BLOGGERKatherine Marshall is a Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, where she leads the Center's program on Religion and Global Development. After a long career in...
Faith in Action tracks the activities of people of faith across the globe and across religious traditions, with a focus on development issues. Posts are originally published by the Huffington Post. Older blog posts appeared on the Washington Post's Georgetown/On Faith site.
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AT THE CENTER
RELATED RESOURCES: MUSLIM
October 20, 2008
The scene was a muggy hotel conference room in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, last week. The topic was grand: "Building Peace, Cooperation, and Harmony through Interfaith Dialogue." The audience was a somber group of Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian leaders, government officials, students and a smattering of international speakers. The tone was utterly serious - no backslapping or chitchat. The organizer was a small new group called the Asian Faiths Development Dialogue.
I find myself quite often at international interfaith meetings. They have some almost ritual elements. Speakers from different traditions extol their faith and its commitment to peace. The order of speakers and even length of speeches may reflect careful negotiations to ensure balance and equity. Speakers generally note with pride how well the different religious communities get along and stress that interfaith work does not, in any fashion, suggest that one religion is better than another. There are many mentions of the need for understanding and "education" is hailed as the long-term answer.
There is a code name in the U.S. for the general tenor of such meetings: they're called Kumbaya moments. Translation: everybody feels good and nothing gets accomplished.
I do not share that cynical view. Generally interfaith meetings do go beyond the talk. Just bringing groups together can be powerful symbolically and a major step in addressing deep conflicts. Many times the simple sight of a Muslim imam and a Jewish rabbi hugging one another brings people to tears. And there are remarkable examples of what interfaith work can accomplish - organizing food kitchens or housing construction, for example. Still, the opening ritual dance can be hard slogging.
The Phnom Penh meeting followed the ritual, with the fillip that there seemed a genuine puzzlement about what the problem was. Speaker after speaker said that in Cambodia everyone got along, and there were no religious tensions. The country's history of genocide was not even part of the conversation - it's apparently still too sensitive to raise. Nor did the issue of corruption come up at all, despite Cambodia's unfortunate renown in that regard.
Onto this somber scene burst Dr. Haruhisu Handa. For an hour the Japanese patron of the event grabbed the microphone, upsetting the careful protocol, and held forth about what interfaith work was really about.
I have to introduce Dr. Handa first, as he is a rare and rather extraordinary person. He leads a fairly new spiritual movement in Japan that draws on both Shinto and Buddhist traditions. He is also a successful businessman (many enterprises including publishing and travel). He writes, is working for his third PhD, this one from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, paints, designs clothing, plays golf, and is an expert in flower arranging. I saw him as the lead in a Tokyo production of Verdi's opera Falstaff in September, playing what the Japanese program billed as "Lustful Falstaff in the Edo Era" (he was extraordinary).
Beyond this array of activities, he is a remarkable philanthropist, active in many countries; he supports diverse organizations including the World Faiths Development Dialogue, an organization I head, the Juilliard School of Music, and the cause of golf for the blind. His first love, however, seems to be Cambodia, and there he has supported the founding of a hospital, a university, over 100 schools, an orphanage, an economic think tank, and several other causes. The Asian Faiths Development Dialogue is among his philanthropic activities.
So when Dr. Handa took the microphone, people listened.
His message began as a familiar exhortation to action, not words, but it took on force as he described what can be done when different faith traditions come together to help poor people. He got more and more emotional as one story after another spilled out. To found the new hospital serving Cambodia's poor, for example, he, a Buddhist/Shinto leader, joined with a Jewish journalist, a doctor with the Christian-inspired Hope International, and Cambodia's royal family. The hospital has served over a million patients at no charge, and it trains doctors and nurses who work all over Cambodia.
Another example: a new University of Cambodia scholarship program for 1000 top students was in a jam because there were no dormitories. So Buddhist temples are housing the students. In Japan, he said, religious and business leaders are joining together to press for greener cars and more recycling of paper products.
The interfaith blues that threatened to stifle the Phnom Penh meeting were largely dispelled by the iconoclastic intervention of a dynamic leader who preached passionately about what can be done. There is a power in example - both the example of a style ready to upset protocol and the example of action. It's going to take more than an hour-long harangue to galvanize interfaith action in Cambodia, but this was a good start.