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The Witches' Voice Inc.



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The Covenant of the Goddess
&
the Interfaith Movement:


Transforming Our Community, Changing the World (ver. 3)



By Don Frew
National Interfaith Representative
Covenant of the Goddess
December 23, 2003

Introduction

A year ago last July, I was in Rio de Janeiro, attending the 2002 Global Assembly of the United Religions Initiative (or URI). At the end of that conference, the 300 or so religious representatives engaged in a Peace March the length of Copacabana Beach.

At the end of the march, at a large public event, several of us were asked to address the city of Rio. CoG-member Rowan Fairgrove and I spoke to the crowd. I said:
"Sometimes, people in my faith tradition ask me, "Why do interfaith work?" And I tell them, "We all want to see change in the world. We want to see peace, justice, and healing for the Earth. Well, the only true change comes through changing people's minds. And nothing has the power over minds and souls that religion has. So any group like the URI, that is working to create understanding and cooperation between religions, to work for the betterment of all, has the potential to be the most powerful force for change on the planet. As a person of faith, called by my Gods to care for and protect the Earth, how can I not be involved? And then they understand."
Then Rowan taught the crowd a Goddess-chant for peace and we and the assembled crowd all sang it together.

If anyone had told me just 12 years ago that Wiccans would be asked to bless the city of Rio de Janeiro, I wouldn't have believed it, but we've come a long way in a short time, and members of the Covenant of the Goddess have been at the forefront.


Background

The Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) was created in 1975 as a networking group for Witches of all traditions (www.cog.org). One of the first actions it took was to get involved in interfaith work -- CoG-member Glenn Turner joined the Berkeley Area Interfaith Council (or BAIC). She worked with the BAIC for a few years before moving on to other tasks.

I was appointed CoG's Northern California Local Council Representative to the BAIC in 1985. I went to my first meeting of the group with some trepidation. How would a Witch be welcomed? When I entered room, I filled out a nametag and went to get some punch. An elderly woman served me, looked at my nametag, and said, "Oh! The Covenant of the Goddess! There hasn't been one of you here in years! How's Glenn doing?" The others gathered to meet me and hear about Glenn. I was welcome from then on.

The following year, I was elected to the BAIC's Executive Committee -- a position I still hold -- and for the next seven years, I enjoyed the incredible religious diversity that was and is Berkeley. The BAIC had been founded in 1945 and was known as one of the most diverse and inclusive councils in the country. The BAIC is a member of the North American Interfaith Network, connecting interfaith councils all over Canada and the US. At the time, the Covenant of the Goddess was the only Neopagan group represented in the Network. Other interfaith councils -- where "interfaith" most often meant Christians and Jews talking to each other -- would say, "Well, of course YOU can get away with being so inclusive... you're Berkeley!" As if such inclusivity was impossible anywhere else.

But all of that would change in 1993.


The 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions Back in 1893, the city of Chicago hosted the Columbian Exposition, an early world's fair. So many people were coming to Chicago from all over the world that many smaller conferences, called Congresses and Parliaments, were scheduled to take advantage of this unprecedented gathering. One of these was the Parliament of the World's Religions. As the Parliament website says:

The 1893 Parliament ... marked the first formal gathering of representatives of eastern and western spiritual traditions ... [and] ... is recognized as the occasion of the birth of formal interreligious dialogue worldwide. [www.cpwr.org]

Eastern and western traditions were there, but native and indigenous traditions weren't, and Neopagans certainly weren't.

A century later, as 1993 approached, word filtered through the North American Interfaith Network that there would be a centenary Parliament of the World's Religions at the Palmer House hotel in Chicago. Four Neopagan groups responded, saw the opportunity for significant outreach, and became Sponsors of the event:
  • The Fellowship of Isis, who had a local group in Chicago.
  • EarthSpirit, in Boston MA.
  • Circle, near Madison, WI.
  • and the Covenant of the Goddess, an international federation of Witches that included members of the three other groups.
CoG decided to allocate $4,000 to sending three representatives -- myself, Public Information Officer Michael Thorn, and First Officer Phyllis Curott -- and to hosting a hospitality suite. (It actually ended up costing more like $10,000.) Much to my surprise, over 40 CoG members came, at their own expense, just to provide logistical support -- to staff the hospitality suite, to make Xeroxes, to run errands, etc. Most came not to give talks and be in the limelight; just to do the hundred small (and not so small) tasks that came up every day. The other three sponsoring Neopagan groups had similar support from their membership.

There were some 20 Neopagan programs at the 1993 Parliament, including:
  • The Witch as Shaman: Rediscovering the Ancient Shamanistic Traditions of Western Europe -- Andras Corben Arthen, EarthSpirit
  • The Divine Union of Spirit & Nature: Wiccan Wisdom & the Environmental Crisis -- Phyllis Curott, CoG
  • Pluralism -- Religion, Education, & Censorship -- Rowan Fairgrove, CoG
  • Pagans in Interfaith Dialogue: New Faiths, New Challenges -- Don Frew, CoG
  • MotherTongue -- The Wheel of the Year -- performance/concert by EarthSpirit
  • The Spirituality of Menopause -- Diana Paxson, CoG
  • Wiccan Devotionals -- Brandy Williams, CoG

With over 8,000 people gathering for over 900 programs over the span of nine days from all over the Earth and from every religion under the sun, we Neopagans expected to be a drop in the bucket. The Parliament organizers were clearly focusing on the Native American presence as the high profile participation.

