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Additional News Stories from 2009


United Nations East Bay Peacebuilding Celebration –
September 25, 2009 - Berkeley

Uniting Nations in an Interfaith World

Paul Chaffee, Executive Director, Interfaith Center at the Presidio

[Excerpts; Full text in pdf format]

We gather yearning for peace. Like many millions of others honoring peacemaking this month, we are dedicated to constructing a culture that graduates from violence as a change agent. We hunger for peace among nations, within nations and communities, in our own families, in our own lives.

Such hope seems fantastic, a pipedream, after hearing the news each day. That doesn’t slow us down, though. If anything, reality’s rough edges clarify the importance of doing better about peacemaking. Being in this for the long haul, let’s begin with some historical context to what we are up to here, talking about peacemaking.

In America and Europe, religiously inspired pacifists began creating peace societies early in the nineteenth century. In 1815 the New York Peace Society became the first of its kind, inspiring similar associations across the country, culminating in the formation of the American Peace Society in 1828. In France, religious pacifists organized in 1820, and similar groups started popping up all over Europe. An 1895 New York Times article describes 300 peace societies around the world, and hundreds more flowered in the years that followed. But still no peace.

Then early in February, 1914, the industrial magnate, Andrew Carnegie, called together religious leaders from across the country. Carnegie was convinced that with their religious leadership and his money, they could construct international political agencies to guarantee world peace. He put $2 million on the table, charging the religious hierarchs with being change-agents for peace. On that winter morning, he said: “After the arbitration of international disputes is established and war abolished, as it certainly will be some day, and that sooner than expected, probably by the Teutonic nations, Germany, Britain and the United States first deciding to act in unison, other Powers joining later, the Trustees will divert the revenues of this fund to relieve the deserving poor and afflicted.” In other words, once you’ve handled war, use the rest of the money to end poverty.

Well now, the clerics went right to work, organizing a peace conference at Lake Constance, in southern Germany. They gathered by the lake on August 1. The next day, World War One broke out. After a prayer meeting, they scrambled out of Germany, and scattered back home, though some were able to make it to London and were instrumental in forming the Church Peace Union, an agency that for decades championed religiously organized peacebuilding.

Anyone who agreed with Carnegie’s optimism 95 years ago, or does so today, just doesn’t understand what we face. Yet there is considerable hope abroad today, and that is what I wish to explore with you. Let me continue with a more recent story.

Sixteen years ago the United Nations contacted the Right Reverend William Swing, Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of California, asking if Grace Cathedral could be used to celebrate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the United Nations. Bill Swing immediately said “Yes,” they would be happy to host the celebration. But he was troubled.

The nations may have failed to bring peace to the world, but they have been trying hard for half a century. What happened to the religious community, the same community which inspired the original peace societies nearly two centuries ago? Why has religion done so very little by way of peacemaking? Bill Swing took these questions very seriously, gathering together the leaders who founded the United Religions Initiative. Today URI has more than 400 independent chapters, called cooperation circles, in 60 countries, each one committed to creating cultures of peace, justice, and healing. URI rarely makes it to the front pages, but remarkable stories are emerging.

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Ten years ago Harvard’s Diana Eck wrote about a new religious America. Today its safe to say, a new religious world, a world newly ready to join hands in picking up the cause of peace. This is all brand new. But we’ve learned quite a bit already about the elusive goal of peace.

  • § The first learning comes with the huge value-add the interfaith movement offers the rest of the culture: that is, vital interfaith relationships and communities help free religions from their worst propensities – such as declaring absolute truth claims, requiring blind obedience, or justifying any means for your ‘sacred’ end. Charles Kimball’s award-winning When Religion Becomes Evil (2002) details why developing ‘an inclusive faith rooted in a tradition” is so important for all of us in the quest for peace.
  • § We’ve learned in dozens of different contexts that peacemaking is all about relationships, relationships among people who once were strangers to each other or even enemies. Mohammad Abu Nimer, a Muslim, Cynthia Sampson, a Christian Scientist, John Paul Lederach, a Mennonite, Aaron Tapper, a Jew, Joseph Montville, an Episcopalian, are among the leaders taking us into new arenas, new disciplines for engendering peace.
  • § We’ve learned to honor, even celebrate our differences, while sharing core values about issues like peacemaking, the end of poverty, and caring for the Earth § We’ve learned that peacemaking has to do with establishing mutual respect. If respect is firmly grounded in a person or in a relationship, you unleash something very powerful. Without it, there is little chance for making a real difference for peace.
  • § We’ve learned the critical importance of inclusivity, hospitality, and service – deep values whether you are talking authentic American diplomatic relations or organizing a neighborhood interfaith event. Issues like listening, non-violent communication, and forgiveness have become skill-sets we’re all working to learn.
  • § We’ve learned what is required to create safe space, where you can be who you are, without fear, where you can explore serious issues and new friendships with wonderful people who come from a million miles away spiritually, culturally, and historically. We’ve discovered, with great joy, that these exotic new friends in fact are clearly recognizable members of the family, brothers and sisters to be loved.

