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The Haystack Society and Interfaith Cooperation Forum

Written by Bruce Van Voorhis
July 11, 2013

Presentation at the Wider Church Ministries luncheon, July 1, 2013
General Synod 29, Long Beach, CA

It was on a summer day in August of 1806 that five students from Williams College in Massachusetts sat in a field to discuss the theology of Christian mission and the spiritual welfare of people in Asia. Chased into a haystack by a thunderstorm, their shelter became the name given to a small group of young people discussing their faith and how to share it with other people on the other side of the world.

In a similar fashion, a bit larger group of people—about 40 Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus from different countries of Asia—met in North Sumatra in Indonesia in April 2003 to discuss important issues of faith in our time. What were popularly described as “religious conflicts” had afflicted many parts of the region for years, such as the host country of Indonesia, India and the Philippines, but the “war on terror” after the tragedy of 9/11 here in the United States had intensified tensions between different faith communities on the other side of the world. The purpose of the interfaith meeting in Indonesia 18 months after 9/11 was to discuss how people of different faiths in such a diverse part of the world as Asia could and should relate to each other.

Their conclusions, in general, were that, first of all, so-called religious conflicts in Asia were not religious but were the manipulation of religion by various political and religious leaders for their own agenda. They also concluded that Asia’s major faiths, as well as the spirituality of the region’s indigenous people, share a bedrock of the same values—love, compassion and kindness toward others, a reverence for life, the equality of all people and the promotion of justice and peace—and that consequently they had more fundamentally in common than differences and that they should use these common values to cooperate and work together to respond to the many significant issues that plague Asia’s societies today regardless of faith—issues related to the lives of women and children, poverty, war and environmental degradation.

It was out of this meeting and its conclusions that the community of faith where I serve—Interfaith Cooperation Forum, or ICF—was born. It was decided though that ICF would not be a new organization but rather would be a new joint program of the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs in Hong Kong, which is where I’m based, and the Christian Conference of Asia in Chiang Mai, Thailand. In the past decade, ICF has evolved into a regional network of 88 young people primarily between the ages of 20 and 30 of different faith backgrounds from 16 countries who address the issues I’ve highlighted and others in their communities. Like that meeting in a haystack in Massachusetts more than 200 years ago, something significant can take place when even a small number of people of faith meet and seek to live out their faith authentically with others.

Although separated in both time and space, the indirect link between the small group of people of faith meeting in Williamstown, Mass., and Parapat, North Sumatra, will continue into the future. ICF will conduct a subregional School of Peace, or SOP as we more commonly refer to this program, in August for 20 young people from South Asia that is a continuation of a series of SOPs that we have held in Bangalore in southern India since 2006.

In addition, our series of workshops on human rights, community organizing and tools for transformation—the use of various tools of communication, such as art, music, etc., for education and advocacy—will go on as well to train some of our SOP alumni to be resource people for our programs and those of others.

Moreover, we will seek to expand our network of SOP alumni to form stronger national interfaith movements that promote peace with justice, or justpeace, in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and East Timor in the next few years.

Lastly, and more directly, ICF hopes to be connected to those students in Massachusetts in 1806 by hosting a UCC and Disciples of Christ global mission intern to work with one or more of our SOP alumni and their organizations in our network. Discussions have already taken place, and there is a good possibility that a young man from North Carolina studying at a university in Washington, D.C., will be a global mission intern for one or two years with our SOP alumni in Nepal later this year—something that we’re very excited about!

If the vision and work of ICF for interfaith justpeace in Asia can have the same lasting impact that the vision and work of those five students meeting in a haystack in Massachusetts in the 19th century has had for more than two centuries for Christian mission in North America, then our prayers and dreams will have been more than answered.

Thank you very much.

Bruce Van Voorhis serves with the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs in Hong Kong as the Coordinator for Interfaith Programs.

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