April 7, 2009

“What Unique Perspectives Do You Bring to the Challenges Facing Our World Today?”: An Interview with the Reverend Dirk Ficca, Executive Director of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions

The Reverend Dirk Ficca is Executive Director of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. As many readers are probably aware, the first Parliament event, held in 1893 in Chicago, was not only one of the earliest and most important interfaith gatherings in modern history, but also a watershed in the history of Buddhism’s transmission to the West. Among other things, it brought such influential thinkers as Anagarika Dharmapala and Soyen Shaku to the United States to share with the international assembly about Buddhist thought and practice.

An ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Dirk served for eleven years as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Benton Harbor, Michigan, before devoting himself to the work of the Council. His biography at the organization’s website states:

    Dirk worked closely with the religious and spiritual communities of the Chicago metropolitan area to plan and organize the 1993 Parliament event in Chicago. Given the enthusiasm generated by the 1993 Parliament, Dirk continued to lead the Council’s efforts to build a vibrant interreligious movement in Chicago and around the world.

In addition to all his work with the Council, Dirk teaches at DePaul University, the Lutheran School of Theology and Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary.

At present, Dirk and the rest of the staff at the Council are busy pulling things together for the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions, which will be held from December 3rd-9th in Melbourne, Australia. The fifth such parliament to take place in a 116-year period, the theme of this event, “Make a World of Difference: Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth”, reflects “the urgent need for religious and spiritual communities and all people of goodwill to act on their concerns for the environment, peace, and overcoming poverty, and to take responsibility for cultivating awareness of our global interconnectedness.” In literature about the event, the Council elaborates:

    This Parliament will focus on the struggles and spiritualities of indigenous peoples around the globe, particularly highlighting the Aboriginal communities of Australia. Thousands of people from around the world will convene to renew their work for the future of the planet.

You can register to participate in the Parliament here.

My dear friend Alisa Roadcup, who serves as the Council’s Outreach Director and Development Associate, recently put me in touch with Dirk, and we conducted the following interview by phone. I so appreciate Alisa doing this, and Dirk taking time at a busy moment to speak with me. (Incidentally, Alisa is a wonderful interviewer herself. If you haven’t already, make sure to check out her interview with Khandro Rinpoche.)

[This interview is cross-posted at my personal blog.]

DANNY FISHER: For those who aren’t familiar with it, would you tell us about the mission of the Council? In particular, I’m curious about the distinction drawn between “unity” and “harmony.”

DIRK FICCA: The Council’s vision is of a just and sustainable world. How do you get to that vision? Well, there are many ways, and we have chosen two specific elements to work on. One is to enhance relations between religious traditions–to find the places they tend to get along with each other and, where possible, can work together. The other is to be a bridge for religious communities to other sectors of society that are also interested in a more just and sustainable world.

One of the things that you run into when you’re working with religious diversity is trying to figure out how to honor differences amongst religious communities while still finding ways they can talk to one another. So, one of the principals we’ve come upon over the years is this idea that we’re seeking interreligious harmony. We’re not trying to make one world religion. We don’t presume to be able to reduce all religions to a certain set of principals. But we do believe that people of different religious persuasions can live in harmony with one another. We believe there are resources within most of world’s religious traditions to help their followers to get along with others. We believe we can find places where we share commonalities, but also address and deal with differences.

DANNY FISHER: I’d like to talk more about the various Parliaments that have occured. But first, would you tell us about the work the Council does when it’s not planning and convening these events?

DIRK FICCA: There are three main things that we do. One is putting together these big, symbolic, global, international, interreligious gatherings that we do every five years–the Parliaments. Secondly, we’re trying to be supportive of local, interreligious movements in cities around the world. Thirdly, we work on the issue of how to engage religious communities around the pressing issues of the day. So most of our events and activities between the Parliaments have to do with local, metropolitan-based interreligious movements. Over the past fifty years–and especially in the last twenty years–there have been massive migrations of human beings all over the world. Whereas at the 1893 Parliament, most Hindus lived in India, most Buddhists lived in different parts of Asia, most Muslims lived in Africa, Indonesia, and the Middle East, and so on and so forth, now in every major metropolitan area in the world there are large populations of different religious communities living side by side. This is further compounded by the ethnic and cultural diversity among these groups. We really see cities as microcosms of the world. In cities, people are living next door to each other, side-by-side, and they have to learn to get along with each other and work together. So that’s why we place a big emphasis between Parliaments on providing resources, consultation, models, networks, and teaching between religious communities in these cities.

DANNY FISHER: Would you tell us more about the Council’s support for these local, interreligious movements? What’s an example of something that the Council would do to help and/or encourage such efforts?

DIRK FICCA: In some cities around the world, religion is a matter of life and death. I think of the area of Mindanao in the Phillipines, where there is tremendous tension between Muslims and others. We’re supportive of some very courageous people there on the ground, who are trying to get various communities to talk with each other.

There might be an incident where a synagogue or a mosque or a church or a temple is vandalized–windows broken, graffiti sprayed, statues broken or defaced. Sometimes other religious communities nearby join together to help clean up or offer support. We would stand in solidarity with them.

