Inclusion, Interfaith and Human Rights

Talk written for 21st March 2021, Human Rights Day, Athlone, Cape Town

I have been asked to speak on this Human Rights Day 2021, and in the context of Cape Town Interfaith community, on the topic of Inclusion. It is a topic close to my heart, and while I have never spoken of it in public before, I have wrestled with its meaning for several decades.

Inclusion has many dimensions. It can be explored theologically, socially, philosophically, politically, artistically, and psychologically. But ultimately it has to do with our lived realities, not just a theory or idea, but how we chose to live and act.

Continue reading “Inclusion, Interfaith and Human Rights”

“Speaking Our Truth”, a short film for Human Rights Day

In the last month I have spoken to and interviewed 16 diverse interfaith and inter-spiritual activists and leaders in the Cape Town area. And I’ve made a film, including my own score, of the core of their message, as we approach Human Rights Day on the 21st March, 2021.

The result is Speaking Our Truth: A united voice for governance, justice and inclusion.

Towards Human Rights Day

Diverse collective galvanises vision for South Africa

Present: Andre Naidoo, Sam Sipango, Bishop Thembekile Gqwaka, Imam Dr Rashid Omar, Nic Paton, Cecil Plaatjies, Chief Ishsaqua Sabodien, Deon Abrahams, Pastor Gerhardus de Vries Bock.

Absent – too many to be listed, we consciously included all our concerned others and communities in our conversation, especially women it must be noted. There are several organisations and online groups that form this larger Community, The Cape Flats Interfaith Declaration, Cape Town Interfaith Initiative, Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum, SAFCEI, United Religions Initiative, and Reconciliation Day Interfaith Walk in District Six among them.

Continue reading “Towards Human Rights Day”

THE CAPE FLATS INTERFAITH DECLARATION

COLLECTIVE ACTION FOR THE RESTORATION OF COMMUNITIES, SOCIAL COHESION AND SAFER COMMUNITIES

As adopted at the Interfaith Prayer Service for Peace at the Joseph Stone Auditorium, Athlone, on 25 AUGUST 2019

INTRODUCTION
In recent years there has been an alarming spike in atrocity crimes committed in working class communities across South Africa and more prevalent on the Cape Flats.

The violent and sexual abuse of our women and children, large scale drug addiction and absence of common decency and
respect amongst a people are markers of a society that has strayed from its shared values of living in love, peace and harmony with one another.

Gangsterism, crime, violence and drug peddling found a fertile breeding ground within the socio-economic constraints in working class communities that still bears apartheid scars. Cape Town is a socially and economically fragmented city and among the most unequal societies in the world.

The socio-economic challenges of poverty, joblessness, hunger, landlessness, inferior public education, overburdened health care and limited government social services are among the underlying causes of social ills facing the people.

The only method that can be applied at “immunizing” distressed communities is united action driven by the people for the people.

APPROACH BY RELIGIOUS LEADERS IN UNISON
It is accepted by Religious Leaders that it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between people and communities.

Therefore we religious leaders located in practice, service and calling, in communities on the Cape Flats – powered by conviction and belief, with the shared values of an ethics of love, peace, freedom and justice – commit to establish, in collaboration and with due regard and respect for all faiths and religious practices, a united front to embark on restoration of families, homes, communities and societies.

It is reaffirmed by the Religious Leaders gathered here, their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of
the human person and in the equitable rights of women and men.

This Plan of Action is adopted here today, in Athlone, Cape Town, under the facilitation of the Service and Allied Workers
Union (SAWUSA).

PLAN OF ACTION
The Plan of Action will be implemented with the overall coordination by the Service and Allied Workers Union of South
Africa and with active contribution by the religious community both materially and organisationally. To act along the following lines: Restoration, Prevention, Refuge and Counselling, Advocacy and Community Development

Therefore this inter-faith gathering of Religious Leaders proclaims to the end, as a common standard of achievement for all communities, keeping this pledge in mind, to strive by teaching, lobbying, educating, campaigning and acting in unison, by progressive measures, to secure safe and decent livelihoods in our communities where we may live in love, peace and harmony, and free of crime, violence, and abuse of women and children.

