Visiting and Learning from Interfaith Groups in Southern California

In early August, I headed to San Diego, California, where I spent an incredible and intense five days immersed in the North American Interfaith Network Connect. Alongside URI North America Leadership Council members Ardey Turner, Fred Fielding, Johnny Martin and Gard Jameson, I was privileged to support this gathering through the planning and facilitation of an intergenerational dialogue as well as facilitating a workshop on engaging various types of diversity in the interfaith movement.

The gathering was also a wonderful time to meet new people and connect with old friends — both from within the URI network (there were attendees from at least nine URI Cooperation Circles and three URI North America Affiliates) and from places and organizations I had never met. (Deeper reflections on this gathering to come in a future blog post.)

Whenever I interact with anyone doing interfaith peacebuilding work, I try to ask questions that help me learn and understand practices that can be shared within and beyond the URI network; to share what is happening in other parts of URI; when possible, to make practical connections between and among people doing this work that don’t know one another; and to get input on how they think URI can continue to grow and serve our members, and the interfaith movement as a whole.

One thing I don’t often get to do when I meet people at gatherings like NAIN, is to see, first-hand, what their communities are like and how they are building bridges there. (Meeting outside of conferences also allows for much longer and less-distracted conversations.)

And, so, to do this, I embarked on a one-week trip to visit URI members in southern California after NAIN. During this trip, I met with six Cooperation Circles and two URI North America Affiliates. I want to share some of these learnings and community snapshots with you, so I invite you to come along on the journey. 

Sari Heidenreich
North American Regional Coordinator

Day 1:  Spiritual and Religious Alliance for Hope (S.A.R.A.H.)

I left San Diego and drove up to Orange County for the 15th Anniversary celebration of SARAH, a longtime URI Cooperation Circle. SARAH, an abbreviation for the group’s full name — Spiritual and Religious Alliance for Hope — was formed shortly after 9/11 when a group of women from different faith traditions came together to serve their community and build bridges.

To honor their anniversary, SARAH hosted a screening of a documentary called On Common Ground, which was filmed during the service trip that spurred the group’s founding. After giving several awards to honor community and civic leaders, SARAH itself was given a certificate of recognition from their state assemblywoman for the work they have done in Orange County over the past 15 years.

That night, I stayed the night with Kay Lindahl, co-founder of Women of Spirit and Faith, a URI North America Affiliate. Kay, who was also part of URI’s founding, was a wonderful host and we stayed up till the wee hours (ok, “wee hours” for me being about midnight) talking about the future of the interfaith movement and areas for its growth.

Day 2:  Women of Spirit and Faith and Peace Prayer CC

The next morning, we met for breakfast with the other co-founder of Women of Spirit and Faith, Kathy Schaaf. After an hour and a half with them I felt like I had just taken a master’s class in circle facilitation.

  • Here are a few snippets of what I learned during our conversation:
  • Questions that you formulate at the beginning of a planning process will not be the same by the time the gathering comes around. Don’t get locked in.
  • Odd numbers are better for leadership/planning teams, with the ideal number being about 5 to 7
  • Make a sacred center in the room you use.
  • Make people comfortable as much as possible, even if it’s through “simple” things like a goody bag with chocolate, tea and a word of wisdom.

They offered to share their wisdom and expertise to any interested URI members! So if you want to talk to either of them, just send me an email ( and I’ll put you in touch. 

After breakfast, I drove to the Saboba Indian Reservation, which is in the desert, about an hour and a half from Los Angeles. I’m was hosted there the Peace Prayer CC, which is focused on gathering people to pray for peace. The group has been in existence for about 15 years and has been a URI member for as many years.

Michael and Sr. Marianna were amazingly gracious hosts — putting me up in the Mission’s guest house, making sure I drank enough water in the intensely dry heat, and providing delicious meals and conversations.

That evening, we had an event where they asked me to share about the Interfaith Day of Prayer at Standing Rock. They had invited people from the reservation and surrounding communities for the event and I was incredibly honored that people drove as long as an hour to attend Michael opened the gathering with a powerful Indigenous prayer circle and I shared photos from Standing Rock as I read aloud a blog post that I had written shortly after returning from Standing Rock. Then, we dove into conversations about how the movement at Standing Rock can continue to inspire spiritual and environmental movements and activism in our local communities today.

Day 3:  Unity and Diversity World Council  and Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Ethics 

The next morning, I was awakened by the most cheerful construction worker, singing at the top of his lungs as he worked. It was one of the most joyful things I have ever woken up to!

As noon approached, Sr. Marianna brought up lunch and we ate, together with Michael and another sister. Before I left, Michael gifted me with a bundle of sage and packet of tobacco to carry with me as I visited other URI circles — to share that Peace Prayer CC was one with them in praying for peace. As I left the mountains and drove back towards the coast, I reflected on what a privilege it was to get to meet these wonderful people and experience such amazing hospitality!

Back in LA, I met with Leland Stewart, founder of the Unity and Diversity World Council (UDC) Cooperation Circle, and Stephen Sideroff and Ron Klemp, board members of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Ethics Cooperation Circle. After having heard for a few years about a program called Life Choices, which Ron created, it was a real honor to meet him for the first time. The program, run through the Institute, combines literacy and drama to teach high school students about practical ethics. Currently, the program is done with 9th and 10th grade students at a local high school. And there is much room for growth in its future. If you are interested in learning more about how you could potentially use the resources developed by Ron and the Institute to implement a program in your community, be sure to reach out to them!