There might be a pressing issue in a community–say, homelessness. Secular NGOs and civic organizations may be working at it, but they aren’t going to be able to do it all. So different communities from various religious traditions say, “We’re going to help.”

You’ll have religious diversity in populations at hosptials, universities and colleges, jails and prisons, and workplaces. There’s a sensitivity needed in terms of holidays, days off, and so on. How to ensure that all religious traditions are equally honored and all people have the same opportunities?

So, these are all examples of how a local interreligious movement will work and advocate for these kinds of concerns. And the Council can offer various practical models and connect people with experts and so on.

DANNY FISHER: So, the first Parliament was held in Chicago in 1893. The second one occured exactly one-hundred years later in the same city. Since then, a Parliament has been held every five years in a major city: Cape Town, Barcelona, and very soon Melbourne. Why start doing Parliaments again? Why now, after all the migrations you’ve mentioned, globalization, greater access to information, and all kinds of other opportunities for conversation and dialogue?

DIRK FICCA: First of all, I’d say that although there had certainly been mass migrations, there was not the kind of connectivity that we have today at the time of the 1993 Parliament. Compare today to three years ago, let alone fifteen, in terms of technology.

The original organizers of the 1993 Parliament thought it would be mostly an academic conference, looking back to 1893. But because it was Chicago, this large, diverse presence of religious communities shifted the event from an academic to a populist conference. These religious communities ended up reaching out to their scholars, leaders, activists, and others around the world, but mostly it was just everyday people from these traditions who had an interest in getting to know people from other traditions and wanted to work with them. After that event, which was supposed to be a one-time event, religious leaders said, “This is so important–the face-to-face nature of this event, the populist character of this event–as well as the need for religion and its unique contributions to addressing the world’s problems, that we don’t want you to wait another one-hundred years before you do it again.” That led to the continuation of these events.

While we’re working with all the different ways that the world is interconnected and the new methods people have to communicate with each other that we haven’t had before, it’s important to remember that just because you have technological access to people doesn’t mean you have access to them as people. It doesn’t mean that Orthodox Christians and Jains are actually speaking together–even if they live in the same city. So, there are religious, spiritual, cultural, ethnic differences to be understood, barriers to overcome, misconceptions and prejudices to be combatted, and that’s one of the reasons that events like the Parliaments have been so crucial.

I’m also kind of “old school”; I think it’s important to meet people face-to-face. There are some things that you can only do when you sit down with somebody face-to-face.

DANNY FISHER: In response to one of my earlier questions, you used the world “symbolic” to talk about the Parliament events. Would you say a bit more about that?

DIRK FICCA: Religion is in the news every day, and most of that news isn’t good. There are stories about religious communities that are a factor in conflict, and how religion is used as a justification for violence. There are also stories about the impotence or religion and spirituality–stories that talk about how religion and spirituality don’t seem to be very effective in relation to the pressing issues facing the global community. All of this is true, but it’s also not true. There are good stories, stories of courage, about the ways in which religion and spirituality shape the character of individuals and communities in a way that inspires them and motivates them to address critical issues. Those stories don’t get into the public consciousness very often. So we think it’s good that the world sees this large gathering of religious people from every corner of the world, who are not only confronting their own culpability in terms of the world’s ills, but also intentionally addressing these critical issues and highlighting the positive contributions they have made.

DANNY FISHER: There have been four Parliaments at this point in history, but the first in 1893 looms largest in Buddhist history. Among other things, it provided an unprecedented forum for Buddhists themselves to talk about their religion without having to go through Western exegetes–

DIRK FICCA: Exactly! Let me just say that that’s another big reason to have a Parliament every five years. Every religious group today feels that they get misrepresented, just as they did 116 years ago. So any chance to say who they are and do it themselves on a global stage is welcome.

DANNY FISHER: That in mind, can tell us what you think were some of the significant insights, events, discussions, and so forth at the other Parliament events? In particular, I’m curious if there are things you think might have special relevancy for Buddhists and Buddhist communities in the Western world.

DIRK FICCA: Well, though Buddhism had made many inroads into the West by the time of the 1993 Parliament, that event still came at a point when Buddhism was viewed in many corners as exotic. I don’t think that’s really the case at all today. I think the Western world (I’m going to make a very broad generalization now) tends to think about conquering the world. Western traditions think about the best they can do in terms of transforming the world. The Eastern traditions, though, place more emphasis on transforming one’s self–on conquering one’s self. In the end, we probably need both poles, but I believe that the presence of Buddhism at the three modern Parliaments has brought that “inner” need–to begin with one’s self and one’s own spirituality, to work on one’s own self first. At the same time, I think these three modern Parliaments have highlighted the adaptability and relevance of Buddhism to social issues. The trajectory of socially engaged Buddhism has played a very significant role in these three modern Parliaments.