DECLARATION
We believe and declare, as united Religious Leaders, free from any form of prejudice and bias, that:

  1. We are united in aspiring and collaborating to eradicate the social ills on the Cape Flats and the broader South
    African society.
  2. We will experience, practice and pursue community with one another, across our religious divide, around the common goals and objectives in the fight against gangsterism, crime and violence.
  3. We stand by our people in depressed communities in any form of suffering and need.
  4. We give of ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another and our people.
  5. We witness and strive against any form of injustice, so that righteousness, love, peace and harmony amongst all
    people may roll down like waters, and virtue like an everflowing stream.
  6. We build and sustain partnerships with government officials and government institutions with trust and cooperation.
  7. We protect the rights of all religious communities to carry out religious ceremonies and sacraments and stand united
    against those who wish to pursue practices of intolerance, prejudice, chauvinism and bigotry.
  8. We pray in unison and join hands together to fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity.
  9. We collectively pray and seek God’s forgiveness and healing as a nation and his grace in our time of need.


This Declaration emerged from a series of inter-faith dialogues that was held on the Cape Flats during July and August 2019.
If your institution would like to embrace and commit to this declaration please contact gensec@sawusa.org.za

“7 Sacred Days in Cape Town”, 1st – 7th February 2020, celebrating World Interfaith Harmony Week

“7 Sacred Days in Cape Town”, held all over the city from the 1st – 7th February 2020, was organised by the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative and celebrated World Interfaith Harmony Week’s 10th Anniversary, and annual UN observance.

Visiting the District 6 museum, Dr Bhadra Shah (left) and Rev Berry Behr of the CTII (right back)

This was a really exceptional experience; one comes away feeling immensely positive about the future of grassroots interfaith in Cape Town, of civil society in general, and also South Africa and the rest of the World too.

We were blessed to have the witness and input of Dr Bhadra Shah, Vice Chair of the Parliament if the World’s Religions, helping us grow the connections to the international movement of spirit.

 

Swami Vidyananda of Ananda Kutir ashrama

“7 Sacred Days” was so multifaceted, the context a struggling post-apartheid society, but the sentiments so noble and transcendent from every major religious sector. It started on Saturday 1st in the tranquility of the Ananda Kutir ashrama (right) in Rondebosch, where we “met the swamis”. On Sunday the 2nd, we convened in Saddique Mosque in gangster-ridden Elsies River on the Cape Flats and proceded silently to a reclaimed block of land in (below), for the annual “Prayers for the City” event.

On Wednesday 5th we gathered in the Dutch Reformed Groote Kerk for an inspiring cafe-style set of dialogs. Under Dominee Riaan de Villiers this symbol of Afrikaner spirituality is undergoing a tremendous transition into a profound wider unity as they question their historical commitment to segregated religious practice (see bottom picture)

On Friday 7th we visited the bustling hub of progressive Islam that is Claremont Main Road Mosque. There were many other events and encounters, including Shabbat at Wynberg Temple and a visit to the District 6 museum.

Throughout we experienced warm hearts from many strata of our society, with a resurgent sense of goodwill and return to the Ubuntu sensibility that underlies perhaps the most perennial of religious truths, that we should “Do to others what we would have them do to us”.

Prayers for the City, Elsies River (day 2)

Well done, Cape Town Interfaith Initiative. You are showing up, doing interfaith, and by facilitating such glorious diversity, taking Initiative in the deepest sense of the word.

Embrace, Groote Kerk

Photo Credits to Abdul-Karriem Adams and Laura Pohl.

Being a Worder of the Do: The Cape Flats Interfaith Declaration

On the 22nd January 2020, a growing group of concerned faith leaders called gathered at Gatesville Mosque to share their vision of the Cape Flats Interfaith Declaration, launched in 2019. This is a response to the current crisis experienced in the poorer neighborhoods of Cape Town, including gangsterism, gender based violence, refugee-ism, xenophobia and addiction.

