Additional News Stories from 2011
Assisi Report to the Interfaith Community
by Loel Bartlett Miller, member of the ICP Board representing the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County
November 1, 2011
|View of the Basilica at Assisi|
I have just returned from Assisi and offer my greetings to the broad community of workers in our area who, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “are always searching for God… men and women, both believers and non-believers, pilgrims traveling towards the fullness of Truth.” My name is Loel Bartlett Miller, and I serve on the boards of the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County and the Interfaith Center of the Presidio as a representative of Sufism Reoriented, a spiritual organization chartered in America by Meher Baba in 1952 for American seekers.
Earlier this year, Pope Benedict announced his intentions to travel to Assisi, the town blessed by the life and example of St. Francis, to join with representatives of many religions and non-believers on October 27 for a day of dialogue and prayer. He chose as his theme “Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace.” I learned of the Pope’s welcoming invitation to join him from my spiritual director, Murshida Carol Weyland Conner, who invited me to consider attending to take another step in my interfaith work.
Eager to educate myself about the interfaith movement worldwide and to further prepare myself for service on interfaith boards in my community, I accepted this suggestion, welcoming the opportunity to gather with people who are deeply concerned about interfaith matters and the interfaith movement. Who would not wish to make a personal journey of the heart at a time when others would be joining in Assisi for pilgrimage? I feel I have been blessed to participate in something significant that affects all who endeavor to work in the interfaith movement, all with a particular faith or of no faith, who are earnest seekers for peace.
|On the path as you enter Assisi:
"Peace and Good"
Raised by a Unitarian theologian in Berkeley during the swirling period of change in our country in the late 1960s, mine was an interfaith world. My father, born into a formal Quaker family in Philadelphia, as a young man discovered Emerson and Unitarianism. He would later become the Dean of Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley. He adored literature, especially Dante: every day he would walk to his office on “Holy Hill” reading a small, worn leather copy of The Divine Comedy in Italian. My mother, a sociologist specializing in religion, taught and wrote about religious trends in America. As if foreshadowing the interfaith world which we are coming to celebrate, she titled her Ph.D. dissertation on religious diversity, “Bright Galaxy.”
My own eclectic youthful reading covered a lot of terrain but little about Catholicism. However, I still remember how my heart was struck when reading an observation made by the British writer and friend to Anglican priests, Evelyn Underhill, who was exposed later in her life to Catholicism. Traveling from the chilled clime of her Anglican world to the warm soil of Mother Mary’s Italy, she noted that the very architecture of the magnificent Catholic churches she visited there, with their soft domes – so unlike the jutting steeples of her own churches in Europe – allowed her spirit to slide gently to the earth. She was nourished by this and by the energetic, demonstrative Italians themselves, so quick to profess their love for “Papa”, the Pope.
On January 1, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI noted in his World Day of Peace Message that “the great religions can be an important factor in the promotion of unity and peace for the human family.” He referred to the historic World Day of Prayer that Pope John Paul II convoked in Assisi in 1986. He went on to say, “For this reason, I intend to travel in October as a pilgrim to the city of St. Francis. I invite my Christian brothers and sisters from different confessions, the representatives of the different religious traditions and, ideally, all men and women of good will, to commemorate the historic gesture of my predecessor and to renew in a solemn way the commitment of believers of every religion to live their religious belief as a service to the cause of peace”. He offered this inspiring thought: “Whoever is on the path towards God cannot fail to transmit peace; and who builds up peace cannot fail to draw close to God.” He specified October 27, 2011, the silver anniversary of John Paul II’s visit in 1986, as his date of pilgrimage.
His announcement drew immediate criticism from the Vatican. Benedict was told that it was a dangerous precedent to pray with other religions. He was pressured not to have this meeting. Despite this pressure, he stood up for his vision and the model set by John Paul II and persevered in spite of opposition. He put his reputation and prestige behind his faith in the path of interfaith. The plans went forward.
