Vatican Interfaith Conference: Keynote Remarks
This week, Joshua DuBois and Mara Vanderslice joined the United States Ambassador the Holy See, Dr. Miguel Diaz, in Rome for an international conference on interfaith action. The conference focused on how religoius and community organizations can impact specific development, environmental, and peace-building challenges. Joshua delivered keynote remarks at this conference; his speech is below.
“Building Bridges of Hope”
Speech to the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See’s Conference on Interfaith Action
October 12, 2010
It is such a pleasure to be with you today. On behalf of President Obama and the entire Administration, I want to thank you for the warm invitation to address this distinguished body. The theme of this conference, “Building Bridges of Hope: Success Stories and Strategies for Interfaith Action” describes perhaps one of the greatest challenges and opportunities of our time – how men and women of diverse religious backgrounds might reach across lines of difference and advance our common goals as human beings. So it is an honor to speak with you, and I am truly delighted to be here.
I also bring warm greetings from President Obama. I have had the pleasure of knowing the President and working closely with him for a number of years, and I can say with great certainty that interreligious cooperation is both a passion and a vocation of his. We saw this in his address in Cairo, Egypt, and I see this through my regular work with the President through the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, where advancing interfaith cooperation and service is one of our primary goals. Please know that the discussions and outcomes from this historic conference will be considered at the highest level of the United States Government.
I also want to express my deepest gratitude to the United States Ambassador to the Holy See, Dr. Miguel Diaz. Ambassador Diaz, you are not only the “brains” behind this Conference – you are also a scholar and diplomat of the first order, and in your relatively brief time in Rome you have represented the President with a depth of wisdom, kindness, values and uncommon skill. So thank you and Dr. Marian Diaz for bringing us all together today, and for your work yet to come.
I am also proud to have with us today the Senior Advisor to the White House faith-based office, Mara Vanderslice. Mara is one of the United States’ leading voices at the intersection of faith and public life, and has pioneered new paths towards interreligious engagement in her role as the head of our office’s international portfolio. I know she is very much looking forward to working with everyone in this room on our common tasks.
Finally, I wish to express my thanks to all of you. It is truly a humbling experience for me to present to such a distinguished body: eminences, excellencies, clergy, religious, scholars, activists, politicians, friends. Every day, brick by brick, you continuously lay the moral and intellectual foundation of our public life and dialogue – and you are the “first responders” when, for various reasons, that foundation is shaken. I know that you will use the opportunity of this conference to identify areas of common purpose on a range of issues, from the philosophical to the pragmatic, from development to the environment. I appreciate your good work and wish you every blessing as that work proceeds.
As the individual in the White House with responsibility for partnering with religious organizations, it fills me with great joy – and quite frankly, no small measure of inadequacy – to deliver these remarks on interreligious cooperation here, in the Eternal City. To think that a young man from very humble beginnings in the American South would stand just a few minutes away from St. Peter’s Basilica and the Coliseum and seek to speak to our common values in a way that adds even a word or two of text to the collective histories of those who have offered remarks in this great city is an awe-inspiring task to say the least.
I lead the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the White House. In that capacity, I am tasked with assisting religious and secular community organizations in their work of serving people in need. We help these organizations identify funding; we work to build their capacity; we bring them together across lines of division so that they can learn from one another’s good work.
My Office is also tasked with assessing, and improving, the United States Government’s engagement of religious issues and religious actors around the globe. President Obama believes that faith-based organizations can be powerful catalysts for development and social action: from rebuilding communities ravished by natural disasters to responding to outbreaks of deadly disease. The President also believes that while faith-based groups are powerful as singular actors, they can multiply their impact by joining across religious lines: Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews, retaining their individual beliefs but coming together to serve communities around the globe in times of dire need. My Office seeks to create opportunities for this sort of interfaith engagement, and for the first time develop mechanisms for the United States Government to systematically partner with religious organizations abroad. I will speak later about the specific ways we are doing this, and opportunities we have to partner with many of you.
But first, I would like to reflect just a bit on the imperative before us – the reasons why it is more important now than ever for religious and moral actors to collaborate on the great social challenges of our time.
And I actually do not wish to extol the positive virtues of interfaith cooperation. So many of us already know that when we embark upon an interfaith encounter – whether being invited to experience a Passover Seder that connects us with the stranger, the oppressed and with redemption; breaking bread with our Muslim brothers and sisters at an Iftar as we appreciate the strength of community and the holiness of the month of Ramadan; or sharing an Easter dinner between Christian friends as we reflect upon Christ’s sacrifice – in those moments we develop expanded compassion, deeper empathy, even a greater notion of the divine. There is little argument about this, this basic idea that, as Pope John Paul II so eloquently stated, “By dialogue, we let God be present in our midst, for as we open ourselves to one another, we open ourselves to God.”
So the positive benefits of interfaith cooperation are known, and they should motivate us to interfaith action.
But it is another motivation for interfaith service that I would like to focus on, another reason why we must join across religious lines to tackle our common challenges together. This motivation may be a bit darker, more difficult than the positive desire for compassion and understanding. But, when properly mined, this motivation might provide the energy we need to build the ‘bridges of hope’ upon which this conference is premised.