Leaders of Christian churches, Islamic communities, other religious communities, the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative and the Police commissioner of the Western Cape, Ms. Yolisa Matakata were hosted by Shaykh Abdurrahman Alexander and his team at Masjidal Quds. Notably absent was Wilfed Alcock, the main driver of the document and its community, who sadly is gravely ill at this moment.

I was asked to share a perspective on the Document, its community, and its process. Here is what I said

A response to and assessment of the Cape Flats Interfaith Declaration

Nic Paton, Cape Town Interfaith Initiative

I am humbled by and grateful for the invitation given to me to comment on the CFID of 2019. This pithy statement somehow encapsulates the best of what our society represents: united aspirations, a shared view of the immediate problems, and a willingness to wholeheartedly and practically collaborate across the boundaries and categories of race, economics and religion.

Above all, we are indebted to Wilfred Alcock of SAWUSA for his role in originating, articulating and energetically promoting the document. We think of him now and wish him the recovery that would enable him to partake in the fruits of his visionary work.

The Cape Flats Interfaith Declaration is reminiscent of earlier famous commitments emerging from the South African process, such as the Belhar Confession of 1982 (only 5 km from here), and the Kairos document, issued in 1985 by South African churches under apartheid (Kairos is Greek for “special moment”). But while these addressed a divided Christian church, in which “Both oppressor and oppressed claim loyalty to the same church” we now find ourselves in a new post-apartheid context, but facing issues both abiding and new and including gangsterism, gender based violence, addiction, refugeeism and inequitable wealth distribution to name a few.

It is also important to bring to mind the “Charter for Compassion”, a widely-subscribed international declaration originating in 2009, to which the City of Cape Town is committed. Key here is that the principle that compassion is central to all religion, and impels us to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures. Happily, it would appear that the CFID is in line with this approach.

The declaration is already making its mark. For example, in his khutbah (sermon) on Jan 3rd, Imam Dr Rashied Omar of Claremont Main Road Mosque said:

“The Cape Flats Interfaith Declaration initiative has provided much needed comfort and pastoral support to grieving and traumatised communities on the Cape Flats. In addition the interfaith solidarity movement has also sought to strengthen civil society’s efforts to address the socio-economic roots of violence and crime, to hold our local and national governments accountable for their constitutional responsibility to provide safety and security to all of its citizens and to change the Cape Flats narrative by highlighting its many positive stories”.

In appraising any text, it is critical that we fully grasp its context. No text aspiring towards real change exists in an academic or theoretical vacuum; or finds itself divorced from its origin, its community, the causes it is addressing, and all connections to the broader surrounding reality. It is my feeling and observation that this context has been wonderfully integrated into its wording. The trust, hospitality and honesty of Declaration’s holding community is apparent for all to see, and an enactment of the famous biblical injunction

“let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds, and glorify your Father in Heaven”.

What is clear from the CFI declaration is that is a significantly bottom-up approach to the specific problems of the Cape Flats. It is both “yours” – as residents here – and “ours” – including the wider society – in that it acknowledges as point 1, the united aspiration of the broader society to collaborate. Being “bottom-up” is a relatively new understanding, articulated by liberation theology in recent times. Instead of taking orders from “above”, the people discover and own the process they find themselves in, and the solutions to their problems are not imposed but emerge from their midst. This does not preclude any top-down support, as they declaration itself commits to working in partnership with government institutions (point 7).

Neither does this negate our religious traditions, which do tend to create precepts which we take upon ourselves to obey. However, in the name of both top down and bottom up, let us broaden our view of this sacred duty, this “din” (Arabic for religious commitment): “Be doers of the Word” should be balanced with “Be Worders of the Do”.

