SYDNEY, 25 November 2020, (BWNS) — How can a society with diverse views on history, culture, and values—some seemingly at odds with each other—forge a common identity that transcends differences and does not privilege some groups or diminish the worth of others?
The Bahá’ís of Australia embarked on a two-year project to explore this and related questions with hundreds of participants—including officials, organizations of civil society, journalists, and numerous social actors—across all states and territories.
A new publication titled Creating an Inclusive Narrative is the fruit of these discussions and was launched last week at a five-day national conference on social cohesion and inclusion held by the country’s Bahá’í Office of External Affairs.
In the opening session of the conference, Governor of New South Wales Margaret Beazley reflected on the important role that government and institutions can play in strengthening bonds among citizens.
“The inclusivity of the discussions that led to the excellent Bahá’í document Creating an Inclusive Narrative… is in itself an excellent example of an institution taking the time and the steps to engage in a multi-level process of discourse with people of diverse backgrounds, genders, abilities and disabilities, culture, and faiths.”
In another session of the conference, Member of Parliament Anne Aly quoted Bahá’u’lláh’s statement “The Earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.” She continued, “I think that’s the starting point for social cohesion. To see ourselves all as equal citizens of a world that goes beyond national borders, that goes beyond the differences of race, the differences of religion, the differences of social or economic status.
“This is what attracts me most to the Bahá’í Faith. This central tenet of the equality of mankind.”
Initiating a process of learning
Ida Walker of the Office of External Affairs describes how the project began: “In 2016, the discourse on social cohesion was emerging prominently on the national stage. There was a great need at that time—and still now—for unifying spaces in which people could explore this issue, free of limitations—to have enough time, without dominating voices, where people could listen and be heard.”
By 2018, the Office of External Affairs had become more engaged in this discourse. With the encouragement of different social actors and government departments, the idea for Creating an Inclusive Narrative began to take shape.
“We knew that the process had to involve diverse voices from different realities throughout the country—east and west, rural and urban, and from the grassroots to the national level. And in order for this to scale, we needed many people who could facilitate,” says Ms. Walker.
By mid-2019, small gatherings were being held in a few states. As more facilitators from different regions of the country were identified, more gatherings could be held. Ms. Walker explains: “Orientation sessions allowed facilitators to reflect deeply on the qualities and attitudes that would be required for creating unifying spaces. These sessions provided them with opportunity to think about how they could ask probing questions.
“It was important that facilitators were residents of the areas in which gatherings were taking place, ensuring their familiarity with local issues and concerns. This approach, to our surprise, meant that facilitators and participants could continue their discussions in between the monthly gatherings, resulting in growing enthusiasm and interest among participants to continue the process.”
The project eventually sustained monthly gatherings concurrently across several states, resulting in a total of 50 roundtables.
“If Australia is a work in progress, then how willing are we to create something new?”
Ms. Walker explains further that promoting diversity in all spheres of society, although essential, is not enough alone to bring people closer together or create consensus on vital matters. “Stories of indigenous peoples, European settlers, and more recent migrants must be voiced, but also reconciled.
“When the Office of External Affairs first began to engage in the discourse on social cohesion, we heard many social actors say that these stories were running alongside one another but not woven together. This project has allowed different segments of society to discover a narrative that would allow all the people of our country to see themselves on a common journey.”
Early on in the project, participants in the process discussed how any attempt to transcend differences would need to address the question of history. Drawing on the rich insights from these conversations, Creating and Inclusive Narrative begins with this topic in a section titled “Where have we been?”, calling attention to the rich and ancient history of the land and highlighting the challenges and opportunities of present times:
Identifying shared values
Participants in the project recognized that although difficult at first, identifying common values would be necessary to overcoming barriers to greater degrees of harmony. Venus Khalessi of the country’s Bahá’í Office of External Affairs describes the effect the pandemic has had on the ability of the participants to develop a greater sense of shared identity. “At first, there was hesitation from participants to speak about values out of the fear of offending others. But as the pandemic hit, everyone saw that when faced with crisis, people became more kind, more generous, and more open to strangers. This had a significant impact on how we saw ourselves as a society and on our ability to articulate the kinds of values we wished to see lasting beyond the crisis. Our shared human values became a reference point, including spiritual principles such as justice, compassion, and our inherent oneness.”