Leland shared with us the exciting developments around Peace Sunday 2017, an observance of International Day of Peace that UDC hosts annually. This year’s celebration revolves around Sacred Activism and will include a Peace Pole raffle and a documentary screening, as well as a keynote from Congresswoman Karen Bass. UDC eagerly invites anyone in the Los Angeles area to attend the event on September 17. (Register here, if you’re interested.)

During the meeting, we were also able to identify several connections within the URI network that would benefit the work of both of these groups. Finding these kinds of connections is one of the most exciting parts of my job because it means that the capacity of the interfaith peacebuilding movement is growing– connecting people so that they can share resources and best practices builds collective impact!

Before I returned back to the place I was saying that night, I picked up takeout and went to the beach: this Saturday was the same day as the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. And, so, I needed that time to dig my toes into the sand and stare at the rhythm of the crashing waves. I let myself begin to process the hate and violence that had emerged that day and to begin considering my place in countering it.

Day 4:  Hope in Life Foundation 

The next day, I was hosted by Hope in Life Foundation for an interfaith musical event. Before the music began, Rupsi, the founder of Hope in Life Foundation, gave me the honor of introducing myself and the URI to the community. Then, two musicians performed pieces by Hindu and Islamic poets. These vocalists and instrumentalists were absolutely amazing and serenaded the crowd for nearly two hours!

Following the event, Rupsi, I and a few other board members from the organization, discussed the group’s other projects — both current and upcoming. In another wonderful stroke of serendipity, Hope in Life had just started doing an anti-bullying program and, after I left, I was able to connect Rupsi with Stephen so they could each become more acquainted with one another’s work — happening just a few dozen miles apart.

Day 5: The Markaz

The following day, I had dinner with Alfred the new Executive Director of The Markaz, a URI North America Affiliate. As Alfred recently assumed this role with The Markaz, it was a great chance for us to get reacquainted with what each other’s organizations had to offer and how we could support each other. Alfred is a great resource for anyone looking to do more work in the space of peacebuilding through art and music.  We met at a fabulous Middle Eastern buffet and were so consumed with the food and conversation that we forgot to take a picture!

That evening, I drove to Culver City where I stayed the night with Rev. Carolyn Wilkins, who si the chair of the Culver City Area Interfaith Alliance (CCAIA).

Day 6: Culver City Area Interfaith Alliance

Conversation with Rev. Carolyn was wonderful and deep. She’s the type of person that you can get engaged in a conversation with and then not realize that hours have passed. Spending time with her was additionally sweet because she is part of an online learning community that URI North America has hosted for the past six months. During our monthly meetings, roughly six URI members from across the US and Canada spend time getting to know one another on a personal level, sharing practical tools for grassroots interfaith peacebuilding work, and diving into new areas of growth together. Having the opportunity to deepen these  online discussion through late night and early morning discussions was absolutely rich.

Around midday, Rev. Carolyn prepared a lovely brunch and Rev. Doris Davis, founder of CCAIA, came over. The conversation got richer and deeper as we shared about our personal spiritual journeys and how those led us into this work. I also had the opportunity to learn more about the history of CCAIA, where their hope to go in the next year and their year-long involvement in Culver City’s Centennial anniversary. They are supporting the integration of the area’s faith community in the celebration, and, among other things, are spearheading an event to mark both the International Day of Peace and the anniversary, they will be co-hosting a Interfaith Prayer Breakfast.

As brunch wrapped up, I packed up to drive to the final stop on my journey: a couple of hours up the coast to Santa Barbara. The drive was absolutely stunning — with mountains on my right and the ocean on my left. I was welcomed in Santa Barbara by Yasmin, who extended gracious hospitality by opening up her apartment for me to stay, taking me to her favorite  pizza restaurant and giving me a tour of the University of California – Santa Barbara’s absolutely amazing campus.

Yasmin is a board member with the Interfaith Initiative of Santa Barbara County (IFISBC) and, prior to that, was inolved in interfaith organizing when she was an undergraduate student. I learned a lot from her about the tactics she used to breathe new life into student organizations that were wavering. In the serendipity that was so present throughout my trip, it just so happened that while at NAIN, I met a student organizer who was facing similar struggles with the student organization he was a part of. And, so, I asked if she’d be interested in sharing with him — and, of course, she was!

Day 7: Interfaith Initiative of Santa Barbara County

The next day, Ivor John welcomed Yasmin and I for dinner at his home. As he chopped and diced, we discussed the EcoFaith program, which is the main IFISBC program that he’s a part of.

Much like Rev. Carolyn, I have also been in several online meetings with Ivor and, so, it was a real joy to be able to deepen conversations we had started online a part of the Environment Learning Community that URI North America facilitates alongside the Environmental Network Cooperation Circle.

IFISBC’s EcoFaith program encourages houses of worship to reduce their carbon footprint and to share what they’ve learned to help other congregations follow in their footsteps. I learned more about the history of this project and the areas they are hoping to grow into. Ivor and Yasmin invited me to brainstorm with them ways the program could achieve its goals and that was a great honor.

Day 8: Home

I left Santa Barbara before the sun was up to return home to Virginia just before midnight. The journey was long but provided plenty of opportunities for rest and reflection on the past 7 days. It is an incredible privilege to do this work — to meet incredible people, to be invited into homes and experience hospitality, to support bridge-building work happening all across the continent and world. This makes me so hopeful about the future of our planet — and I hope reading this has given you some #TangibleHope too.