Being a “Worder of the Do” is precisely what the CFID is about. Instead of creating yet more precepts, and recommendations, it is more of a wording, an articulation, of already existing compassion, in the context of righteous relationships, and a shared reality of Ubuntu: “I am what I am through you”.

Point 2 – “to experience, practice and pursue community” – is for me the heart of the declaration. As I see it 2 major impediments exist here. Firstly, the hard truth of spacial apartheid which is not as “easily” erased as its legislative counterpart, means that we do not live in or share the same neighbourhoods. Secondly, society at large lacks the will to overcome the inertia, be it through shellshock, denial, or the soporific effects of comforts and the media. Nonetheless, the pursuit of community in these terms remains a cardinal calling.

I have been very inspired of late by the Islamic notion of “tawhid” – oneness. In the words of Ibn Arabi, a great mystic in the Sufi tradition,

My heart has become capable of every form:
It is a pasture for gazelles and a cloister for Christian monks,
A temple for idols and the pilgrim’s Ka’ba,
And the tables of the torah and the book of the Qur’an.

I follow the religion of love: whatever way love’s camels take,
That is my religion and my faith.

Ibn Arabi, like all mystics, transcended the orthodoxies of his time, to discover the “religion of love”, which I believe lies at the heart of every path. What I see in this declaration is an expression of this heart. And I ask myself is my heart “capable of every form”?

In this call to breadth and generosity of heart, let us consciously remain open to those universes not yet fully represented here. The majority of us are from the Abrahamic traditions, but there are emerging expressions of spirituality who may feel excluded by this unless we constantly affirm and grow our inclusion. For example, many of my “tribe” consider themselves “spiritual but not religious”, but have tremendous energies of compassionate service to offer.

In Mark Nepo’s powerful book “More together than alone – the power of community” (here with Oprah Winfrey), he states:

In the Hindu Upanishads, there’s a passage that speaks to how those who become wise lose their names in the Great Oneness, the way rivers lose their names when they flow into the sea. In this transformation from the solitary to the communal, there’s a mysterious physics that each generation has to relearn regarding what is possible when we can work together. 

Time and again, we’re asked to discover, through love and suffering, that we are at heart the same. How do we come to this knowledge in our lives, in our families, and in our communities? What brings us together and what throws us apart? How do we inhabit what we have in common as well as what makes us unique in ways that deepen our daily practice of service and compassion?  

These practices of service, struggle, restoration, advocacy and so forth, are brilliantly articulated in the Declaration. There is no shortage it would appear, of activists here. However we should always be on the lookout for a balanced and vital connection between those who act and those who reflect.

Now, one way in which I serve, is to ask questions, to find angles and perspectives that others with different gifts and orientations might miss.

American “post-evangelical” Brian McLaren stated in 2009 at the Amahoro conference held in Gauteng, “Statements lead to a state, questions lead to a quest.” Now our text is indeed, a statement. But what I’d like to explore is what the Cape Flats Interfaith Declaration might look like posing as a question.

While many of us may belong to religious establishments where certainty and order are highly valued, I am part of a path which holds questioning as primary. I am not here criticising structures that work, belief systems that nurture, or practices that bring calm and healing. Part of our practicing community across divides includes the divide between orthodoxies and heterodoxy, priesthood and prophethood, between the temple and the wilderness, between settledness and adventures of pilgrimage.

Let us then embark upon an exercise, a conversation with our text. For each point of declaration – each statement – let us respond with a question that might fuel our quest.

(NB: I will be posting a full copy of the Cape Flats Interfaith Declaration soon)

 

Points Questions arising
1. We are united in aspiring and collaborating to eradicate the social ills on the Cape Flats and the broader South African society. Who are “we”?

What are the values that bind us?

What will create sustainable unity?

How united are we; can we own and identify any disunity?

How relevant is the message to the broader society?

 

2. We will experience, practice and pursue community with one another, across our religious divide, around the common goals and objectives in the fight against gangsterism, crime and violence. What IS our religious divide; can we honestly articulate our similarities and differences?

