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Some 30 Eugene area religious leaders gathered the morning of April 30 for a major press conference — without the press. The media were preoccupied that day. Eugene Police called a press conference the same morning in advance of an afternoon press conference by Whiteaker residents about their lawsuit against the city. Eugene Weekly was on deadline. But Faith in Action organizers figure they were mostly ignored because Gulf War II is over — so what's the point of an anti-war statement now?
"The point is that the concerns transcend the war," says Steven Deutsch, a Quaker and one of the group's organizers.
"We just thought it was very important that clergy take a stand, and not just an individual clergy person but a group of clergy," says Irwin Noparstak, a Jewish member and organizer. "Also, by not saying anything, there is a notion of condoning what's going on, and we don't."
Faith in Action prepared an 11-page handout for the April 30 press conference that included a joint statement and individual statements.
"The prophetic and compassionate voice in all of our faith traditions compels us to speak to these issues," reads the joint statement. "We do not pretend that there is unity amongst us and the communities we represent on the current U.S. war on Iraq, or on how to express support for American military personnel. Yet we must speak as we mourn the casualties, civilian and military, of any nationality, in the war in Iraq. Our nation is divided and most of the world opposes what the U.S. is doing."
The statement goes on to voice concerns about the potential for U.S. nuclear first strike, extending military action to Syria and Iran, and support for national religious organizations that have taken stands against the war.
A Moral Imperative
The issues existed long before the Iraq offensive, but were made worse by the U.S. war on terrorism, says Noparstak. "Right after 9/11 there was a massive slashing and cutting of funds from women's issues, children's issues, health issues ... even cutting veterans' benefits," he says. "There's a moral imperative to take a position about that, and who is best in a community to take a moral and ethical stand than people of faith?"
Deutsch says Faith in Action has sponsored vigils, worked with other peace groups and lobbied congressional lawmakers, "but there had not previously been a statement of concern that went beyond the war in Iraq and we wanted to talk about the impact of that war, not only in human terms, but internationally, and the consequences for the future."
Deutsch says the group is concerned about the domestic U.S. budget, excessive military spending and the "tragic consequences" of underfunding social, medical and human services.
"And finally," he says, "what about the issues locally that the war and the crisis in that part of the world are generating in terms of religious bigotry and intolerance? Particularly targeting Muslims and Sikhs and other vulnerable communities?"
Gordie Albi, a Catholic and a steering committee member of Faith in Action, has followed U.S. foreign policy since she lived and worked in war-torn Nicaragua.
"This is not the first (U.S.) preemptive strike," she says. "We've done it many times before. … The only way we can break through is through the churches."
"Rarely have the world's religions spoken in unity as they did trying to prevent this preemptive war," she says. "The pope said war is not valid anymore — the weapons are too horrible."
All War is a Failure
Lucy McIver, clerk of the Eugene Friends Meeting, says in her statement, "all war is a failure — failure to believe and trust in the goodness at the core of humankind. … We support strenuous efforts through diplomacy to secure international agreements and to remove the domination of militarism in our society. … For those who believe that this war was the only way to bring about (peaceful) change, we remind them that diplomacy brought about the fall of apartheid and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall."
A Sikh member of the group, Siri Karur Khalsa, says, "The world has gotten very small. Humanity is interdependent not only with each other but with this great earth that nurtures us all. … We must set examples of deep respect for all that our children can emulate, or risk losing it all."
Gregory Flint, senior pastor at First Congregational Church, says part of the challenge of peace is to step above "ideology, opinion, patriotic speeches and countering dissent." In his statement he calls for "real religious reflection on the footprints we're leaving on this earth."
"So," he asks, "could we stop waving the flag and put away the protest signs and really talk in reflective, engaging ways, without the hubris of either self-righteous patriotism or breast-beating protest?"
Muslims Under Attack
Tammam Adi, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Eugene, speaks out against the continuing backlash against Muslims at home and abroad.
"We are the ones under attack," he says. "Under the cover of an endless 'war on terror' and so-called 'wars of liberation,' powerless Muslim communities here and overseas are being smeared, then persecuted, and finally assaulted and subjugated … Right in front of our eyes we are seeing the extermination of Islamic culture — our antiquities, villages, orchards and homes — in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine."
Adi says that everywhere, including Eugene, some religious groups are teaching that "Islam is evil and needs to be eradicated. … We ask you to openly confront, expose and condemn those with your communities who are so viciously attacking Islamic culture."
