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Getting the Interfaith World Connected

Written by Paul Chaffee
December 21, 2011

Ray Downs taught a captivating confirmation class at International Church in Bangkok in 1957. But I was stunned at the end of the year when the pastor asked if we were ready to confirm our faith and join the church. I went straight to Dad, a Presbyterian missionary: “I’m just beginning to understand what you believe, and I haven’t any idea what the Buddhists all around us believe – and now I have to join?!” Dad said, “Not at all. No requirement.” The next day he put a thick tome surveying the world’s religions in my hands, a gift that helped shape my life. More than half my career has been spent working on grassroots interfaith activities. So, at 65, retiring from the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, my motive question had long ago become, How can we do better at building healthy, vital relations between, among, and within the world’s many spiritual, religious, indigenous, and convictional communities who share a passion to heal a wounded world? My dear spouse’s business acumen meant we could retire in San Francisco and I could become an ‘amateur,’ as in doing something for the love of it. Freed from agency responsibilities, I dove into the internet to better discern the scope of a burgeoning interreligious culture, grassroots and global. I’ve been stunned again, this time by the magnitude and diversity of people in countries everywhere spontaneously deciding to develop friendly relations with ‘the other,’ the stranger. Interfaith culture is emerging unplanned, largely self-funded, and proliferating like spring flowers on a hillside. That discovery led back to a notion many of us ‘in the vineyard’ have talked about in recent years. We need to be better connected. We need a transpartisan arena where every group’s best interfaith efforts has a platform, a place to share stories, learnings, and connections, a place to begin collaborating around shared concerns. How to do it? So far, very few financial resources support interfaith work. However, interfaith veterans everywhere repeat the same mantra – “The most valuable thing for me personally has been the amazing relationships I’ve enjoyed. So many, so close.” Once upon a time I dreamed about writing a blog. But connecting the different parts of the interfaith world is infinitely bigger than any one-man-show. So I started inviting friends, seasoned interfaith veterans and young adult leaders, to contribute to a new venture. A core group accepted the responsibility of formal decision making, and the larger group has grown to 75. The core group, armed with an anonymous $20,000 startup donation, came up with agreements about The Interfaith Observer, or TIO for short. We decided to be as lean as possible financially. The Interfaith Peace Project agreed to serve as fiscal sponsor during our time of formation. And a number of our advisors contributed their digital expertise to constructing a website and mass-e-mail capabilities. Here are some of the policies which guide us for now.

All writing and editing is volunteered.
TIO is free to subscribers and encourages readers to reprint and utilize what they find useful. (We would be happy to know how you use it.)
TIO strives to develop collaborative rather than competitive relationships.
TIO aggregates the best stories and resources we can find as well as publishes new content. Expect dozens of links in each issue for deeper exploring.
TIO is happy to join groups which share its concerns and has already built relationships with North American Interfaith Network and United Religions Initiative, whose purpose is “to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence, and to create cultures of peace, justice, and healing for the Earth and all living beings.”
TIO will address the interfaith universe subject by subject, starting, in September 2011, with ‘deepening interfaith dialogue.’ The next 12 issues address: history, institutions, celebration, making meaning (spirituality, theology, and…), young adults, women, indigenous traditions, the Earth, peacemaking, refreshment, funding, and, in September, 2012, education. (Current and back issues will be available at TIO’s homepage.)

In the recent words of Ebrahim Rasool, the religious world needs “to move beyond the ‘compare and contrast’ model of interfaith engagements, and build solidarity across our markers of difference to achieve shared goals that both signal the relevance of religion and faith as well as demonstrate its capacity to build coalitions, campaigns and unity in action around values and principles we hold in common.” (Claremont Lincoln University inauguration keynote, September 6, 2011) Amen. The TIO Adviser/Contributor braintrust continues to grow. We began as a group of friends, near and far, creating a new kind of interfaith publication. We’re becoming a global network that we hope will be as fruitful as the publication we promote. Because we can’t afford to grow unmanageably, guidelines are being developed for joining TIO’s braintrust. As it grows larger, we’ll have subgroups focused on the themes TIO explores each month. As a virtual community develops, new possibilities will emerge. In a world so dark with despair and violence, interfaith work is a candle casting hope far and wide. TIO hopes to reflect the light.