The motivation I would like to reflect upon is that of pain and suffering. And I would like to explore with you how the presence and memory of pain might spur us towards ever greater interfaith action.
Approximately 1200 years ago, Herakleion and East Canopus were bustling cities at the mouth of the mighty Nile River in Egypt. They were shipping and trading ports, a gateway through which goods traveled before being shipped upriver. These were busy towns, likely full of religious fervor as well – from newly converted Muslims, Coptic Christians, and Jews.
And then suddenly, at a date uncertain but likely around 741 A.D., it all just disappeared. Flooding from the Nile caused the ground beneath Herakleion and East Canopus to first become saturated and then literally collapse into the depths, liquefying into mud. According to National Geographic, scientists are still finding artifacts at the sea floor, reminders of the men and women, boys and girls, communities and religious societies suddenly swept up by a devastating flood.
A little over twelve hundred years later, there was another flood. In this instance, by the time the clock struck 10AM on Sunday morning, August 25th, 2005, a storm that began over the southeastern Bahamas had reached the Gulf Coast of the United States and the city of New Orleans with mind-boggling intensity. Sustained winds of 280 kilometers per hour. Rain pounding the wards of New Orleans and gathering nearly an inch per hour. Frightened residents moved to the top floors of their houses, for those lucky enough to have top floors. Others climbed atop beds and dressers seeking to stay above the encroaching waters. 20,000 people sought refuge in the Superdome, a major if at the time unfit coliseum in the central city. And they prayed for the rain to stop. But it never stopped.
Before the water receded, Hurricane Katrina had destroyed thousands of homes, schools, and neighborhoods, and cost 1,836 citizens their lives. Many of them were among the poorest in society, those who did not have the means to escape.
Herakleion. New Orleans. Coptics, Muslims and Jews in 8th Century Egypt. Today’s Louisiana, with a significant Roman Catholic population. Worlds apart and yet when we look across history, we see they are tied together by shared memories of water, loss, and death.
There are other examples.
I shudder to think of Kristallnacht, that horrible night in November of 1938 foreshadowing even greater horrors to come, when Jewish homes, shops and villages across Germany and Austria were destroyed, and Torah scrolls and other sacred Judaica were thrown down in the streets by Nazis, as if they were mere debris.
And while there can be no equivalency to the terrors of the Holocaust and those dark days and nights that preceded it, I believe our Jewish brothers and sisters might share some common memories with Irish Catholics in Philadelphia in 1844, who saw their schools and churches burned to the ground as a result of the anti-Catholic sentiment stoked during the Philadelphia Nativist Riots.
Shared suffering. Shared memories.
And what of the shared pain of procession? It seems to me that before some of the darkest hours of all of our faiths, there is a queue, a march, a procession. The procession of the Native Americans down the trail of tears, where hundreds if not thousands of men, women and children died far from their ancestral homes. The procession of the trains to Treblinka, Belzec, Auschwitz, where cattle and freight cars were filled to capacity with so many human souls. The march of Black Christians like Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis and others across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, enduring the bites of vicious dogs and the blows of red bricks upon the sides of their heads. How many times, over the course of human history, have different peoples of different faiths prayed to their God for the ability to keep legs steady and backs upright in the midst of a grueling, deadly, march?
Across all religious traditions, we face tremendous challenges around the globe, some too daunting to fully comprehend. 33 million people wracked by HIV/AIDS. Over 140 million orphans worldwide. Religious tensions from the Middle East to Europe to the United States. A warming climate and frequent natural disasters, from Haiti to Pakistan and so many points in between.
If we are to tackle these challenges, we must somehow find a way to put aside religious difference and work together. In that process, perhaps it is a useful principle to consider not only the coming joys of our collaborations, but also our prior individual sufferings that tie us together as well. Perhaps in those sufferings we can see the face of someone who has similarly endured, and join with that person to ease the pain of others.
This is happening across the globe already, and governments have a role in bringing people of different faiths together to address common challenges. I am pleased that the United States Government is beginning an intentional effort to encourage faith-based partnerships for the common good. In fact, my office along with the National Security Council has recently begun a government working group called the Interagency Working Group on Religion and Global Affairs. In this effort, we are identifying ways in which government’s partnerships with faith-based actors successfully alleviate pain and suffering across the globe, so that we can build on these models in the future.
Out first task was to take a step back and survey what is already going on within the U.S. Government in terms of our interaction and engagement with religious leaders aboard.
We asked each government agency to do a thorough mapping of their religious and community engagement and received back hundreds of pages of reports from 138 Embassies around the world and 12 agencies across government. What we found is that a lot of engagement is already taking place:
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency of our Department of Homeland Security has met with international groups and other governments to share best practices on engaging faith-based organizations around disaster response.
