In 1993, a United Nations official reached out to Episcopal Bishop William Swing about the possibility of hosting an interfaith service at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral as part of the upcoming celebration of the 50th anniversary of the UN’s founding in San Francisco on June 26, 1945. Bishop Swing readily agreed and in his inclusive style looked for a way to ensure that all the world’s religions were welcome to participate in the service. To his surprise, he found no existing UN-style body of religions meeting together at the time.
When most reasonable people encounter an obstacle, they often move on to something more manageable. After all, there was no direct way to effectively reach out to the world’s diverse religions. And even so, if the UN still hadn’t solved world peace, how would uniting religions together be possible? Fortunately, a very determined and resourceful Bill Swing would be just the person to give it a try; it wasn’t the first challenge he’d overcome.
After Swing was elected Episcopal Bishop of California in 1979 and moved to San Francisco, he was dismayed by the city’s open drug use, an HIV/AIDS epidemic, and a rising homeless population. So he went right to work, creating temporary food and housing initiatives, helping the vulnerable, and starting foundations that remain to this day.
In contrast, bringing people of all faiths and belief systems together in a non-political setting for the common good may have seemed like a reasonable endeavor, but that was hardly the case. After the successful interfaith service and UN ceremonies in 1995, the next year Bishop Swing traveled around the world to visit religious leaders from Pope Paul II to the Dalai Lama and Islam’s Grand Mufti of Egypt. His simple request: Would religious leaders deputize one delegate to meet and seek common good? The very short, emphatic answer from everyone was, “No!”
The Lasting Answer
Since “no” is not a part of Bishop Swing’s vocabulary, his next move was to create a new nonprofit organization, complete with a small staff of four, to find a way to bring people of all faiths and beliefs together. That would take funding, and Swing was amazed that a $1 million line of credit was quickly established to fund the new nonprofit with just his signature as collateral. That banker’s confidence was less surprising to the scores of people who have come to know Bishop Swing.
In 1997, the newly formed United Religions Initiative (URI) met at Stanford University to try to write a charter. That task was far more difficult than borrowing money on a personal signature. But the Bishop had a secret weapon. He called on Dee Hock, the former Bank of America executive who helped create what became the Visa credit card. Hock had firsthand experience in organizing competing rivals, in his case banks and financial institutions, into a collective enterprise that benefitted all participants. For URI, the organizational structure would be different and effective. It was crafted to take a page from nature, allowing cooperation circles of seven or more individuals to self-create from the bottom up. URI objectives are expressed in its charter through a statement of Preamble, Purpose, and Principles.
Bishop Swing retired from his church leadership role in 2006 and today spends his time as president and founding trustee of URI. He shares executive duties with Rev. Victor Kazanjian and they’re supported by a global staff of 14 with offices in San Francisco’s Presidio. URI has grown to more than 1,000 cooperation circles in 108 countries and is currently investigating individual memberships for even more inclusion.
On the subject of inclusion, URI participants come not only from the world’s organized religions, but also embrace all well-meaning individuals who want the world to be a better place. Swing describes URI’s cooperation circles as working rather than debating societies, citing examples from developing water supplies and helping provide flood relief to community art projects. URI is recognized by the United Nations as a non-governmental organization (NGO) and has established partnerships with several UN agencies. It’s an intregal part of bridge building between people and cultures around the world.
Prior to shelter-in-place orders, URI presented a conference at Stanford University titled Accelerate Peace, and gathered participants from around the world to hear more than 50 speakers from six continents. The broad range of presenters, including UN Under-Secretary-General H. E. Adama Dieng and Bishop Swing’s interview with former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, reflect URI’s inclusive culture. At the festive close of the two-day conference, the Hon. George Shultz and Dame Charlotte Maillard Shultz were acknowledged for their ongoing support of URI from its founding.
When asked about the challenges facing the world amidst the global pandemic, Swing shares, “If you ever doubted that the people of religions can ever make peace among themselves and build a better world, all you have to do is visit the uri.org website. At the grassroots level, all over the world, it is happening at this critical time. There are virtual gatherings and prayer circles. We share videos and reflections of hope. We spread joy, offer support, and reaffirm that though we may be physically isolated from each other, we can continue to connect soul-to-soul.”