And now the notion that peace isn’t just a matter of power, like with the Cold War, but that peace–the value of human interactions and relationships–is reemerging, even among hardcore secularists. Because that that is reemerging, Buddhism has something to teach us all. The fact that we’re bumping up against the limits of our environment, technology, and other things, it’s clear that our situation isn’t going to be changed simply by fixing things outside of ourselves. We have to change who we are. We have to learn to live with greater self-discipline. I think Buddhism has a lot to say about that. There’s so much about our current world situation that makes Buddhist thought and practice very relevant.

DANNY FISHER: What can you tell us about the upcoming Parliament in Melbourne?

DIRK FICCA: We conducted an international search of about twelve to fifteen cities, and Delhi, Singapore, and Melbourne were selected as finalists. Each of those three cities had many things to offer. We chose Melbourne for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s a multicultural society, and we found the city to be that way intentionally–remarkably so. Certainly Australia has its share of issues dealing with diversity, but there’s an intentionality in civil society and government, and amongst religious communities, as far as addressing those challenges.

We were also looking for a city where there were issues of local importance that could also have global signifance. There are a number of issues that Australians are confronting that people around the world also feel deeply about. For example, one has do with the aboriginal peoples, and the very dark history that the country has in terms of dealing with aboriginal peoples. That brings up questions about indigenous peoples all around the world. So we’re hoping to bring together at least one-hundred indigenous leaders and activists from several regions around the world to meet eighty with eighty aboriginals and South Sea Islanders in Melbourne to talk about their struggles for self-determination.

We’re also curious to find out what we can learn from these indigenous leaders with regards to the environment. Australia feels many aspects of the environmental crisis very poignantly–there’s a tremendous water shortage there, for instance. Among other Western nations, they’re ahead of the curve when it comes to thinking about living within our limits and how to treat the Earth respectfully. I mentioned the diversity and social cohesion there. Australia has been a leader in some ways with regards to peacemaking in certain areas. In conflict, they tend to be on the more progressive side as far as resolution. They’ve demonstrated great concern about social issues like poverty.

So we definitely don’t base the Parliament events in Chicago and just put things together two weeks ahead of time. And we don’t just drop into convention centers at these cities. The city selected is always an active partner in developing the program, and local representives are always part of the organizational sorts of conversations we have.

DANNY FISHER: I’m curious about the theme this year: “Make a World of Difference: Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth.” Would you say a bit about it?

DIRK FICCA: There’s an example of what I was just talking about. That took nine months–coming up with that theme. We had people going out to churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, and centers all around the Melbourne area to find out what issues were of special concern and most important. I think at one point we had fifty different possible overall themes for the event. That led to a winnowing process, and then finally several transpacific phone calls fo finalize it.

Young people said, “It has to be about doing something. It can’t just be talking.” So that’s why we chose the first phrase, “Make a World of Difference.” And, of course, it’s kind of a double entendre: make a world out of the differences of the world, and make a difference in the world. Then “Hearing Each Other” speaks to something that is crucial to religions getting along and societies getting along. Finally, “Healing the Earth” is a major challenge facing the human community. Our aboriginal colleagues in particular felt that this was important to address as we thought about relations between religious communities and the challenges they face.

DANNY FISHER: How can interested readers get involved with or otherwise participate in the Council’s work?

DIRK FICCA: There are a number of ways. One is to come to Melbourne! Another would be to seek out the interreligious movements in your city, town, village, or metropolitan area. Find out what religious people are doing locally to have relationships with one another and address issues together.

For Buddhists, I would say to find the resources in your tradition that might be a special help in interreligious relations. Define those resources within Buddhist circles that can help you to foster good interreligious relationships.

On our website, we hope that in a few weeks we’re going to be kicking off a global question campaign to allow people to tell us what questions they think religions should be dealing with and that we should be looking at with special care in Melbourne. So if you can’t come to the event, you can still participate by being a part of that campaign.

DANNY FISHER: Dirk, lastly, was there anything you wanted to share that we didn’t touch on, or I didn’t ask about, that you might like to convey to our readers, Buddhist or not?

DIRK FICCA: Well, I can’t give the answer, but I can offer a question that I would hope every religion is working on and trying to articulate: “What unique perspectives do religion and spirituality bring to the challenges facing us today in the world?” I’m hopeful that the Parliament can encourage each religious community to share what is unique about what they bring. I’ll give you a quick example: A particular person who has been involved with the ecological crisis for decades now said to me, “You know, all the statistics and the facts point to a doomsday scenario. But the scientific data that we’re producing about what exactly is being done to the air, water, soil, and so on, really isn’t changing anyone’s mind. It’s not moving them to action. They either feel paralyzed by it, or they don’t care. I’m a secular person, but until we rediscover our sense of the sacredness of the Earth and our interdependence with it, people are not going to be motivated to take seriously what science is showing them.” So that was how he felt that religion and spirituality could contribute to the world. There are many things that Buddhism brings to the table that other religions and other sectors of society don’t offer. So I want to encourage the Buddhist community, as broad and varied as it is, to be identifying that and making their offerings.

DANNY FISHER: Thank you so much for taking time to talk to us, Dirk.

For more information about the 2009 Parliament for the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia, click on the image below.

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