Interfaith activists tend not to change their affiliation. We treasure each unique tradition, we do not allow proselytizing, and very few of us ever convert. We appreciate rather than judge one another, an attitude that tends, counter intuitively, to deepen one’s own faith and practice. Already these relationships are helping foster a new inclusiveness in the culture.

A recent massive Pew poll suggests that three out of four United States citizens do not think they have the one and only authentic map to reality. The idea that there might be more than one way to God is not a problem for three-quarters of us. Consider what your own grandparents believed, and reflect on the sea-change this development represents globally.

This new reality is already a significant influence in growing a healthier, more peaceful global culture. No one can promise what Mr. Carnegie hoped for in 1914, but thousands of faith and interfaith groups around the world, with hundreds of millions of members, are making breakthroughs with the strangers in their lives, and joining hands to make a difference.

[See full text in pdf format]

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August 2009

Cameras, sacred space, and getting the details right

Paul Chaffee, Director, Interfaith Center at the Presidio

Building relationships among peoples from diverse religious and spiritual traditions is why we have an Interfaith Center. Equally important, though, is holding open the Main Post Interfaith Chapel in the Presidio of San Francisco, a sacred site welcoming us all.

So, no surprise, we’ve spent years talking about what makes sacred space sacred, particularly when many traditions hold all space to be sacred.

At the Chapel we strive to offer people safe space – a place where it is safe to be yourself, to pray or meditate, safe to worship and hold high ceremony with your family and your faith community, safe to meet strangers from different backgrounds and develop new friendships.

Last March I met Junaid Islam at a United Religions Initiative banquet. When we went to lunch two weeks later, I hadn’t the slightest notion that this new Muslim friend would add a whole new layer to the subject of sacred space at the Chapel.

Junaid has given the Center a ground-breaking webcasting system that allows us to webcast at will for no more cost that turning on a light. We plan to have a live image beamed from the Chapel to the world-wide web 24-7. A new camera offers a beautiful live image of Chapel glowing at night, lit by two 12-watt bulbs. If you’re up early, you can tune in and see the sunrise slowly fill in the colors of the stained-glass windows.

Being able to webcast a service or an interfaith program is an extraordinary new capacity. Families overseas can join their loved ones for a wedding, and good programs here will be freely available for anyone with a computer and internet access. We’ll even be able to webcast from the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Australia, through the Center’s website.

We’ve reached a benchmark and are looking at a brand new future. What does that mean in terms of sacred space? Alfred North Whitehead was at least partly right when he said religion is what you do in privacy. What would a camera in the Chapel and our presence on the web mean in terms of privacy?

When the Chapel is empty, it holds its sweetness, and no one’s privacy is threatened. When a service or a wedding is webcast, everyone involved knows about the enhancement. But what about our open hours five days a week, when anyone can walk into the sanctuary for a moment of quiet or prayer, of joy or grief? That definitely could create a privacy problem, a ‘safety’ issue.

Junaid had a perfect solution. We are mounting a camera in the top of the Chapel tower. During open hours, when the public is welcome to walk in and sit down, we will turn on the Tower camera and turn off the sanctuary camera.

So if you go to the website – www.interfaith-presidio.org – and click on the video button, you may not see the sanctuary, but the glorious out-of-doors. It means we are having “Open Hours,” where we maintain the privacy of anyone who drops in. Or perhaps a program is going on which we’ve not been asked to webcast. In those cases, instead of the Chapel, you’ll be able to check out the San Francisco Bay, the gulls and the wind in the Monterey pines and eucalyptus trees.

The rest of the time you are warmly invited indoors – either for programs or just to enjoy the peace the place conveys, even in digital translation. Clearly this new technology has the capacity to assist rather than distract us in the quest for sacred space.

It just takes time to work out the details. The technology is just as tough. As I write, the Chapel camera is down, victim of a blackout the park suffered two days ago. Which requires us to reset the camera and computer all over again! Just give us time and we’ll get the details right.

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July 2009

Why Go to NAIN?

Paul Chaffee, Director, Interfaith Center at the Presidio

Anyone willing to pay airfare, registration, room, and board to spend three days outside of Kansas City with 70 people preoccupied with interreligious relationships has to nurse a deep commitment to the cause! Even for the committed – Why spend the money?

As a veteran of a dozen NAIN (North America Interfaith Network) summer gatherings, I’ve several answers to that question, starting with old friendships and new. That’s personal, though. The reason I make it my business to keep going is what I learn. At Unity Village last month, an hour south of Kansas City, two workshops I attended tell the tale.