Some of the values, qualities, and characteristics identified by participants and captured in the publication include: the oneness of humanity and unity in diversity; consultation as a means for collective decision-making; recognizing the nobility and dignity of all people; collaboration, a posture of learning in all matters, and an openness to new ways of living.
Broadening the conversation
Ms. Walker explains how this experience has revealed that the challenge to finding common ground is not a lack of shared values, but rather that there is a lack of spaces where people can come to know one another at a deeper level. She says, “The problems we are experiencing cannot be solved by one group for another. We see so much capacity in the country that can be released simply by providing spaces where shared values and vision can be fostered and translated into action. Many people, by being part of the round-table process, have strengthened their resolve to contribute to society.”
Brian Adams, director of the Centre for Interfaith and Cultural Dialogue at Griffith University in Queensland, who also served on the Advisory Board for Creating an Inclusive Narrative, says of the project: “We are not trying to artificially create a broad identity. We are trying to tease out the threads that make up our identity and weave them together into this narrative. … [this process] is something that is done through collaboration and respectful listening, and a lot of work to create that identity together.”
Natalie Mobini, director of the Bahá’í Office of External Affairs and a member of the Bahá’í National Spiritual Assembly of Australia, explains the possibilities for engaging many more segments of society as a result of the relationships that have built among institutions, government, and civil society through this process. “When the Office of External Affairs embarked on this initiative, I don’t think we realized how big it would become. One of the project’s most promising outcomes is the relationships built among those who have participated. A network of people spanning the country—from groups and community leaders at the local level to state and national government departments—has emerged.”
The Creating an Inclusive Narrative document, recordings of conference sessions, and more information about the project can be found on the website of the Australian Bahá’í community’s Office of External Affairs.
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Seventeen students. Two religiously divided universities. A quest to bridge gaps.
by Eboo Patel
That was the starting point of a revolutionary program, the results of which were just published in the Journal of College and Character. The schools were Oberlin College, a bastion of liberal thinking, and Spring Arbor University, a predominantly conservative, Christ-centered institution. Students from these universities participated in a unique, multi-week program supported by my organization, the Interfaith Youth Core. Led by Bridging the Gap founder Simon Greer, participants spent several days at their schools learning practical ways to find common ground, and then spent eight days living together and engaging in activities to explore each other’s values, political views, faiths and more. They also completed a collaborative project on .
The results were remarkable. Students reported that the program helped solidify their belief in the importance of engaging with people with different viewpoints. Most students indicated they would very likely use the skills learned in the course to navigate different viewpoints from others in their lives – and to have more respect for people who come from vastly different backgrounds. There’s an important lesson to be learned from this experience: Interfaith education and engagement can help bridge gaps between different groups at a time where the country is divided like never before. Unfortunately, our often don’t provide this urgently needed type of education.
Religious diversity is increasing
Our nation is growing more and more religiously diverse. As the share of people identifying as Christian declines, the proportion of people identifying as Buddhists, Jews and Muslims is rising, according to a 2019 Pew analysis. The number of religiously unaffiliated people – which includes people who identify as atheist, agnostic, secular, or spiritual also is climbing significantly. Unfortunately, with this growing diversity, tensions between groups are high. More than four in five Americans believe Muslims experience discrimination, according to a 2019 Pew study. Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds think Jews face discrimination – a 20 point jump from three years prior – and half of Americans think evangelical Christians do. Disturbingly, these biases can manifest in violence. Nearly one in five hate crimes are grounded in religious bias, according to the FBI. Los Angeles County recently reported an 11% surge in religious-based hate crimes.
It’s crucial that we work to bridge gaps between religious groups, and colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to help. After all, college provides many young people with their first – and potentially only – chance to have meaningful interactions with people of different religious, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds and develop a better understanding of others’ beliefs and worldviews. By equipping students with the skills to bridge divides, graduates can enter the real world prepared to engage productively with others. Many universities simply aren’t capitalizing fully on this opportunity. That’s the finding of a recently completed study – the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey, which surveyed thousands of students at more than 100 universities during their four years in school.
Religious differences aren’t addressed
Researchers found that students spend a significant amount of time learning about people of different races, ethnicities, nationalities, political affiliations and sexual orientations, but markedly less time learning about people of different religions. For example, 74% of students have dedicated time to learning about people of a different race or ethnicity, and most students spent time learning about people with different political views and sexual orientations. Meanwhile, just 40% of students devoted time to learning about Jews and evangelical Christians, 27% spent time learning about Hindus, and only 22% spent time learning about Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Moreover, only 65% of students reported trying to build relationships with people who hold religious or non-religious beliefs that they disagree with. More than 60% of students feel that people on their campuses interact primarily with their own religious or worldview communities. And one-third of college seniors did not feel confident in their ability to negotiate challenging conversations with people who hold different views.