Are we fighting against of working for something?

What impediments are there to community?

Do we implement the Golden Rule – “Treat others as you would have them treat you”?

What makes us different, unique, outstanding?

 

3. We stand by our people in depressed communities in any form of suffering and need. What is a “depressed community”?

How do we measure our stand? What does it look like?

Who can help us? How can we bolster our core strength?

What is the root cause that is below the surface?

Does religion evolve?

Can we say “no!” placing limits on our energies and making our practice sustainable?

 

4. We give of ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another and our people. Can we give of ourselves/celebrate in crisis? (“How can we dance while the world is turning, how can we sleep while our beds are burning” – Midnight Oil 1987)

What form might our celebration take? (street dikr)

How do we support ourselves to facilitate/refresh ourselves to sustain our giving?

 

5. We witness and strive against any form of injustice, so that righteousness, love, peace and harmony amongst all people may roll down like waters, and virtue like an everflowing stream.

 

Could we refine, even perfect, “peacework” as an intentional practice?
6. We build and sustain partnerships with government officials and government institutions with trust and cooperation. What partnerships, beyond government, might we desire?

What about partnerships with other faith groups not commonly represented?

 

7. We protect the rights of all religious communities to carry out religious ceremonies and sacraments and stand united against those who wish to pursue practices of intolerance, prejudice, chauvinism and bigotry. Can we confess to intolerance, prejudice, chauvinism (excessive patriotism/ blind devotion to a cause), bigotry (intolerance towards different opinions), sexism, inside our own traditions?

In “standing against”, should one be “outing” bigots/oppressors/ violent people/the corrupt?

Can we do more than just “tolerate”? (see Dr. Omar kutbah)

How can we be more relational than institutional?

Can we forgive ourselves and each other?

 

8. We pray in unison and join hands together to fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity. How deep does interfaith prayer go as opposed to our own prayer?

How well can we manage the competing claims to followers and adherents loyalties?

9. We collectively pray and seek God’s forgiveness and healing as a nation and his grace in our time of need. Can we regularly “confess” to one another?

Three Days of Interfaith: A Groundswell of Goodwill

The “Interfaith Indaba – Journey into the radiant current of interfaith” – hosted by multiple communities and organisations, culminated last night in an observance of compassion for Sri Lanka at the Al Azar Mosque in District Six, Cape Town, South Africa.

Leaders and common people – Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, Africanists, mystics and many unnamed others met in numerous events to continue the discovery of that which unites.

Sheik Ismael Keraan (Al Azar Mosque), Stuart Diamond (SAJBD), Berry Behr (CTII), Fr Gerardo Garcia, Ds Riaan de Villiers, Sri Lankan Consul representatives Hon Mr Mrs Jacobs.

While the global circumstances around South Africa’s Freedom Day weekend – 3 devastating religiously-motivated massacres in Christchurch, Sri Lanka and San Diego – are deeply disturbing, the real story is the response.

And this bigger story is palpable evidence of a fresh emerging culture across religious, cultural and economic barriers in Cape Town. Many organisations are involved – this is indeed a “broad church” of activists, devotees, and seekers creating conversation and community on the ground.

The umbrella organisation and burgeoning hub for much of this conversation is the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative (CTII). The Inititive’s director, Berry Behr, returned last week from Jordan where she received (together with James Ellman) the first prize for World Interfaith Harmony Week from His Majesty King Abdullah II, himself an ardent and eloquent supporter of interfaith harmony. She insisted during the proceedings that the award belonged to all communities and organisations involved.

Amongst these actively engaged organisations are the The Novalis Ubuntu Institute, The Emissaries of Divine Light, Groote Kerk and the Dutch Reformed Church, Al Azar Masjied and other Muslim communities, United Religions Initiative, Holy Cross Catholic Church District Six, The Jewish Board of Deputies, CT Unitarian Community, The Turquoise Harmony Institute (founded by Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish scholar), and many more.

