the driveway.

Every day, I go inside my house, turn on my computer and get reports through the United Religions Initiative. These are real stories of people of all sorts of religions and other traditions, finding each other, tapping into good hearts, and discovering creative ways of serving specific needs.  To what do I attribute this newsworthy phenomenon?

I think that religious people pick up the absolution, the invigoration, the beauty of holiness that sunshine bestows, each day, on the earth.  Promiscuous grace bestowed in all directions, on the most undeserving as well as the most exemplar! Ordinary believers intuit that the One they worship is exceedingly generous and practical, and so they feel at home with other souls, of other traditions, who are inspired by Divine generosity and practicality. Together they publish a different kind of news — a digest of hope.

———————————

bishopswing1-250_250Bishop William Swing is the President and Founder of the URI. He had the original vision of URI in 1993 in response to an invitation from the United Nations which asked him to host an interfaith service honoring the 50th anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter. He  served as the Episcopal Bishop of California from 1980 until his retirement in 2006. In that capacity, he was a national and international leader in response to the AIDS crisis, co-founded Episcopal Community Services to address San Francisco’s homeless problem, and co-founded Community Bank of the Bay to support local businesses and the economy.

Every Tuesday, the #TangibleHope Diaries series features responses from North American grassroots peacebuilders on what gives them tangible hope in the world today. See you next week! Learn more here.

The “Ask a Muslim” Series: A Space for Courageous Conversations

“Can Muslim women lead prayer?” “What is Sharia law?” Can you be gay and Muslim?”

These are but some of the questions Muslim panelists are asked during monthly Ask a Muslim gatherings co-hosted by The Markaz Arts Centre for the Greater Middle East, an Affiliate of The United Religions Initiative (URI) North America in Los Angeles.

Once a month, this collaboration with Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV), invites members of the public to listen to, and engage with, a diverse group of Muslims responding to a variety of prompts, such as “Islam 101,” “Women in Islam” and “LGBTQI and Islam.” Participants are encouraged to ask clarifying questions without the fear of feeling ignorant. Ask a Muslim seeks to counter the islamophobia presented in the mainstream US media by putting faces and stories to the life experiences of Muslims in the United States and beyond.

Co-organizer Jordan Elgrably, founder of The Markaz, describes these events as conversations and safe spaces that foster “an ongoing open dialogue for debate and understanding around today’s pressing questions about Islam.” The vision for this program came from a real need Jordan identified within his community and beyond.

“In this country, we don’t talk about race, religion, politics, with great depth – we need safe places for public conversations,” he said. “We need to peel away our onion layers with each other and talk honestly about our fears and confusion.”

Los Angeles is not the first place this series has taken place. This past summer, Ani Zonneveld, founder and director of MPV, brought Ask a Muslim to the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva. During her time at the HRC, MPV hosted tables for passerbys to spend a moment with the Islamic scholars and Imams who traveled with MPV as part of their “ImamsForShe” initiative. This project facilitated meaningful, one-on-one connections between strangers and helped break down barriers that had previously existed between people.

The Ask a Muslim series employs the age-old peacebuilding tactic of using open and honest conversations as a tool for dismantling stereotypes and challenging implicit prejudices. It aims to change people’s hearts and minds about Muslims by creating a space where participants are encouraged to reach within themselves and ask what is truly on their mind – free of judgment from other participants.

All across the US and Canada, grassroots interfaith groups are making strides to break down these barriers and create safe spaces for the deep conversations of which Jordan speaks. The Love Your Muslim Neighbor panel discussions hosted by the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County CC facilitates crucial conversations, within a variety of church congregations, regarding some of the major misconceptions regarding Islam and Muslims, with up to 200 participants. Additionally, InterfaithWorks Cooperation Circle, based out of Syracuse, NY, hosts an Interfaith Dinner Dialogue series, wherein participants gather over a free meal to discuss questions posed by a facilitator and share their experiences regarding faith and spirituality with friends and strangers alike. Examples of such events continue with: Kashi Ashram Cooperation Circle, an interfaith intentional living community hosts “Listening Circles,” the Arizona Faith Network Cooperation Circle, hosts community discussions on local issues, their most recent one being on Environmental Racism, and the National Peace Academy‘s “Truth Telling Project” aimed at implementing and sustaining grassroots, community-centered truth-telling processes to share local voices, to educate America, and to support reconciliation for the purposes of eliminating structural violence and systemic racism against Black people in the United States.

