They gathered in a circle as the medicine man lit a pipe of sacred tobacco on the Palo Alto campus of Stanford University. A Buddhist monk stood next to a Muslim cleric, an Episcopalian bishop alongside a shaman from East Africa. The last rays of the late afternoon sun caught the smoke and the blessings. Later, the 220 people gathered from 50 countries would listen to African-American storytelling and Andean music and join in a circle to learn Sufi dancing.
The sharing of sacred rituals and cultural traditions was only part of the agenda for the global summit of the United Religions Initiative. The URI was born of a dream that the spiritual leaders of the world would stop "squandering the treasure chest of spirituality which religions could offer the world," in the words of founder, William Swing, Episcopalian bishop of California. Swing's vision is that this treasure chest could be put to use building peace-- particularly among religious and ethnic groups that have been at war.
The United Religions Initiative was born three years ago in San Francisco, after the 50th anniversary celebration of the founding of the United Nations. Bishop Swing was asked to speak at the UN celebration, and the question that stayed with him after the event was this: If the nations of the world have a place to gather and work out their differences, why shouldn't the world's religions?
Bishop Swing took that question to religious leaders around the world. He found little support among the top leadership of the established religions, where questions of position and protocol can be as relentless as those in diplomatic circles. But he found warm support among religious and spiritual people at all other levels and from all traditions; these are the people who form the working group--United Religions Initiative.
Local action with a global presence
"Imagine an organization that is inclusive, decentralized, self-sustaining, where decisions are made at local levels, resources are shared, where local actions are connected to form a global presence, where the spiritual wisdom of all faith traditions is revered, and where the deepest values of people are respected and put into action for the good of all." That challenge greeted each delegate to this year's gathering as they began drafting a charter for the United Religions Initiative.
To make the vision a reality, the founders turned to organizational development guru Dee Hocks. URI will be a "chaordic" organization, which places the bulk of the authority at the local level. Chaordic, a term coined by Hocks, combines the word "chaos" and "order." Key to this concept is a clear statement of purpose, principles, and practices. With those in place, an organization can be decentralized, flexible, and self-organizing while maintaining its integrity of purpose
A safe space for a spiritual partnership
The draft purpose of the URI, as approved at the June gathering, is: "To create a safe space for a spiritual partnership in which the people of the world pursue justice, healing, and peace with reverence for all life." This statement will form the foundation of the URI charter, which will circulate among members of the world's religions for comment and revision in preparation for ratification in the year 2000. At that point, organizers hope to formally launch the United Religions, a 21st century, religious-based version of the United Nations.
The URI gatherings have a tone distinct from that of UN conferences or many other international gatherings. In order to create the "safe space for spiritual partnership" envisioned by the delegates, organizers drew on a process, known as Appreciative Inquiry, developed by David Cooperrider. This process is designed to help people discover what gives life to their organization and to develop together shared images of future possibilities to be co-created.
The URI gathering began with delegates taking turns interviewing one another about their calling to the work of peace making, and their interest in URI and its goals. The intent, according to the facilitators, was to "live into" the United Religions by being fully "present and available to discover the best of what your fellow human beings have to offer.
|Organizers hope to formally launch the United Religions, a 21st century, religious-based version of the United Nations.|
Taking action for peace
The appreciative, chaordic model is beginning to bear fruit:
- At last year's gathering, peace activist Patricia Ellsberg proposed that the URI help launch a global cease-fire from December 31, 1999 through January 2, 2000 as a harbinger of hope for the new millennium. Participants took hold of this idea; plans are now underway for an international call for a cessation of all violence in homes, communities, and nations. URI members will ask religious leaders and people of all faiths to help make the cease-fire a reality.
- A contingent from East Africa is planning a regional URI gathering to bring together spiritual leadership to take a strong stance against the inter-ethnic violence in that region. Other regional groups are also planning follow-up meetings.
- A group of Indian and Pakistani
delegates met in a series of intensive sessions during the global
summit, spurred by the recent nuclear testing in the two countries. "If
we can get together anywhere, we can get together here, where people
are concerned for all of humanity and all of the cosmos," said
Preminder Jain of India, a prominent member of the Jain faith, who
initiated the dialogue.
"If we can get together anywhere, we can get together here, where people are concerned for all of humanity and all of the cosmos," said Preminder Jain of India, a prominent member of the Jain faith, who initiated the dialogue. A declaration signed by almost all the delegates from India and Pakistan called for global nuclear disarmament, dialogue and confidence-building between religious and cultural leaders from India and Pakistan, and an ongoing Indo-Pakistan dialogue under the auspices of the URI.
The time is right for the people of different faiths to meet, Bishop Swing believes. "There is enormous harm that can be done on this planet in the name of God," he said. "If we seek cooperation among religions instead of destruction, we'll see a whole new world."