- Our Office of Global Health Affairs at the US Department of Health and Human Services partners with the World Health Organization to provide reliable information about vaccine safety to religious leaders. Particularly in Indonesia and Nigeria, religious leaders have falsely claimed that vaccines were being used as biological weapons targeted at Muslims; U.S. Government officials worked with religious leaders to help dispel this dangerous myth.
- Our Department of Agriculture has consulted with religious authorities and others in a number of countries around issues of importing and exporting kosher and halal meats.
- Our USAID Mission in Madagascar works hand in hand with Christian, Muslim and traditional religious leaders in the dissemination of messages about maternal and child health, the fight against malaria and sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS, and improving access to water, sanitation and hygiene in churches, temples, and mosques in 422 communes across that country.
- Our USAID Mission in the Philippines supported a special initiative called Al-Khalifa (The Steward), an environmental sourcebook based on the Islamic perspective of managing the environment. The sourcebook was helpful in preventing and resolving conflicts in Western Mindanao that are related to the use of environmental and natural resources.
- Our Embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh hosted a regional conference on “The Role of Religious and Community Leaders in Advancing Development in Asia.” Over 60 interfaith leaders, political actors, and development practitioners from fourteen Asian countries attended the conference, and it provided a platform for participants to share their experiences on issues related to promoting interfaith dialogue and service.
- In China, engagement with religious leaders has been particularly important given the difficulties with religious freedom in that country. Our U.S. Ambassador to China has a Fund for Cultural Preservation provides an important means to preserve Tibetan culture.
- And of course this conference here today, which we are so honored to be a part of, is an unprecedented example of our U.S. Embassy to the Holy See taking a lead in promoting best practices in inter-religious engagement and cooperation.
So across the United States Government, there is a growing trend of engaging religious and community-based actors to advance our common non-religious goals.
But although we uncovered some very good examples of engagement that are taking place, too often this work is sporadic and ad hoc. While some departments and Embassies incorporate religious and community leaders into much of their development and diplomatic work, the engagement in other areas does not extend beyond the occasional holiday reception.
In many circumstances staff reported that they did not understand the critical legal guidelines regarding the engagement of religious organizations, or they did not feel that they had adequate knowledge and training to effectively reach out to religious leaders to advance non-religious goals.
That is why we are working with the White House National Security Staff and the State Department to find ways to increase our government’s capacity and training to allow for ongoing relationship building with diverse religious and community leaders across the globe. The goal here is to partner with faith-based actors and non-governmental organizations on shared issues of interest such as conflict resolution, environmental protection, and health and development.
I know there is much we, the government of the United States, can learn in this process of engaging religious actors from so many in this room. I see today’s Conference as an opportunity to begin that conversation, and share best practices in tackling our global challenges together.
But when those challenges become almost too heavy to bear, as world events show that they often do; when the distance between us seems so far that no bridge of hope can span it; when the hurt inflicted by one of another faith threatens to overwhelm any sense of empathy or compassion that might bind us together; I wonder if in those times we might be motivated to extend a hand in peace, a morsel of food, or a tent of shelter, not only by our innate compassion, but also by our memory of those times when we were the stranger, the abandoned, the despairing.
Perhaps then, when Pakistan is wracked by floods and thousands are left despairing, we who also have high waters in our cultural memories – from Hurricane Katrina to Noah and his Ark – can find common cause with the drenched, the homeless, the orphaned.
Perhaps when we see young people marching down the streets of Tehran, enduring taunts and blows, we, as people of faith, will remember the marches of our religious histories as well – Montgomery and Birmingham, the Salt March from Sabarmati to Dandi, even the procession of the children of Abraham from out of the Pharaoh’s bondage.
Perhaps when the earth shakes beneath the feet of a people as it did in Haiti, in those tremors Catholics and Jews will remember the deep rumble of tanks beneath their feet in Poland. And, awoken by that stir, we’ll join together across religious lines in rescue and relief, as so many in fact did in Haiti.
Faced with crisis and challenge, we will at times be motivated to build interreligious bridges of hope by the forces of love, of charity, of joy. But when that is not enough -- I pray that we might also join together because of the memory of our own pain, and the desire to prevent that pain from ever occurring again, for anyone, anywhere.
As I close, I would like to consider the beautiful words of His Holiness, Pope Benedict the XVI, delivered just a few months ago here in the Eternal City. The Pope was reflecting specifically upon the Iraqi context and the mutual experiences of Muslims and Christians there, but I believe his words apply to people of all faiths as well. He said:
"Recent years have seen many tragic acts of violence committed against innocent members of the population...This shared suffering can provide a deep bond, strengthening the determination...to work for peace and reconciliation. History has shown that some of the most powerful incentives to overcome division come from the example of those men and women who, having chosen the courageous path of non-violent witness to higher values, have lost their lives..."
In our work to foster development, protect our environment, and create peace out of strife across religious lines, I hope that we would remember those who came before us, the suffering of our own peoples, our own histories, our own beliefs. And I pray that those mournful memories would actually help us build a brighter and more hopeful future for one another, a future where the pain of our own pasts provokes us to heal others with the balm of mutual concern.
Michael Wear serves as Executive Assistant to the Executive Director of The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
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