"We Muslims are doing our part," he says, "in confronting those few of us who hate others and call for violence. We continue to struggle against denial, hesitation and fear."
Choosing Love or Hate
Dan Bryant, senior minister at First Christian Church, did not submit a statement at the press conference, but has been an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy from the pulpit, as well as a strong advocate for social services funding. In his sermon the Sunday following 9/11, he said:
"I fear that this dark side of our nation, if we do not expose and expunge it, may well control and consume us in our blind zeal to find blame and to get revenge. In times such as these we must not forget that we have a choice, always, when we are victimized by evil. And the choice is simply this: We can respond from love or we can respond from hate."
Arun Toké of the group put his statement on the web at www.skippingstones.orgalong with the complete texts of others' statements and information about upcoming interfaith meetings. Toké, a "born-again Unitarian Universalist Hindu," calls for "Sept. 11th to be observed as a National Day of Interfaith, Intercultural and International Dialogue. We wish to put wings to nonviolence, understanding and cooperation between various segments of the human society, and to let it fly all over the world."
The last paragraph of the joint statement of April 30 reads: "We issue this statement because we are challenged to witness our faith and we need to express our concerns over religious intolerance, the use of unilateral and preemptive military action, endless war, misallocation of monies, and the serious need to see that local social services are kept functioning."
So was the press conference successful? "Thirty people showed up and it was a wonderful event," says Deutsch. "The no-shows were the media, but it had great value for everyone present."
The program included a tribute to "all mothers, grandmothers, Mother Earth and the Nurturing Principle of the Divine." Presentations of song, music, verse, dance and prayer were by youth representing Methodists, Willamette Christian School, Baha'i, Islam, Sikh, Buddhism, Powerhouse Ministries, Hindu, Judaism and Native Americans.
In his introductory remarks, 17-year-old Ben Hunter said, "Twenty months ago, we realized that if we continue to justify harming and killing others — in the name of God — we will all kill each other off. The possible extinction of humankind, by our own self-destructive pride. This is unlikely to be what God wants. Tolerance isn't enough any more. Sharing, understanding and respect are our best hope for moving into the future."
The next service will be at 7 pm Wednesday, June 11, at First Christian Church. The June theme will be "The Glorious Sacred Abundance of All Creation." For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
"The crux of it," says Irwin Noparstak looking back, "was the liberal clergy and laity in town wanted to take a position around social and political actions to make it really clear that when things come up that ‘religious people support' that there's more than the right wing."
"What happened with TRIM," adds Noparstak, "is that
about five years ago the group became so diverse, so many new people
came into TRIM who were coming from faith-based communities that are
not political action communities … It was hard for TRIM to take
a position about things, so we created a subsidiary or affiliate group
called Faith in Action."
Two nationally prominent speakers will be in Eugene next week to bring their unique perspectives on religion, politics and world peace. In addition, a series of lectures are planned by Muslim students on campus.
Ron Young, executive director of the U.S. Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East, will be the keynote speaker at a community forum at 7 pm Tuesday, May 20 at the Hilton Conference Center.
The topic of the forum is "In Search of a Just Peace for Palestine and Israel — What Can We Do?" Respondents will be Shaul Cohen, associate professor of geography at UO; Munir Katul, retired physician and activist on Palestinian and Arab issues; and Steve Goldberg, attorney and co-chair of the National Lawyers' Guild International Committee. Moderator will be Karen Kennedy, country specialist on Israel and the occupied territories for Amnesty International.
One focus of the forum will be on the Bush Administration's new "road map" for peace in Israel and the region, says one of the organizers, Dan Goldrich. "This forum is designed to answer questions such as: What are the major requisites of and obstacles to a just peace? How do Americans best organize to overcome those obstacles? And how does American policy impact the lack of peace?"
Father Roy Bourgeois, MM, founder of the SOA Watch movement and recently returned from Iraq, will be in Eugene to speak at 7 pm Thursday, May 22 at 177 Lawrence Hall, UO. His topic will be "The School of the Americas and Iraq: Reflections on U.S. Foreign Policy."
