This Christmas Eve, an international, interfaith celebration of peace with a special PSR connection was broadcast nationally on CBS. The United Religions Initiative, a global grassroots interfaith peacebuilding network, gathered representatives of dozens of faith traditions for a program, “May Peace Prevail on Earth.” Watch a recording here!
As part of her Master of Divinity degree, Pacific School of Religion student Valerie Purnell is completing her Field Education work at the United Religions Initiative. Valerie participated in the interfaith celebration at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, offering a prayer for peace during the Christmas Eve special. Valerie is also collecting stories from around the globe of community-driven peacebuilding efforts. Read an interview with Valerie below.
Additionally, members of Pacific School of Religion alumna Carla DeSola’s Omega West Dance Company performed. David McCauley (above, in blue) co-teaches with Carla through the Center for the Arts, Religion and Education at the Graduate Theological Union.
Interview with Valerie Purnell, MDiv candidate and United Religions Initiative Field Education student
Tell us about United Religions Initiative.
I’m thrilled to be able to work with United Religions Initiative. URI is a global, grassroots, interfaith peacebuilding network that works to end religiously-motivated violence. The heart of the network is Cooperation Circles—for me, the Cooperation Circles are really the interesting part of URI.
The Cooperation Circles are composed of a minimum of seven individuals; the Circles could be hundreds of people or more, but a minimum of seven. Together, they must represent one religious tradition, one spiritual expression, and one indigenous tradition. The Circles start out on a multifaith basis and they continue to work on a multifaith basis, to address the issues that are most pressing for their local communities. They do that in addition to working to end religiously-based violence. Working together on something that everyone cares about, that’s critical to the community, can hopefully build cooperation across faiths and cultures.
What are you doing in your Field Work at URI?
There’s a pretty extensive process individuals have to go through to start a Cooperation Circle. One part of that is Cooperation Circle Profiles—how the Circle came together, how the Cooperation Circle plans to work in the future, the kinds of projects they’re working on. The Profiles also describe the cultural, political, and social context within which the Circle operates. It’s really important information.
My specific work is to take rather long documents and distill them into two-page documents, while preserving detail and heart and conveying what the group wants to do in the world. The stories are really wonderful.
Can you share with us one of your favorite Cooperation Circle stories?
One of the stories we’re highlighting right now is the story of a young Iraqi woman named Zuhal Sultan. One of our Cooperation Circles, the Euphrates Institute, honored Zuhal as a visionary leader of 2015.
Zuhal decided it was important for young people in Iraq to come together and play music. So, with only a very slow internet connection, she sent out an online call to assemble what became the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. The group brings together Sunni, Shi’a, Kurdish, Arab people; male and female. The fact that all those folks came together across those lines is unprecedented. Many of the orchestra members didn’t have backgrounds in music, so they learned to play instruments online. They auditioned over the internet. Zuhal sent out an email to find a conductor. It was inspiring to see that a young woman on her own could pull together so many people for such important work in the world.
The Euphrates Institute educates primarily Americans on the challenges in the Middle East. It’s important to the Euphrates Institute that we don’t think no one is working for peace. The Institute educates folks and provides tours. It’s headed by a young woman who is a former CIA analyst. She was working in Iraq and said, “there’s something more that I can do.” That’s a story that has a lot of wonderful pieces.
As part of your Field Work with URI, you also traveled to the Parliament of World Religions this past October. Can you tell us about that?
With the support of URI, PSR, and my own efforts, I was able to attend the Parliament of World Religions. That was an amazing opportunity to see 9,000+ people of all faith traditions—many that I’d never heard of!—coming together to offer the same message: interfaith cooperation.
People were really focusing on peace. I found it so interesting that there was no proselytizing going on. Some of the main messages were ending religiously-based violence, rights for women and girls, environmental issues—a lot of emphasis on “bringing everyone to the party,” so to speak. There was still a lot of growth to be had; the emphasis on women and girls was not all that it needs to be. This was the first year they had a specialized focus. Those themes really fit into the work of URI and the spiritual emphasis of PSR.
You’re also involved in this interfaith Christmas special that will be airing nationally on CBS.
A big surprise to me, as a Field Ed student! There have been some folks at CBS who have been observing URI for quite some time, and this year, with everything that’s going on the world, they felt it was time for an interfaith call to peace. It’s the first time, we believe, there’s been an interfaith special of this magnitude aired on CBS. Some 98% of CBS affiliates nationally have agreed to air the special.
I had the honor of offering a prayer for peace from the Christian tradition, joining the thirteen other faith traditions, spiritual practices, and indigenous traditions that did the same. There will be prayers, candle-lighting for peace, cultural dances; people offering a very warm call for love, cooperation, peace, mutual respect. That will be happening on Christmas Eve, and it’s yet another example of a real need that people are feeling, and responding to, for mutual respect and cooperation, like many of the things we’ve touched on.
When we first started the work on the special, we had not, at that time, experienced the recent terrorist attacks; we had not experienced the uptick in hate speech; we had not experienced the rise in Islamophobia. We had not yet had governors saying “do not bring Syrians and others into our country.”
So in the midst of all of that ugliness, it’s nice that this interfaith special will be aired. It will offer a positive message, and hopefully some inspiration.
Thank you, Valerie, for your timely work as an interfaith peace builder! We’ll see you on CBS.
Thank you! I really owe it to PSR. The Field Education department is pretty phenomenal. I never imagined I would have this kind of experience.