Rabbi Or Rose of Hebrew College in Boston began with the story of a real estate transaction: seven years ago Hebrew College bought part of Andover Newton Theological School’s property. A new Jewish institution (addressing students from high school to graduate school) found itself cheek by jowl with the oldest Protestant seminary in the country.

This geographic partnership evolved into remarkable shared programs and, now. the formation of CIRCLE – the Center for Inter-Religious Leadership Education. At the top of their agenda is a national conference April 14-16 next year to encourage seminaries to embrace interfaith studies.

Even more exciting for grassroots activists was the story of Faith to Faith – Face to Face, an interfaith certification course for lay people, begun last January in a suburb northwest of Chicago. Instead of another program ‘preaching to the choir’ – four local congregations from different faiths and a hospital appealed to their communities – people of faith interested but new to faiths other than their own.

They planned for ten to 12 students, and 30 showed up for the first class. Four semesters ($145 tuition for each) of classes (twice a month) over a two year period, along with a project, will result in a certificate. The students, ranging from nurses and airline pilots to professionals and the retired, have one criticism – they want more sessions than scheduled.

With volunteers, local grants, and tuition, the program pays presenters from the different faiths $200 per session and still has money in the bank. The project, thoroughly interfaith in the planning, is the brainchild of Rev. Gilbert ‘Budd’ Friend-Jones, pastor of the local First Congregational Church and a grassroots/global interfaith activist for the past ten years.

That was the tip of the iceberg at NAIN this year. Actually, it wasn’t icy but hot and humid in Unity Village’s magnificent 1400-acre retreat. And absolutely worth it. New ideas, new connections, new possibilities – ‘juice’ for anyone whose heart and soul are committed to healthy, vital relationships among people from the hundreds of spiritual traditions that make up the communities where we live today.

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June 2009

An Interfaith Center at the Presidio Report

United Religions Initiative-North America Assembly

Henderson, North Carolina – May 7-10, 2009

From: Paul Chaffee, Interfaith Center delegate to URI-NA

More than 50 interfaith activists spent May 7-10 near Henderson, North Carolina, focused on North America’s participation in United Religions Initiative. California representation included Jan and Paul Chaffee, Louise Todd Cope, Barbara Hartford, Tomiko Nojima, Sam Ruben, Adelia Sandoval, Ron Steward, William Swing, Rebecca Tobias, Ardey Turner, and Trinka Wasik. Four from Vancouver filled out the West Coast roster.

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Rebirth of a Region – URI-NA is United Religions Initiative’s North America region. It comprises approximately 40 URI Cooperation Circles (CCs) across Canada and the United States, representing about ten percent of URI CCs worldwide.

The excitement and energy generated by the 2000 signing of URI’s Charter was still cresting when URI-NA first met in Salt Lake City a year later. For five days, more than 250 helped forge a dream for what URI could do in North America. Five volunteer groups signed up to take the task forward. But without any institutional infrastructure and precious little time or energy available from a global office focused on all eight regions, this blossom died on the vine.

Since then some CCs have thrived, some passed away. When North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) invited URI-NA to share a summer conference in 2005, people enjoyed the abundance of interfaith programming, but little time was spent on creating an active URI region in North America.

Eighteen months ago, ten URI activists took on the challenge of revitalizing our region, including the huge task of putting together a conference. Margie Coles, Lisa Marie Main, Margi Ness, Anne Roth, Mary Page Sims, and Sandy Westin took responsibility for the Conference. Go URI women! Don Frew from Berkeley and Rachel Watcher from Oakland provided input but could not attend. The team began communicating with all URI-NA circles and fashioned four alternative models for governing ourselves that served to initiate our conversation. (Apologies if anyone has been left out!)

URI of Henderson County Cooperation Circle agreed to host the event, a huge contribution that kept on giving. Kudos to Mary Page and Henderson URI. Diana Whitney, whose Appreciative Inquiry genius has helped guide URI globally for a dozen years, attended and moderated the critical “who are we and what should we be up to” plenary Saturday morning. And Diana joined Lisa in co-facilitating the final Sunday morning exploration of what the next two years look like for us.

By the end of the Assembly, 11 people stepped forward to form an interim council to work for the region this next year. This includes Susanna McIlwayne, Adelia Sandoval, and Rebecca Tobias, the three North American trustees on the Global Council; Margi Ness, part-time Regional Coordinator; Sandy Westin, part-time Technology and Communications Coordinator, and six volunteers from across the continent. And The Clergy for Compassion and Harmony Cooperation Circle from Vancouver, BC, invited URI-NA to have its next assembly in Vancouver in 2011.

In the language of my tradition, the four days in the North Carolina woods felt like a Lazarus story, a continental community come back from the dead, or should we say, a deep sleep.