Bourgeois, a Catholic priest, worked with the poor in Bolivia for several years and knew two of the nuns who were murdered in El Salvador in the 1980s. He became aware of the relationship of the SOA with massacres, torture and assassination throughout Latin America. He has been arrested many times in nonviolent protests against the SOA and has spent four years in prison. For more information, visit www.soawatch.org The UO Muslim Student Association is presenting a series to talks and discussions on "Justice: Islamic Perspectives on Peace and War" beginning at 6 pm Monday, May 12 in McKenzie 240 C on campus. Speakers will be Prof. Timothy Fianotti and Tamam Adi.
From 5 to 8 pm Tuesday will be talks by Ibrahim Hamide, Prof. Ibrahim Gassama, David Fidanque and Guadalupe Quinn, also in McKenzie 240 C.
Wednesday from 5 to 8 pm in Lawrence 177 will be a presentation on "Faces of Shock and Awe," and talks by Prof. Shaul Cohen, Prof. Jane Cramer, Prof. Richard Kraus, and Prof. Carl Bybee.
Thursday from 5 to 7:30 pm in Gerlinger Lounge will be an Islamic Cultural Reception, a talk by Prof. Timothy Gianotti and a reading of a Rumi "Poem for Peace."
A NEW RELIGIOUS AMERICA BY DIANA L. ECK, HARPERSANFRANCISCO, 2001. $16.95 PAPERBACK.
SEPT. 11, AS WE ARE OFTEN REMINDED, changed our ways of seeing and being in the world. But a part of our social landscape had already changed dramatically in the last third of the 20th century, changed almost without our noticing.
After the immigration laws of 1965, 30 million immigrants, most of them not the traditional arrivals from northern Europe, had moved into our neighborhoods. Coming primarily from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, they brought with them the religious traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and other unfamiliar faiths. In our midst, they built mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples Sikh gurdwaras, monasteries and religious schools.
Suddenly aware of these changes, in these days of "war against terror," Americans have experienced astonishment, anxiety, perplexity and fear. How are we to understand our new neighbors and welcome them as a rich gift to our historic American cultural diversity? How are we to avoid the perils of misunderstanding, bigotry, hatred?
Fortunately, we have an experienced and insightful guide to our changing cultural landscape. Her name is Diana Eck, and her recent book, A New Religious America (How a "Christian Country" has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation), has just been released in paperback by Harper/Collins.
Eck, who teaches Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard, grew up Methodist in Montana. As a college student, she was captivated by the study of world religions, particularly Hinduism, and made a year-long study trip to India. As she tells us in an earlier book, Encountering God: a Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Benaras, she found there her life work as a living bridge between religious cultures half a world apart.
For over a decade, Eck has guided the "Pluralism Project" at Harvard, and with more than 80 students, many of them born in other cultures, she has explored the emerging religious landscape of the U.S. This book reports their findings, reflects on their implications, and even more usefully, provides a road map toward a life-giving future in a newly pluralistic America.
In her introduction and first chapter, Eck gives us an overview of change and describes the challenges those changes bring. We are challenged, she says, "to make good on the promise of religious freedom so basic to the very idea and image of America." We will be required, she adds, "to reclaim the deepest meaning of the very principles we cherish and to create a truly pluralistic American society in which this great diversity is not simply tolerated but becomes the very source of our strength."
To meet this challenge, Eck declares, we will need to know more than we do about one another. The next three chapters of her book provide some of that necessary knowledge through lively descriptions of American Hindus, American Buddhists, and American Muslims.
In her two concluding chapters, Eck suggests healthy ways that we might deal with our new understanding. First, in the chapter "Afraid of Ourselves," she lays our negative possibilities such as the possibilities of hate crimes. We have seen such outpouring of misunderstanding, fear and anger in Eugene.
But we have also seen in Eugene what Eck describes in her final chapter, "Bridge Building: A New Multireligious America." We have seen neighbors gathering around Temple Beth Israel after a drive-by shooting. We have seen neighbors accompanying Muslim women in head scarves who were afraid to do ordinary errands after Sept. 11. We have seen the formation of interreligious dialogue groups. We have seen, for 20 months, a vibrant monthly gathering of Sikhs, Baha'is, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Native Americans, and Christians in the First Christian Church downtown.
Reading Eck's book will help us to find our way, even in this time of seemingly endless surprise and peril, toward the great promise of American freedom, diversity and blessed community.
JOAN PIERSON OF EUGENE IS A RETIRED PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER AND FORMER PROFESSOR OF LITERATURE AT UO. SHE SERVES ON THE STEERING COMMITTEES OF BOTH TRIM AND FAITH IN ACTION.