When we entered the hotel, protestors from Lyndon LaRouche's right-wing political organization held placards denouncing the Parliament's "pagan agenda." "Yeah, right," we thought, "as if." We figured that we would make our presence known and do some PR, but be pretty much a sideline item.

Boy, were we in for a surprise.

In the first plenary session of the 1993 Parliament, Dr. Gerald Barney, the scientist who had prepared the Global 2000 report on the environment for President Jimmy Carter, told the crowd about the imminent environmental collapse of the planet: There are this many people, he said. Each person requires this much land to produce food. There is this much arable land left. It's being used up at this rate while the population is increasing at this rate. Do the math and you see that the Earth begins to die in 2025.

Dr. Barney, a Christian, went on to lay much of the blame for this with the major, "world" religions, especially Christianity. "What we need," he said, "are new spiritualities and new ways to re-sacralize nature, if the Earth is to survive."

And there we were.

From its very first session, the 1993 Parliament was focused on re-sacralizing Nature. Everyone's attention was immediately focused on two religious groups: the Native Americans and the Neopagans.

But the Native Americans tended to keep to themselves and were seemingly reticent to share many of their traditions. In contrast, the Covenant of the Goddess had a person attending the morning press briefings every day, handing out press packets, and had a hospitality suite staffed with folks ready and willing to answer questions.

Suddenly, we Witches found ourselves the media darlings of the conference! Our "What is Wicca?" workshops had to be moved to larger rooms to accommodate the huge numbers wanting to attend. Our Full Moon ceremony in a nearby park, planned for a circle of 50, drew 500!

Towards the end of the event, there was a special, closed-door meeting of the 250 members of Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders. This body included the Dalai Lama and representatives sent by the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The three Wiccan groups (CoG, EarthSpirit, and Circle) were represented by Deborah Ann Light, an Elder in all three groups. The Assembly was asked to examine and endorse a document called the Declaration of a Global Ethic, a statement of ethical norms held in common by the world's religions. The opening read:

We Declare:
* We are interdependent. Each of us depends on the well-being of the whole, and so we have respect for the community of living beings, for people, animals, and plants, and for the preservation of Earth, the air, water and soil. [http://www.conjure.com/CTS/cts.html]

What do you know, we thought, the "LaRouchies" were right!

The Global Ethic was endorsed by over 200 religious representatives in the Assembly, including Deborah, signing for EarthSpirit, Circle, and CoG.

By the end of the nine days, the academics attending the Parliament were saying "In 1893, America was introduced to the Buddhists and Hindus; in 1993, we met the Neopagans." One media person described the Parliament as "the coming out party for the Neopagans."

From that point on, Neopagans would be included in almost every national or global interfaith event. At the 1993 Parliament, we ceased being a bunch of weirdos and became a religious minority. As Michael Thorn said after returning from Chicago, "This was the most important event in the history of the Craft since the publication of Witchcraft Today in 1954!"


The United Religions Initiative

Everyone who attended the Parliament went home transformed and enthused. We would corner anyone who expressed the slightest interest and regale them with stories for hours on end. Not one of us was willing to wait another hundred years for such a life-transforming experience.

This need was answered by Bishop William Swing, the Episcopal Bishop of California, in 1995.

The United Nations was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding in San Francisco, and Bishop Swing was asked to arrange an interfaith service at Grace Cathedral as part of the festivities. During the months of preparation, Bishop Swing found himself wondering "The nations of the world have been trying to work together for peace through the United Nations for 50 years. What have the religions of the world been doing?"

He conceived a vision of a "United Religions" as a place where the religions of the world could meet on a daily basis and work together for the benefit of humanity and the world.

Bishop Swing addressed all of us at the UN50 interfaith service -- including Bishop Desmond Tutu, Princess Margaret, Lech Walesa, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and all of the UN ambassadors -- and announced this vision and his support for it, and set in motion a chain of events that would lead, through several international planning conferences held in San Francisco and Stanford, to the founding of the United Religions Initiative (or URI) in the year 2000.

CoG-members were involved in the creation of the URI almost from the beginning, participating in the writing of the URI Charter. The Charter opens with words that certainly reflect our views and beliefs:

We, people of diverse religions, spiritual expressions and indigenous traditions throughout the world, hereby establish the United Religions Initiative to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings. [www.uri.org]

Since its founding, the URI has grown to include almost 200 local and multi-regional interfaith groups (called "Cooperation Circles") around the world.

At one of the Charter-writing conferences, in Stanford in 1998, Deborah Ann Light and I organized what came to be called the "Pagan lunch." The representatives of the many Earth-based religions, having participated in the process as odd groups stuck on around the edges of the core of "world" religions, got together for lunch, sitting in a very visible circle on the ground in the central courtyard of the conference. There were practitioners of Wicca, Shinto, North/Central/South American indigenous traditions, Candomble, Taoism, and Hinduism. To our surprise, the environmental scientists joined our group, saying they felt more at home with us than in the other traditions. Looking around our circle, we, and the other folks having their lunches and watching us, suddenly realized that the Earth-religions were 13% of the delegates at the conference!

No longer were we seen as disparate groups. The Earth-religions had established an identity in common as a "way" of being religious -- a Pagan identity, broader than the concept of Neopagan.

We continue to work together, and that "Pagan lunch" led to the formation of the Spirituality & the Earth Cooperation Circle, a multi-regional group networking Earth-religionists around the world. (The S&ECC is described in detail below.)

(Continued... Click HERE for part II)




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