Fortunately, as the Oberlin-Spring Arbor program proves, there are ways that schools can turn this around. For one, they can make interfaith experiences mandatory. Students who participate in at least one curricular experience focused on religious diversity are far more likely to develop skills to manage interfaith relationships. Institutions can also provide more opportunities for informal interaction between religiously diverse students. Creating campus spaces for students to express their views freely can go a long way as well. Our society needs to make progress in bridging interfaith gaps. Higher education can help.
Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, whose Courageous Pluralism program is designed to bridge divides on campuses. He’s also the author of “Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise.”
Disturbingly, these biases can manifest in violence. Nearly one in five hate crimes are grounded in religious bias, according to the FBI.
Indian women perform rituals while standing inside an artificial pond for the Chhat Puja festival in Mumbai, India, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. Health officials have warned about the potential for the coronavirus to spread during the upcoming religious festival season, which is marked by huge gatherings in temples and shopping districts. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)
May 24, 2012, file photo, Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Irinej holds a cross during a procession marking the feast of Belgrade’s patron saint, Spasovdan, in downtown Belgrade. Serbia’s Orthodox Church said Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, the leader, Patriarch Irinej, has died after testing positive for the coronavirus. He was 90. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic, File)
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Executive Director of UN Women speaking at a World Bank event on March 9, 2017.
Including women in peacekeeping will help advance the United Nations’ Global Goals to achieve gender equality, end conflicts, and eradicate global poverty. Join us and take action on this issue here.
Last month, United Nations leaders said that women continue to be underrepresented in key decision-making opportunities on the 20th anniversary of the adoption of Security Council resolution 1325 on women and peace and security. This landmark resolution in 2000 confirmed the importance of women participating in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peacebuilding, peacekeeping, humanitarian response, and in post-conflict reconstruction, the UN noted. But UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka says that there is a need for the global community to recommit itself to including women in peacebuilding processes today.
Between 1992 and 2019, only 13% of negotiators, 6% of mediators, and 6% of peace agreement signatories around the world were women, Mlambo-Ngcuka said at a Security Council meeting. However, research from UN Women shows that the chances of peace agreements lasting more than two years increase by 20% when women participate in the process. The COVID-19 pandemic has further emphasized the importance of involving women in conflict and crisis management.
Studies show that women are most affected by COVID-19 and often bear the brunt of economic disasters and conflicts around the world. During the pandemic, women are more at risk as they are on the front lines of medical aid and are more likely to work in industries impacted by shutdowns.
“Women are still systematically excluded, confined to informal processes, or relegated to the role of spectators, while men sit in the rooms that will define their lives and decide their future,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said. Around the world, women have been serving as the frontline responders on the local level in their communities. Their work as doctors, nurses, teachers, farmers, and in other important industries, has been vital in keeping communities, economies, and societies running amid the pandemic.
“We have seen the remarkable success that many women leaders have had in containing the pandemic while supporting people’s livelihoods,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a speech last month. “This confirms an obvious truth: institutions, organizations, companies, and yes, governments work better when they include half of society, rather than ignoring it.”
To try and develop meaningful participation and engagement among women peacebuilders, UN Women outlines five goals. Some of the goals include reversing the upward trajectory in global military spending, allocating 15% of official development assistance to advancing gender equality, and unconditionally defending women’s rights around the world.
Buddhist temple attacks rise as COVID-19 amplifies anti-Asian American bias
Incidents have included vandalism of temples and Buddhist statues outside private homes, as well as verbal harassment of Asian Americans at their houses of worship.
Recent vandalism at the Huong Tich Temple in the Little Saigon neighborhood of Los Angeles. Photo and security footage via Huong Tich Temple
(RNS) — A few weeks after Thai Viet Phan was elected the first Vietnamese American City Council member in Santa Ana, a town south of Los Angeles, she discovered that the Huong Tich Temple, in the city’s Little Saigon neighborhood, had been vandalized. As a child she had spent her weekends at the Buddhist temple, learning prayers, traditional dances and how to read and write in Vietnamese.