Over the weekend’s events there was teaching, oratory, meditation, song, drumming, dance, and most important, conversations that resonated with the energy of people discovering their power to love, heal and create, to take initiative and to risk, and to be their authentic selves in the freedom to serve others.

But isn’t music haram?

Friday at Novalis was a daylong seminar called the Future of Interfaith with Keynote speaker David Karchere, the spiritual director of the Emissaries of Divine Light based in Colorado, USA. It had a strongly intercultural as well as inter-generational dimension, and conversations flowed between suburb and township, learner and retiree, African, American, and European. One 14 year old participant summarised the event, noting “You are much safer when you make friends”.

Saturday, Freedom Day, was a tour of Cape Town’s sacred sights. The evening was hosted by the Turquoise Harmony Institute’s Turkish community, a tremendous display of hospitality and conviviality and opportunities for conversation with people from diverse backgrounds including Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Hawaii.

On Sunday morning, the CTII led their monthly “Sacred Connections” gathering at Novalis with a rousing call to deeper unity by David Karchere. He talked of our need to move from the negative fear based positions to tolerance, then respect, then understanding and then appreciation. He noted that any suicide bomber, far from expressing “faith”, had in fact lost all faith in goodness.

The weekend climaxed at Al-Azar. The Mosque itself is one of the few buildings that escaped demolition by the Apartheid government in the 1966, and it seems appropriate to have come together here in this symbol of the enduring power of faith and community in the face of deeply divisive and destructive forces that still haunt the world today.

While solemn, sensitive and sincere, there was also much joy and conviviality as perhaps 120 people affirmed their common dignity and connection to one another. Sheikh Ismael Keraan is a profound presence, educated, warm, deeply rooted in many traditions, and his growing relationship with courageous dominee Riaan de Villiers of Groote Kerk is truly a sign of hope. As one member of Al Azar said “This was unimaginable 5 years ago”.

This weekend’s events were certainly well organised. However, they represent something more than mere organisation: a groundswell of goodwill that is breaking out in Cape Town, in Colombo, in Christchurch, and across the world as people overcome the fear that fuels hatred, and discover the miracle of shared humanity that is open to and flowing with the Sacred, by whatever name we might use.

A beautiful message from the Andes

Don Alberto Taxo is a Iachak (community leader/healer)  of the Quichua/Kitchwa people of Ecuador.

I had the good fortune of meeting him recently at the Dawn of InterSpirituality conference in Costa Rica.

This film put his vision for the planet into a nutshell.Continue reading “A beautiful message from the Andes”

The Dawn of InterSpirituality, Costa Rica March 2018

A personal reflection on “The Dawn of InterSpirituality” conference held at Casa Siloe retreat centre, Birri, Costa Rica, on the 12 – 16 March 2018.

You are invited to take a step into the unknown, towards a possible future that can only be imagined, when the religions of the world truly meet each other …  this may be more important that we realize, and I suspect this conference will go far beyond our expectations.

Fr. Thomas Keating, convenor of the Snowmass InterSpiritual Dialog and co-founder of Centering Prayer.

Will and Cynthia
Rev. Cynthia Brix and Will Keepin Ph.D.

Convened by Will Keepin and Cynthia Brix and the Satyana Institute, the second Dawn of Interspirituality conference was held in Costa Rica in March 2018. This was a coming together of spiritual leaders, practitioners and seekers in a Central American context, bridging North and South, West and East, the Earth and Cosmos, with most major religious traditions represented.Continue reading “The Dawn of InterSpirituality, Costa Rica March 2018”

“Belonging to God”, an Interspiritual awakening, Cape Town 2017.

For 3 weeks in February and March 2017, the Western Cape was graced in thought, word, and deed by Will Keepin PhD, and the Rev. Cynthia Brix, who presented a radical (yet ancient) vision of Interspirituality at 3 different events. This included a book launch, lecture and a retreat.Continue reading ““Belonging to God”, an Interspiritual awakening, Cape Town 2017.”