In the spring of 1993, I said simple words that changed my life – I’d like to help. Twenty years and over a million-and-a-half flight miles later, in June 2013, I retired as the founding executive director of the United Religions Initiative, largest grassroots interfaith organization in the world, working in 84 countries with over 600,000 members. Though URI’s impact isn’t yet on the scale of the tragic events of 9/11 or of the perhaps even more tragic actions that flowed from that fateful day, I believe that together we created a living antidote to the poison of hatred, division and violence that manifested in those events. 

We, people of diverse religions, spiritual expressions and indigenous traditions throughout the world, hereby establish the United Religions Initiative 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.

Thousands of people labored for four years to write these words, which begin URI’s visionary charter. The global movement they animate has the potential to curve the course of human history away from hatred, division and violence toward peace, justice and healing. The journey will be long, but it is well begun. I believe in my heart that it will succeed. My belief is founded in the faces, voices and actions of people of all faiths all over the world who each day live the URI vision into being, transforming themselves and transforming the course of human history. I share the story that follows in the hopes that it will contribute in a positive way to this journey of transformation.

In the beginning…

Every story begins somewhere, and though this story really began long, long before, let's say it began on a spring day in 1993 in the Chapel of Saint George sitting atop a rolling hill at the Bishop's Ranch in northern California’s Sonoma County wine country. An Episcopal priest who led a small congregation in San Francisco, I was at the ranch for the Episcopal Diocese of California’s spring clergy conference. I was sitting in the Chapel for the bishop’s “Nuts and Bolts”session – a regular clergy conference feature during which the bishop, the Right Rev. William E. Swing, spoke about whatever issues he felt were most pressing, engaging, challenging, entertaining and/or immediate in his world as bishop and in the life of the diocese.

That day, he informed the gathered clergy that recently he had received a phone call from the United Nations, from Gillian Sorensen, Special Adviser for Public Policy to Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Ms. Sorensen informed Bishop Swing that in two-plus years, in June 1995, the United Nations would come to San Francisco to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the UN charter, which was written and signed in San Francisco. The commemoration would involve a week of varied observances. Would Bishop Swing kindly host a one-hour interfaith service at Grace Cathedral during that commemorative week?

The bishop informed Ms. Sorensen that he would gladly host such a service. She responded that the UN would bring 185 nations to this service; would the bishop please bring the world's religions? Again, the bishop responded that he would gladly do so.

But that night at home he found himself unable to sleep. The nations of the world were throwing a week-long party to celebrate a half-century of working together for global peace and the good of all humanity. For 50 years, even when wars – hot and cold – had raged, the nations had had the moral courage and political discipline to sit together and work cooperatively, if imperfectly, for global good.

Now these nations were inviting the world's religions to join them in their celebration. But, the Bishop wondered, what had the religions done to deserve this invitation? The sad, perhaps tragic, answer that emerged was – Nothing! While the world's nations had shared a vocation for peace, the world's religions had more often than not been in conflict with each other in ways that often exacerbated rather than eased conflict within and among nations.

Scandalized at the realization that the nations of the world were being more morally responsible for the good of humanity than the religions of the world, the bishop dedicated himself to finding a way that the religions of the world could join the nations of the world in claiming a shared vocation for peace. I have a feeling, he concluded that spring day in 1993, that something much more than a one-hour interfaith service is being asked of us.

After the Bishop had finished his session, I lingered in the chapel to speak with him personally. I thanked him for sharing the news about the UN and about his sense that something more was being asked of us. I then said the words that would change my life and thrust me into an effort to change the world for the better –

I'd like to help.