Last month, 15 of the temple’s Buddha and bodhisattva statues had been spray-painted. The word “Jesus” in black letters had been emblazoned down one statue’s back.
“Throughout COVID, I know that there has been an increase in anti-Asian Pacific Islander sentiment and hate crimes, and I see that on social media, but I personally haven’t experienced it,” Phan said.
When she found out what happened at Huong Tich Temple, she said, “I was shocked that anyone would do that. … It was really abhorrent.”
Phan reached out to other local elected officials and discovered that Huong Tich wasn’t alone: Five other Buddhist temples in Little Saigon had been defaced in November.
“This is a hate crime, not just vandalism,” she said.
Diedre Thu-Ha Nguyen, a City Council member in Garden Grove, a neighboring city that serves as home to parts of Little Saigon, said the attacks, coming when worshippers typically visit temples often to pray for prosperity in the new year, have increased anxiety in the Vietnamese American Buddhist community
The attacks also come as the pandemic — especially President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about COVID-19’s origin in China — has unleashed a wave of anti-Asian hate and xenophobia in the U.S.
Smashed Buddha statues at Wat Lao Santitham, a temple in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Photos courtesy of Richard Saisomorn
This year there have been 17 reports of hate incidents at Asian American Buddhist sites, according to Russell Jeung, professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University.
Jeung, who runs the group Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate, a self-reporting center that’s been tracking cases of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia in the U.S. since March, said the incidents included vandalism of temples and Buddhist statues outside private homes, as well as verbal harassment of Asian Americans at their houses of worship.
Funie Hsu, an assistant professor of American studies at San Jose State University, said this year’s attacks were “not a surprise.” Asian Americans have historically been perceived as foreign or unable to assimilate. Religion, said Hsu, has been considered a barrier to their acceptance since the Chinese immigrants who first came to the U.S. in the 19th century were called “heathen Chinese.”
Temple vandalism is a common expression of hate toward Asian Americans in general. In Massachusetts in 1984, three Vietnam War veterans burned down a Tibetan Buddhist temple after expressing dissatisfaction with the services they received through Veterans Affairs.
But vandalism against Buddha statues, she said, is most common since many consider them an affront to Christianity. “A lot of times they serve as a punching bag for any form of animosity people are feeling against Asians,” Hsu said, which is why so many attacks have occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.
No hate incidents at Asian American churches were reported this year, Jeung said.
In April at Wat Lao Santitham, a temple in Fort Smith, Arkansas, a man walked onto the grounds with a hammer and smashed three statues of the Buddha, causing $20,000 damage. The police were called, and as they arrested the suspect, according to body camera footage, he told them, “It’s a false idol, it’s a false monument.”
Richard Saisomorn, a board member for Wat Lao Santitham, said the damage goes far beyond the attack. Until the statues are replaced, the mostly Southeast Asian immigrants and second- and third-generation Americans who attend the temple are without a place where they can pray for their ancestors.
Despite the installation of cameras and other security measures, the temple’s community now fears for the safety of the monks who live inside the building.
“Everybody feels very sad — it’s something that should not happen,” Saisomorn said. “We’ve already survived a very tough time from COVID-19, which is hard enough.”
Bob Fisher has a tent and a sign in his yard, encouraging people to take part in the Interfaith Outreach Sleep Out.
INTERFAITH OUTREACH LAUNCHES
“BE LIKE BOB” CHALLENGE
Minnesota’s winters can be picturesque and beautiful. But as anyone can attest, they can also be harsh and unforgiving.
“I’m not adaptable to winter,” said Bob Fisher of Wayzata. “I don’t like winter very much.” Yet despite Bob Fisher’s distaste of the season, he came up with an idea 25 years ago to set those feelings aside and sleep in a tent on the front lawn of his Wayzata home; all with a greater purpose in mind.
“You and most everybody else would not think there’s a whole lot of needy people around Wayzata, but there are,” he said. “That right over [across the street] is The Boardwalk, and that’s Section 8 housing right there.”
“We’ve gotten thousands and thousands of people to sleep out in their tents, to get involved financially,” he said. “To open their homes. to do whatever, bring in food, millions of pounds of food every year that we get in.”
In those 25 years, Interfaith Outreach has raised more than $32 million to help fight poverty, hunger and homelessness.