During the spring, few details emerged from Rome about the Pope’s October plans. One can only imagine what transpired behind the walls of the Vatican during those months. We know when the invitations were ultimately extended to heads and representatives of Christian churches, ecclesiastical communities and world religions, the theme of the 2011 anniversary celebration had taken a slightly different shape: Pope Benedict’s invitation beckoned invitees to come together in memory of the 1986 event of brotherhood and prayer to “set out anew as pilgrims of truth and pilgrims of peace”. The theme of Pope Benedict’s gathering was that of pilgrimage; he extended an invitation to us all to renew a common commitment to building peace, to reconciling those in conflict and to bringing man back into harmony with creation.
|Crypt with the remains of St. Francis
where the gathering ended
Why would Pope John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI, select the site of Assisi for this gathering? I believe the Pope’s theme of “pilgrimage” provides an answer. From a spiritual perspective, a pilgrimage is an external enactment of an important internal journey, perhaps the most important one. For a spiritual pilgrimage is an outward enactment of the spiritual path, which is made up of internal processes that broaden our central knowing of life and expand our awareness and feelings of closeness to God.
Sites of pilgrimage are charged with spiritual force and the history of inspiring spiritual figures. The East is rich with such sites. Here in the West, where can one find a site richer than Assisi where Francis wrote his beautiful song, Canticle of the Sun, in a garden on the gentle slopes of Mt. Subasio? Francis’ song bespeaks an awakening to the universe, in Benedict’s words “to be seen not only as a collection of things to be worked and consumed but also as a community of life to be entered into profoundly, humbly and creatively”. In today’s world, the Poverello of Assisi, St. Francis, offers an example to inspire us to regard one another with respect and love, regardless of origin and creed. Where other than Assisi might we better summon the spiritual energy needed to aid our efforts toward universal peace?
I was honored to join the Pope, his esteemed delegates, and pilgrims from around the world at this most significant event. The Pope personally oversaw the arrangements of the day in the most gracious manner possible for the city of Assisi. One hears the joke, “The biggest disaster that can happen to your church is to be visited by the Pope.” The Pope and his entourage, in this case over 250 invitees, not to mention the thousands who accepted his invitation to join him, would have taxed this tiny medieval town far beyond its capacity. So he planned an event that was eminently kind to his Umbrian hosts: He arrived in mid-morning, taking a train with the respected delegates from the Vatican in nearby Rome to the small station at the foot of Assisi and then departed, again by train, in the early evening before the dinner hour, sparing the town the unimaginable headaches of housing and feeding so many esteemed guests.
In another gesture of grace and sensitivity, he made the choice to proceed immediately not to Assisi but to the large church in Santa Maria del Angeli near the train station, the everyday church of the Catholic citizens. This is the church where St. Francis’ Porziuncula is lovingly sheltered and preserved within its walls. It was here at the Porziuncula where Francis felt his soul was born and where he asked to be allowed to die. So in this way, Benedict acknowledged the church precious to the hearts of the people and further endeared himself to the residents of the region.
|Pope Benedict speaks at the morning session|
Many of you followed the events of the day via newspapers, television and YouTube, so I will sketch only briefly the details of the Pope’s day and his route up the hill to Assisi, where he concluded his pilgrimage with a visit to the crypt where St. Francis is buried. At the morning meeting, after the congregation viewed a video recalling the meeting in 1986, ten members of Benedict’s invited delegation offered testimonies for peace from the simple, white platform in front of the Porziuncula under the church’s soaring dome. Translations were provided to those attending, but the Pope honored the languages of the delegates, inviting them to deliver their message in their own tongues. Pope Benedict concluded these talks with the simple exhortation to non-believers, agnostics and companions of all faiths to examine the ways in which they create barriers to peace and rededicate themselves to the special ways in which each contributes to the building of peace as fellow pilgrims seeking the fullness of Truth and peace. After the Pope’s concluding address, he led the leaders of the delegations into the diminutive sacred chapel of the Porziuncula and then to the Convent of the Porziuncula for a simple lunch in the refectory. Then the delegates retired to private rooms in the Convent for a period of silence, reflection, and personal prayer.
