WTB’s Place in the Interfaith Movement

Our speaker, Elizabeth Espersen, is the retired executive director of Thanks-Giving Square, an interfaith and educational organization in Dallas, Texas. Elizabeth has done interfaith work for 35 years at the local, national, and international levels. Originally from Buffalo, she returned to upstate New York after retiring and now serves on the Education Committees of the Interreligious Council of Central New York, on the WTB Council, and as chairperson of Our Lady of Peace Church Parish Council.

After distributing handouts, Elizabeth pointed to an arrangement on the front table, which included flowers, which are gifts from God, silk from India, and a green and gold scarf from Turkey. Then she invited members of the audience to bring forward stones from holy sites all over the world to add to the display. As Elizabeth explained their significance, women brought up stones from the Baltic Sea, from outside Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem, a Neolithic site in Ireland, the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, a rain forest in Costa Rica, the Rajasthan area of India, the sultanate of Oman, Belfast Northern Ireland, and the Sea of Galilee. As the membership stood, a broken globe of the world was passed forward through women’s nurturing hands, to be reassembled in the front display. Elizabeth prayed “May the World be Blessed because we are Women who Transcend Boundaries.”

Elizabeth explained that the modern interfaith movement began over 100 years ago. In 1893 Chicago hosted the Parliament of World Religions (as part of the World’s Fair). Eastern religious leaders, swamis, gurus, were invited to come and to speak. This was the first exposure of the Eastern religions to those in the West. In 1900, individuals who had attended the event founded the International Association for Religious Freedom. Its members are religious communities, and they have representatives at the United Nations.

In 1936 the World Congress of Faiths was founded in London. It interacts with groups in other countries, arranging conferences and developing links with interfaith groups across the world.

In 1960 the Temple of Understanding was founded by Juliet Hollister with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt and political and religious leaders around the world. Its mission is to achieve peaceful coexistence through interfaith education. The organization is connected to the United Nations and organizes spiritual summits, which include both intellectual and experiential aspects.

In 1964 the Center for World Thanksgiving was incorporated to acknowledge thanksgiving to God as a basic human act, and thanksgiving among persons as a common bridge to understanding. To explore gratitude and praise in world religions and cultures, the organization invites leaders of various faiths and traditions to discuss shared concerns. They brought the Dalai Lama to Texas as an example of an individual of compassion who believes that we must “treat everyone as an old friend.”

The World Conference on Religion and Peace was held in 1970, to consolidate interfaith movements in Japan, Europe, the US, and India. It is an offshoot of the World Council of Churches. They organized Religion for Peace International. Now Religion for Peace USA is attempting to bridge the gaps between Native American people, especially attempting to restore bones to gravesites.

In 1985 a landmark meeting was held near Bath, England with representatives from interfaith organizations to establish communications and networks among the organizations. Following this, the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) was established under the auspices of the Temple of Understanding in New York, which had invited interfaith organizations from around the country to attend and discuss the possibility of creating a network. The first goal was to create a directory of organizations.

NAIN is made up of organizations like the InterReligious Council and Women Transcending Boundaries, which do not come from specific faith communities. In other areas the Wichita Interfaith Ministries and Buffalo Area Metropolitan Ministries are organizations that belong to the NAIN. In addition, long-standing Jewish-Christian dialogue groups expanded to include other faith groups to take in new groups of people and become more interfaith. Today NAIN is a network of 80 organizations with an annual conference at changing venues in North America. In 1988 the first conference of NAIN was held in Wichita, Kansas. One of the speakers was Dr. Diana Eck of Harvard who developed the Pluralism Project to document the growing religious diversity of the United States, how it is changing cities and society.

Elizabeth hopes that IRC and WTB could someday host this conference in Syracuse.

In 1986 Pope John Paul II invited world religious leaders to Assisi to come together to pray (not to pray together, as various traditions have differing practices). With the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Dalai Lama, a leader of African Lutherans, and others attending, this was the first worldwide gathering of international leaders from major world religious traditions.

In 1987 Buddhists sponsored a day of prayer. The Catholic church sent Francis Cardinal Arians from Nairobi, head of the Vatican office for InterReligious Dialogue, to Japan to attend. Elizabeth described him as a charming, tactful diplomat. The Cardinal has established contacts with Muslim countries and their universities, and has invited Muslim representatives to the Vatican.

The Council for the Parliament of World Religions met in Chicago in 1993 (the 100th anniversary of the first Parliament). Over 8000 people met to hold workshops and celebrations to cultivate harmony among the world’s religions and spiritual communities. Conferences have been and will continue to be held at 5-year intervals. Sites have been Cape Town, South Africa and Barcelona; future sites being considered are Jerusalem and Delhi.

In 1995 the United Nations asked the Episcopal Bishop of California William Swing for permission to use Grace Cathedral in San Francisco for an interfaith ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the UN. They held a three-day conference and ceremony for young people from around the world, who then selected one person to speak to assembled political leaders of the world. Bill Swing had a dream of uniting religions, so he brought together religious leaders. Today the United Religions Initiative has Cooperation Circles of grass roots organizations around the world. They have different local objectives to meet local needs.

Elizabeth stressed that WTB connects to this vital, growing, serving network of organizations. Dialogue around the world is coming slowly and WTB is a star in the array of the interfaith effort.

Elizabeth presented nine guidelines to facilitate interfaith dialogue within our organization.

  • We should feel our own faith traditions deeply, so we can understand and respect other traditions who do the same.
  • We should share our own faith without proselytizing, both giving and receiving.
  • Offer respect; focus on the other, not the self.
  • Visit other religious sites and while there follow their customs.
  • Be open and trusting.
  • Combine dialogue with service.
  • Show respect for others’ religious traditions.
  • Enjoy the great adventure of the interfaith movement.
  • Never doubt that women can help to build one better world.

Questions and comments followed Elizabeth’s presentation.

Joan Burstyn recommended the movie “Refuge” about the Dalai Lama.

When asked about sacred spaces she had visited, Elizabeth described a site in Iona, an island in the Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. It has medieval ruins but a sense of the sacred is still alive in rocks, nature, and the ruins. Then she described the Sikh’s Golden Temple in Punjab. It is faced in gold leaf and surrounded by a pool. It was packed with prayerful people moving quietly. The sacred permeated all.

Nancy Murray recommended Diana Eck’s book Encountering God: from Bozman to Benares, in which Diana examines the differences among religious cultures. She continually places the Christian believer in relationship with those who follow Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Native American religious practices in a splendid exposition of non-Christian approaches to God. Diana has gotten young people at Harvard University involved in the interfaith movement.

Gay Montague helped end the program with a Commemorative Peace Dance, which she kept assuring us was easy. After a few fumbling practices, we were proud of our dance, with movements choreographed to this song, sung in rounds:

Spirit of Peace
To our cause we give our strength
That love may reign and war may cease
Mir, Mir, U Mir (Mir is the Russian wprd for peace and also earth)