Greetings of love and peace.
Wednesday, 10 February 2011 was the center of my trip – a day hosted by the URI UK, bringing together members, current and potential partners, and representatives of URI Europe and the global URI to receive an extended briefing on URI UK’s innovative work as it renews itself with seven new trustees, average age 34. In addition, we heard about the good work of the others present.
After my usual early morning routine, my day began formally with a breakfast with Patrick Hanjoul and Martin Gurevich, receiving an update on the work of URI Europe. Last October’s URI Europe assembly in Istanbul, Turkey continues to provide great energy, in large part because of the many young leaders who participated and the new Cooperation Circles that have been born and are in the works. There is a clear sense that this was the best ever URI Europe assembly – deeply relational, visionary and business-like practical in its skill building sessions.
After breakfast, we traveled through rainy, clogged London streets to the site of the URI UK convening – St. Ethelburga Church, which in its not too distant past was bombed by the Irish Republican Army and then rebuilt as a place to promote peace and interfaith harmony.
After welcoming remarks, we were paired up for appreciative dialogue. I had the privilege of being paired with one of the URI UK’s new trustees, an inspiring young woman named Anita Nayyar. Anita, who runs her own consultancy company focused on promoting positive collaboration, is a one-woman interfaith movement. Her father is Hindu; her mother Christian. Anita grew up Christian and, after a period of spiritual seeking, ended up converting to Islam. She brings a bright and deep spirit, as well as impressive professional expertise to her role as trustee. If Anita is an example of the quality its new leadership, URI UK has an exciting and effective future ahead. Since Matthew Youde, URI’s interim director of our Young Leaders Program, is also one of the new trustees it seems clear that this group will inspire and be inspired by our global youth network.
URI UK founder, Malcolm Stonestreet, and Anne Vance, another remarkably competent woman who serves as the chief executive for URI UK, provided a compelling picture of URI UK’s future, based on an innovative program called Faith in the Community, in which the URI UK works with a partner organization, such as a housing association or local authorities, to help the partner organization meet government mandated requirements aimed at weaving new social fabric to promote social cohesion in increasingly diverse communities. This work has evolved over time into an effective and replicable approach to interfaith organizing to address important community issues. And, because the partners who engage URI UK pay for the service URI UK provides, this approach has a great potential to be sustainable. Though the context for our work differs from place to place and from group to group, we have much to learn from the URI UK’s approach.
After I spoke about URI global, Patrick Hanjoul spoke about the evolution of URI Europe from a question mark in 1997 to a community of 40 CCs in 2011 with high individual and collection aspirations. He noted that URI Europe is leaving its pioneering stage and moving into a more mature, though no less adventurous, phase of life that requires increasing attention to the practical dimensions of organization needed to support visionary work, including planning, evaluation, fundraising and building powerful partnerships.
We heard from Brian Pearce, founder and now retired activist in the pioneering Interfaith Network of the UK, which will soon celebrate its 25th anniversary. As Malcolm Stonestreet prepares to step back from frontline responsibilities for URI UK, handing that responsibility over to new leadership, he was urged to follow the model of Brian Pearce, who has relinquished operational control of the Interfaith Network but is available to offer counsel and support the venture in any way he’s asked.
We also heard from CC leaders Deepak Naik, Heather Wells and Matthew Youde.
Bhai Sahib Mohinder Singh, spiritual leader of a large gurudwara in Birmingham and a patron of URI UK, had the final comments. You must have faith before there can be interfaith, he counseled. At the center of faith are three actions – prayer, service, sharing. We must be humble and we must be wise, he offered. And we must have a specific focus to draw us into principled action. He singled out the UN’s Millennium Development Goals as a critical global focus that should challenge all of us. At the heart of so much ill is human greed, he said. We will solve greed only through prayer. If anyone else has a toolkit to solve greed, I’d like to see it. He called us all to be faith practitioners who hold ourselves accountable to certain litmus tests that challenge us to match our intentions with effective actions that embody our truest values.
I left this engaging event with Babaji and spent the next several hours creeping though traffic, with a stop for a gracious dinner at the home of one of his devotees, on the way to his gurudwara in Birmingham. Along the way we had a marvelous and meandering conversation, exploring our lives, our changing world and the promise and challenges of interfaith work, including his connection with URI and other interfaith organizations, such as Religions for Peace. Regardless of the specific topic, our conversation always tended toward how to cultivate spiritual depth through prayer and service to the world.
As we talked about our lives, I was surprised and delighted to learn that Babaji was born in Gulu, Uganda, where his father served as postmaster, before moving the family to Kenya. Babaji told me that a few years ago he made a pilgrimage to his birthplace, taking a small plane from Kampala to Gulu, where he spent four hours. The highlight, he said, was finding the post office exactly as he remembered it; but the house where they had lived beside the post office was no longer there. He was delighted to hear that I had been to Gulu with a group of URI peace builders from Southern India, the Philippines, Ethiopia and the USA, hosted by our colleagues in Gulu, the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative.
It was a little after 9 PM by the time we arrived at the gurudwara. About 9:30, Josef Boehle, dear friend and URI colleague arrived and we spent some time in engaged conversation, the highlight of which was Babaji telling the story of the work he led to completely renew the gold leaf on the holiest Sikh site, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, leading up to the 400th anniversary of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. Babaji’s secular background is as an engineer, so he had a unique blend of spiritual and secular qualifications to lead this historic effort.
Quite a day!