“And in the 25 years that the sleep out has been going on, we’ve prevented homelessness 34,200-some times,” Fisher said. “So you could darn near fill Target Field.” Now, the hope is that others will follow Bob’s example. This year, Interfaith Outreach is asking people to take the ‘Be Like Bob Challenge.’ They can donate online, they can encourage their friends to participate. they can put up signs in their yard, or they could set up a tent and organize their own sleep out.
“So we’re asking people to be careful,” Fisher said. “Sleep in a house, whatever. Go sleep in your garage. Sleep in your car.”
The idea is for people to get out of their comfort zones while raising awareness for the needs in the area.
And while Bob admits that his days of sleeping in a tent during the winter have passed, he’s encouraging others to do it between now through the end of December. “That’s always been my goal is just to get people aware and then get them involved,” he said.
Interfaith couples attending this Waukesha synagogue are bringing their Christmas traditions with them
WAUKESHA – You don’t have to tell Deborah Martin about that other December holiday that everyone seems to make such a fuss about.
Congregation Emanu-El of Waukesha’s cantor and spiritual leader, along with most of the Jewish temple’s members, doesn’t look at the Christmas season as something immaterial to the congregation. The common ground each religion shares is worthy of consideration at this time of the year, Martin noted.
In fact, within the 80-family congregation whose membership stretches from Lake Country to the city of Milwaukee, there’s more than a few marriages straddling the theological fence, she said.
It’s just that Hanukkah is the focus of their religious celebration each December.
Hanukkah is based on a piece of Jewish history dating back to 164 BC, following a successful revolt led by Judah Maccabee against Syrian rule in their homeland.
“It’s really a minor holiday, but the message behind it is really important today, because it’s a message about religious freedom,” Martin said shortly before the start of the eight-day Jewish holiday, which this year began Dec. 10. “The Syrians had forbidden the Jews from observing their religion and turned their temple into a Greek temple and desecrated it.”
According to scholars, as devout Jews began a process to rededicate their temple in Jerusalem, they believed they only had enough olive oil to burn in the temple menorah for one night. Instead, it lasted for eight, filling the time needed for a fresh supply. But, religious traditions aside, Martin said the holiday serves another purpose that is shared by Christians. It represents a season of giving.
“Whenever we have a holiday like this, we do try to help the poor,” Martin said. “We usually bring gifts, either food or it could be money. We always give to charity during holidays.”
That effort this year is formally tied to a multi-denominational group called BEGIN — the Brookfield Elm Grove Interfaith Network, which Congregation Emanu-El has previously collaborated with in different ways, including a recent multi-faith Thanksgiving service. For the winter holidays, the focus has been a drive for winter clothing donations.
“The school districts are telling us they’re finding the kids don’t have winter clothes and coats,” Martin said. “So all the congregations are working together to collect from their individual (members) and then we’ll combine it to give it out to kids in the school system.
“It’s really an important thing for us to remember, especially right now, when a lot of people have lost jobs,” she added. “We need to help and work together, all faiths.”
The efforts extend to other causes — including social injustices identified by group leaders — sometimes resulting in letters to legislative leaders.
“We work together for the good of everyone,” Martin said.
Also, because they share time on the December calendar, Christmas and Hanukkah also share a cultural exchange.
That’s the way it was for Martin growing up, and she sees it as more accepting today, especially within her own congregation.
“It’s become very prevalent that there is a lot of interfaith marriages,” she said, noting her own involvement in 18 Doors, an organization which helps interfaith couples deal with the questions and challenges that can arise. “As a matter of fact, I think most of our younger families are interfaith couples.”
Martin said the congregation is “very grateful” to welcome non-Jewish partners to the mix, especially the spouses who prefer to allow their children to grow up following Jewish teachings. “Sometimes they are more involved at the temple than the Jewish spouse,” she added with a laugh. Naturally, those interfaith couples bring the Christmas celebration with them. And that’s fine, Martin said.
“We don’t judge anyone about this,” she said. “I think it’s made Hanukkah a bigger deal (to those families), because it is sort of in competition with Christmas. We have eight nights of Hanukkah, we have eight presents for our kids — they might not be as big every night — and we make Hanukkah special.
“And we know they are going to go to their other families for Christmas, and Christmas is a lot of fun.”
In a year dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, both the gift-giving and religious observance had to be adjusted this year with public safety in mind.
Rather than congregating at their temple along Moorland Boulevar
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