In the afternoon, the quiet, meditative atmosphere of the morning shifted to that of joyful celebration up on the hillside in Assisi. Pilgrims of all ages, awaiting the arrival of the Pope, were entertained by young dancers and singers drawing their lyrics from the prayers offered at the 1986 meeting. Cheering crowds tucked into every crevice of the old piazza waved flags, sang, clapped, and greeted fellow pilgrims and new acquaintances. When the Pope, the last in the procession, finally joined his guests on the large platform built in front of the church, he invited thirteen of the delegates to make a solemn renewal of their commitments to peace.
Pope Benedict spoke last, saying: “We will continue to meet and to be united in this journey of dialogue for the good of the world”. White doves released above the cheering crowd caught the apricot light of the setting sun as they circled above the Basilica. The Pope and his assembly then departed, descending into the lower Basilica in silence to visit the resting place of that great pilgrim of peace, St. Francis, who dedicated his life to peace and to loving and serving all creatures.
|Sunset from the Basilica|
One reporter wrote: “Looking back, we can appreciate the foresight of the late Pope John Paul II in convening the first Assisi meeting… Meetings of this sort are necessarily exceptional and infrequent, yet they are a vivid expression of the fact that every day, throughout our world, people of different religious traditions live and work together in harmony. It is surely significant for the cause of peace that so many men and women, inspired by their deepest convictions, are committed to working for the good of the human family.”
One out of every six people on our planet is a Catholic. This Pope has put the Catholic church on record: he envisions his church as a leader in interfaith dialogue. I was awed by the courage required of this Pope to make such a gesture in the face of strong opposition. He journeyed to the consecrated location of Assisi to summon the spiritual energy of that holy site to deliver his forceful message.
The day following the gathering, Benedict XVI offered these words, which so succinctly reflect what we often feel when we gather in our own communities to celebrate our diverse religious paths and our united hope for peace: “I am sure yesterday’s meeting has given us a sense of how genuine is our desire to contribute to the good of all our fellow human beings and how much we have to share with one another. As we go our separate ways, let us draw strength from this experience and, wherever we may be, let us continue refreshed on the journey that leads to truth, the pilgrimage that leads to peace. I thank all of you from my heart.” I DO feel refreshed by my own pilgrimage to Assisi. Fresh breezes, generated in the bright, open vistas of a new and broader spiritual understanding, portend a world where St. Francis’ greeting may someday be our shared experience of reality: “Pax and Bonum!”
by Vanessa Gomez Brake, Director of Operations & Outreach at the Chaplaincy Institute for Arts & Interfaith Ministries (ChI) in Berkeley and member of the ICP Board.
Last weekend, I returned to my home town of Phoenix, Arizona to attend the 2011 Connect of the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN). Since 1988, such gatherings have taken place across the U.S. and Canada to ‘build bridges of interfaith understanding, cooperation and service.’ Each year, a different interfaith organization hosts the three-day event. This year, the Arizona InterFaith Movement (AIFM) invited participants from across the continent to explore the theme: ‘Many People, Many Faiths, One Common Principle – The Golden Rule.’
From July 24th – 26th
I journeyed with people of various faith backgrounds, as well as those of no particular faith tradition to explore the Golden Rule and take part in religious site visits. Together, we ventured to the Sikh - Guru Nanak Dwara Ashram and Hindu & Jain Temples in Phoenix, as well as the Latter Day Saint – Institute of Religion at Arizona State University in Tempe. All of these communities generously hosted us for a meal, discussion and/or service.