By intentionally creating spaces conducive to open and honest dialogue, each of these initiatives creates opportunities for people, from a variety of different backgrounds, to show up, engage and take ownership of their learning.


Anissa

Anissa Abdel-Jelil joined the URI North America as the Communications and Outreach Coordinator in May 2016, after a seven-month fellowship with the organization. She brings with her a passion for social justice and storytelling. Her international and interfaith upbringing, paired with her academic journey, opened her eyes to the community-based peacebuilding work taking place all over the world. Her experiences in the fields of international human rights and humanitarianism, health, wellness and intercultural bridge building have equipped her with a hybrid lens for problem solving and clearly communicating complex information. Anissa’s combination of work and volunteer experience and language, graphic design and social media skills will allow her to make a meaningful contribution to the URI North America team. Throughout her time with us, she hopes to emulate the creativity and resilience she sees throughout URI’s network.

jordan picJordan Elgrably is an award-winning social entrepreneur, producer, writer, editor & the founding director of The Markaz, Arts Center for the Greater Middle East, in Los Angeles. A curator and producer of public programs, Jordan is of Moroccan and French heritage. He has been passionately committed to strengthening Arab/Muslim/Christian and Jewish relations for many years. In addition to The Markaz, which he co-founded in 2001 as the Levantine Cultural Center, he founded the New Association of Sephardi/Mizrahi Artists & Writers International in 1996 and Open Tent Middle East Coalition in 1999. He was a producer for the Dalai Lama’s World Festival of Sacred Music in 1999, 2002 and 2005. As well, he has launched several original initiatives, among them the Sultans of Satire: Middle East Comic Relief; Beirut-LosAngeles.org; CelebratePalestine.org; and New Voices in Middle Eastern Cinema, with funding from the Golden Globes/Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Jordan attended the American University of Paris (formerly ACP) and was based for a number of years in Paris and Madrid, where he worked as a journalist and associate producer for TF1. His essays, articles and stories have appeared in many anthologies and periodicals. He is a member of PEN Center, the international advocacy organization for writers and journalists, the Los Angeles Press Club, and the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association. In 2008, the L.A. Weekly featured Jordan Elgrably in its People of the Year issue and he received the Local Hero Award from the Foundation for World Arts and Culture; in 2011 and 2014, he was an Annenberg Alchemy Fellow; in 2013 and 2015 he was nominated for the James Irvine Leadership Award. In 2014 he received an American Express Award and in 2015, the Rachel Corrie Conscience and Courage Award from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. He is a 2016 Ariane de Rothschild Foundation Fellow. Jordan lives near San Luis Obispo with his wife and son.

ani picAni Zonneveld is founder and President of Muslim for Progressive Values (MPV). Since its inception, Ani has presided over MPV’s expansion to include chapters and affiliates in 12 countries and  19 cities. She has organized numerous interfaith arts and music festivals, participated in many interfaith dialogues and is a strong supporter of human rights and freedom of expression. She is the brainchild of Literary Zikr – a project that counters radical Islam on-line and co-editor of MPV’s first book, an anthology titled “Progressive Muslim Identities – Personal Stories from the U.S. and Canada”; she has contributed to many forewords and numerous anthologies too many to list; is a contributor for HuffingtonPost, OpenDemocracy and al-Jazeera, and recently gave her TEDx talk titled – Islam: As American As Apple Pie; and the subject of a documentary title “al-imam” featuring Ani’s activism works. As an award winning singer/songwriter, she utilizes the power of music and the arts in countering radicalism as she speaks-sings her message of social justice and peace from a progressive Muslim woman’s perspective, and is the first woman to release an English Islamic popalbum in the U.S. in 2004. Born and raised Muslim from Malaysia and based out of Los Angeles, Ani spent a good portion of her formative years raised in Germany, Egypt and India as an Ambassador’s daughter. Her exposure to different politics, religions and cultures has shaped her inclusive worldview.

The New Face of Direct Services for Homeless Folks

Today, over 70 media organizations across the United States are shining the spotlight on homelessness in their communities. The coalition of voices speaking up are a combination of groups participating in the San Francisco Homeless Project campaign, originating in San Francisco, CA, and other organizations, located across the nation, who are following suit.

URI North America joins these voices to showcase the work our network of interfaith grassroots peacebuilders are doing to address housing insecurities within their communities. 