Learnings – Approximately 20 workshops were offered. What follows is a personal response to two extraordinary sessions that I attended, focused on Non-Violent Communication and Moral Imagination.

  • Non-Violent Communication (NVC) and Moral Imagination (MI) each offer high-level communication and relational skills that are extremely useful for interfaith dialogue when it takes on tough issues, conflict, or community dysfunction.
  • Both NVC and MI utilize clear assumptions and skill-sets that can be taught.
  • Both disciplines can be transformative in harmonious as well as conflicted situations.
  • Both offer tools for enhancing peacemaking in our personal and public lives.
  • Both can be taught by a growing community of trained, interfaith-friendly practitioners and teachers.
  • Excellent resources are at hand for both.

All the same can be said of Appreciative Inquiry (AI), the discipline which has given so much life to both United Religions Initiative and the Interfaith Center at the Presidio.

My “Aha!” moment came in realizing that NVC, MI, and AI all provide “deliverables” we can share while promoting interfaith culture. Put together, they could provide a core curriculum for empowering faith and interfaith communities in positive ways. Making them available would be an extraordinary act of service. For years, interfaith dialogue activists have been asked – “Besides making new friends, do you really make a difference?” “Can you measure the improvement you’ve inspired?” “How do you define success in this work?”

Teaching NVC, MI, and AI to the faith and interfaith communities where we live could provide our movement a track record of making a positive difference in all sorts of measurable ways. That is a challenge I will take back to the Interfaith Center and try out. I hope other circles do as well, and that we work collaboratively. Such a curriculum is as valuable in intrafaith relations as in interfaith relations. Were such a package adopted as a ‘core curriculum’ for URI-NA and we succeeded in running with it, the URI cause would be advanced everywhere.

It’s a natural. Since its inception, URI has embraced Appreciative Inquiry at every level. For over a year, URI’s Global Council and staff have been focused on Moral Imagination. Given the ranting that sometimes infects URI’s global internet chatter, a good dose of Non-Violent Communication would be good for all of us! Finally, new internet opportunities can provide us with ways to teach this curriculum without a lot of travel.

Blue Ridge Hospitality – The soft spring-green graciousness of the Blue Ridge hills and valleys was surpassed by the hospitality Henderson County volunteers offered from the moment we arrived. Not just a beautiful site but a safe, sacred space to do our work. The amazing chanting and singing Fran McKendree drew from us, and Michele Skeele’s American Indian flute, its melodies surrounding the outdoors full-moonrise ceremony, both came on the breeze of the Spirit. The Trail of Tears team sharing their remarkable walking tour and embracing URI-NA. Good food. Good fellowship. Bishop Swing’s stories of the journey so far gave everything else historical context, a new depth, encouragement, and a continuing challenge. We left Henderson appreciatively, refreshed and inspired as we returned home to help grow a miracle of a community in our midst.

Margi Ness, URI North America coordinator, also writes about the conference on the URI website.

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An Interfaith Approach to Prop 8
and Other Tough Issues

A Personal Perspective

A perfect storm is raging in the religious community around California’s Proposition 8. Passed in last month’s election, Prop 8 constitutionally bans gay marriage. The election did nothing to quell the debate. Congregations, judicatories, and denominations weighed in, actively campaigning and funding both sides of the issue. Feelings remain raw as the debate enters the courts.

Without taking a vote on the matter, the Board of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio clearly is as divided as the rest of the religious community. Debating the issue would not change many minds. But after the election, a trustee asked that we address Prop 8 at our next board meeting. We did, with remarkable results. People spoke from the heart and listened from the heart. One trustee said through tears, “Both sides are energized because they value marriage so very much,” a poignant irony that adds context to this linguistic conflict.

The board discussion was brief, only beginning to unpack the complexities.

We learned something, though: that our task as an interfaith community is to create safe environments where we can share our differences about controversial issues without hurting each other, without ‘proselytizing’ our perspectives, and, God willing, come to understand each other and our issues with a new depth and sensitivity. Our foundation is mutual respect, whatever our differences. Our goal is not agreement but understanding. Our approach is inclusive, not judgmental.

In recent years, the Marin Interfaith Council has had the courage to organize clergy brown-bag lunches to discuss the hard issues. It is succeeding because they’ve taken the care to create a safe, sacred context where healthy conversation can thrive in spite of disagreements.

Interfaith culture usually begins with good feelings, the unexpected fuzzy-wuzzy warmth of getting acquainted with ‘religious folk who are different than me.’ Something more is required for interfaith culture to develop, thrive, and make a difference. We need to utilize the tools that allow us to explore our differences, even the tough ones, without fragmenting the community and diminishing the care and affection we have for each other. We’re learning how to do that, and we’ve just begun.

Paul Chaffee

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