When I applied for the NAIN Young Adult Scholar program, I spoke of the Connect as a ‘homecoming.’ It has been many years since I have lived in the Valley of the Sun. Although I visit regularly, this was my first opportunity to engage with local interfaith-ers since I moved away in 2005. In September of 2001, I was a sophomore at Mesa Community College, majoring in religious studies. On September 15th of that year, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American, was murdered outside his gas station in Mesa, AZ. It was the first documented hate crime related fatality in the post-9/11 backlash. Sodhi was a member of the Sikh ashram in Phoenix.
In 2002, I visited my first synagogue; in 2003, my first mosque. In 2004, I would take part in my first interfaith dialogue at Arizona State University. Jump forward to July – 2011, and I am back on the university campus -- speaking at an interfaith conference, on a young adult panel, at the L.D.S. Institute of Religion.The school where I received my first dose of interfaith engagement, would also be the venue for my first panel discussion on the strengths/weaknesses and relevance of the Golden Rule to interfaith work.
There are many experiences from this past week that I could reflect on. When it comes to workshops, I would point to Kent University’s Jeffrey Wattles as a resource on the topic of the ‘Golden Rule & the Ethics of Reciprocity.’ I would also recommend Jason Smith, and his thorough review of challenges facing the interfaith movement today. But what stood out for me most during the Connect was the betwixt and between. The connections made in the hallway, over meals or on the bus in transit to a site visit. The opportunity to network with other interfaith activists is invaluable. NAIN intentionally chose a networking organizational structure, to offer these opportunities for building relationships with those doing similar work and facing similar challenges.
On my last night with my interfaith peers, I had somewhat of a revelation. For so long I have felt a tension between my worldview and the work I am engaged in. In fact, as an outspoken interfaith enthusiast and secular humanist, I commonly throw people into a bout of cognitive dissonance. I have grown used to this creative tension, which I think, evokes a healthy discomfort in myself and others. Why interfaith? -- is a question both the religious and non-religious are quick to ask me. People may assume ‘atheists hate religion’ or that ‘interfaith work is only for believers.’ But the presence of atheists, agnostics, and humanists is not rare in the field. With the Pew Research Center reporting atheists as the highest-scoring group on their survey of religious knowledge; and the fact that I met several atheists in my religious studies college courses; I should have known I was not the only one on the interfaith track.
However, my revelation had to do with the fact I had more in common with my fellow young adult scholars than anticipated. Over dinner one night, the following question was asked of a small group of young adults: ‘How many of you identify with one faith tradition?’ No one raised their hand. It became clear that, while we may have a primary faith tradition or world view, many of us are inspired by different world religions. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reports:
“Millennials are significantly more likely than young adults in earlier generations to say they don't identify with any religious group. Among Millennials, 26% cite no religious identity, compared with 20% for most members of Generation X (born 1965-1980) at the same ages, and 13% for most Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) at those ages.”
Yes, the Millennials continue the trend of being less religious than previous generations; however, they remain fairly traditional in their beliefs and practices. Make of these survey results what you will, but I am happy to report that nonetheless, Millennials and other young adults are deeply engaged in the interfaith movement. We are ready to build upon the foundation NAIN members and other interfaith leaders have laid before us.
In her welcome letter to Connect participants, Bettina Gray, Chair of the NAIN Board of Directors, spoke of the entity as a supportive structure for the ‘newly emerging vision of interfaith community.’ If I had to venture a guess as to what that community will look like in coming years, I would say it will continue to uphold the Golden Rule as a guiding principle. However, in addition to focusing on shared interests and similarities across faith traditions, the next phase of interfaith relations will emphasize civil discourse around differences and the challenges that accompany them. The interfaith field will also dig deeper into political issues of shared interest (LGBTQI, Immigration, etc.), and continue the trend of community service activities. As I bid Phoenix farewell, I felt grateful for the opportunity to spend time with my peers in such a creative space, and to dream with them the next steps for the interfaith movement.