It’s changing the face of direct services for homeless folks. And it all started with an anonymous donor, a city that couldn’t receive anonymous money and a group of interfaith leaders committed to serving the approximately 7,000 people without homes in their city.

“What makes the difference here is hope,” said Kathy Treggiari who works with the San Francisco Navigation Center as part of her role at Episcopal Community Services of San Francisco.

The Navigation Center, which is fiscally sponsored by the San Francisco Interfaith Council, a URI North America Cooperation Circle, takes an unconventional approach to housing the homeless. Rather than a traditional shelter, the Navigation Center provides a place where entire encampments of people without homes can move together — with their partners, pets and possessions– and have 24-hours access to living quarters, a dining room, showers, bathrooms, laundry and counseling offices.

URI NA Visits the Navigation Center

The Navigation Center is cheery, with brightly-colored murals and a courtyard that soaks up the morning sun. But what makes the Navigation Center groundbreaking is its emphasis on long term housing — that is the hope that Treggiari was talking about.

The Navigation Center is supported by a host of government agencies, many of whom would generally not work together, and a dedicated staff — 45% of whom are formerly homeless themselves — to provide in-depth and personalized assistance to help residents move into permanent housing. The model has been so successful that like-minded organizations from Dallas to Seattle to cities in South Africa are looking into replicating it.

From where I sit, it’s no surprise that an interfaith organization was instrumental in such an innovative model coming into existence. Part of the beauty of interfaith work is the bringing together of people with such vastly different beliefs that the solutions they come up with and projects they are willing to take on are often new and innovative.

Learn more about these groups here:

Missoula Interfaith Collaborative

Interfaith Initiative of Santa Barbara County

Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County

Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy


Sari HeidenreichSari Heidenreich is the Regional Coordinator for the United Religions Initiative North America, a network of 94 interfaith organizations in the U.S. and Canada. Globally, the United Religions Initiative is the world’s largest network of grassroots interfaith peacebuilders, with 787 member groups in 95 countries all working with coalitions of people of multiple religions, spiritual expressions or Indigenous traditions to create cultures of peace, justice and healing. To find out how to get involved, click here.

SARAH Cooperation Circle Welcomes New Advisory Council Member

 

Rupsi Burman

“When I wear this pin I remember that I am a woman of my community, dedicated to creating a safe and harmonious environment with my daily actions” 

Earlier this month, Rupsi Burman, founder of Hope in Life Foundation, a Multi-Region Cooperation Circle and chair of the Orange County Task Force – Cities for CEDAW Program, was welcomed onto SARAH’s, the Spiritual and Religious Alliance for Hope Cooperation Circle, Advisory Council.

During the process, she pledged to remember her role as a woman of her community, dedicated to creating a safe and harmonious environment with her daily actions.

SARAH Cooperation Circle
Members of SARAH welcome Rupsi Burman to their Advisory Council

SARAH’s purpose is to “empower the community, learn from each other, and enlighten one another. To create a culture of peace.” They are Southern Calfiornia Based, but their work knows no boundaries. If you are interested in forming a SARAH Circle in your community, click here.

To learn more about their peacebuilding work, click here.

VIDEO: North America Trustee Candidates Share Vision and Qualifications

VIDEO: North America Trustee Candidates Share Vision and Qualifications

VIDEO: North America Trustee Candidates Share Vision and Qualifications

The North America candidates for the United Religions Initiative Global Council met for a virtual “meet and greet” to share about their vision and qualifications for the position.

This video is an opportunity for Cooperation Circle members to get to know the eight North America Global Council Trustee Candidates ahead of casting your votes.  The call begins with candidate introductions before moving into a question and answer time. After that they each (briefly) answered two questions:

The 2016 North America candidates for Global Council are:

  • Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell
  • Fred Fielding
  • Stephanie Humphrey
  • Reed Price
  • Jaya Priya Reinhalter
  • Ardisanne Turner
  • Ellen Vaillancourt
  • Rev. Carol Wilkins

For more information on the candidates and voting process, click here.

It is almost time for URI Cooperation Circles to vote three new Trustees to the United Religions Initiative Global Council. To help inform your decision, you and members of your Cooperation Circle are invited to a virtual “meet and greet” with the eight North America Nominees for Global Council. This call is an opportunity for you to get to know this year’s North America Global Council Trustee Nominees and to share your visions and goals for URI’s Global Council.