Written by Awakin Call Editors
You can listen to the recorded interview in its entirety here.
Reverend Victor Kazanjian is the executive director of the United Religions Initiative (URI), a global grassroots interfaith peacebuilding network. URI has more than a thousand multi-faith groups working in over a hundred countries with a million volunteers to build bridges of cooperation between people of all faiths and cultures. Victor is ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church and was trained as a community organizer working to address the systemic causes of poverty and injustice through the support of community-based groups.
He’s also studied and deeply embodies Gandhian principles of pluralism and grassroots change. Along with Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi, he for many years led the Gandhian Legacy Tour to India and taught a January term class at Wellesley on Grassroots Development, Conflict Resolution, and the Gandhian Legacy in India.
Prior to joining URI, Victor was an influential International voice (and he still is) addressing the spiritual lives of students in higher education. He served as the Dean of Intercultural Education and Religious and Spiritual Life and Co-Director of the Peace and Justice Studies program at Wellesley College for more than two decades. He holds degrees from the Episcopal Divinity School and Harvard, and is visiting faculty at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, India, where he served as a Fulbright Professor of Peace and Justice Studies. Victor is on the forefront of bringing about a revolution of love in our world.
What follows is the edited transcript of an Awakin Call with Victor.
Preeta:You’ve had a childhood full of rich experiences, such as dinners with leading spiritual activists. Can you describe the seeds these experiences planted in your life?
Victor: I grew up with grandparents who came from many different religious communities. It was not unusual for Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, African leaders, and indigenous elders to be around our dinner table. Curiosity about the “other” and the beauty of those who were different from myself, was central to how my family lived. Also, Dr. Howard Thurman, a mystic and teacher of Dr. Martin Luther King’s, was one of my grandfather’s best friends. I witnessed the relationship between spirituality and social justice. It was strange for me as I grew up, to realize that for many people, encounters with the “other” occasioned fear or anxiety rather than delight and curiosity.
Preeta: Given your exposure to such diversity, what drew you to the ministry and particularly to the Episcopal tradition as a spiritual path?
Victor: For me, to be a Christian was to celebrate being one among many. There was no sense that there was only one truth embodied in this tradition. Being Christian was more about being a follower of Jesus and the values he taught – love, justice, compassion, and kindness towards all. As for the Episcopal Church, it was the church where my mom and dad raised us. My mom is an ordained Episcopal priest. I had wonderful experiences in the church, but I increasingly became uncomfortable with the notion that Christianity was the one true faith. So I moved towards the ministry with some trepidation.
When I went through the ordination process, it was quite troubling to those making the decision about who should be ordained. I believe that all religions are expressions of the same abiding spiritual force in the world. Somehow, they let me through. I started working in a congregation outside of Boston. I loved being in a parish, but my real work was in communities. That’s where I discovered the wisdom of people in communities, particularly those struggling with poverty. This set me on the course of being a priest community organizer.
Preeta: You talked about how all faiths are equally valid manifestations of the divine. Can you tell us a little bit about when you first became aware of religions that exclude others?
Victor: I remember going to a Catholic service with a friend. When it came time to receive communion. I was told I wasn’t allowed to receive bread and wine because I wasn’t a Catholic. Then, the stories of “they are going to hell because they don’t believe in Jesus….” It bears no resemblance to what I understand Jesus taught. The notion that a human institution such as a church, can define right relationship with God is absurd. Yet the essence of Christianity — love, justice, overturning power structures, embracing the importance of those who are suffering in the world — that made sense to me.
Subsequently, there have been many other spiritual traditions that have influenced my life. And I am happy to be an Episcopal priest because I believe the Episcopal Church offers a beautiful reflection of Jesus. There have been strong stands around women’s ordination, around the LGBTQ community that reflect what it means to be a Christian.
Preeta: Can you tell us more about shifting from parish priest to community organizer?
Victor: While I was still in seminary, I took a year off to work in the South Bronx, in one of the poorest communities in the United States. I served in a small Episcopal Church running an after-school program for children and a gang outreach program. In the most difficult of circumstances, there was love, compassion, and care in the people there. This community, the South Bronx, invited me into the deepest place of service that shaped my understanding of ministry. It also made me confront my own issues. I had to look at my experience of privilege. I fit all the categories of privilege except one.
Since the time I was two years old, I was a very severe stutterer. Imagine being unable to speak some word on every phrase. I’ve learned some techniques of managing, but I’m still a stutterer. In the world of stuttering you experience both humility and humiliation in the face of others. People don’t know how to react to a stutterer, so there’s a lot of projection. That experience helped me find deep connection to people who are marginalized in the world. I understand my stuttering as an important teacher in my life of what it means to be the object of other people’s projections of discomfort and fear.
Preeta:That’s remarkable. Can you talk about how Howard Thurman and Gandhi influenced your life?
Victor: My family’s understanding of Christianity was shaped by Dr. Thurman. My grandfather brought Dr. Thurman from San Francisco to be the first African American dean of a major institution. Dr. Thurman, as a deep follower of Jesus, taught about the beauty and wholeness of all living beings. He had a mystical understanding of connection. He spoke of Christianity in a non-exclusive way. Then, Gandhi’s influence on Thurman and King was profound. So, I started learning about Gandhi. Gandhi’s approach to humanity touched me – the garden of humanity, creating spaces where people of all beliefs have a place.
That shaped my whole life. It was one of my greatest experiences to travel to India for the first time in the early nineties with Gandhi’s grandson Arun and his wife Sunanda. We brought students and faculty to learn about Gandhi and non-violence. One of the first nights I was in India, I was sleeping between Arun and Sunanda on the floor of their apartment. I couldn’t go to sleep because I was thinking “I’m sleeping beside Gandhi’s grandson.” Sunanda has passed, one of the true beautiful souls of this earth; Arun is still a beautiful teacher and mentor.
Preeta: How did you then make that transition into academia and Wellesley College?
Victor: I worked for an anti-poverty agency in Boston associated with the Episcopal Church and was contacted by a friend who had been the chaplain at Wellesley College. He said that Wellesley had become a racially, economically, and religiously diverse women’s college. They realized they had structures, particularly in chaplaincy, that no longer served that kind of diversity. The structure was Christian-centric but the community was a multi-belief community. So I went and helped them design a new model where all people were seen as equal partners in the community.
We designed this model and I went back to my job. About a year later they called and said “we’ve been through three failed searches. Nobody gets this model. Would you be the first dean of Religious Life at Wellesley College?” The first thing I said was “You’re going to have to convince me that it’s a good idea for a man to be the first dean of Religious Life at a women’s college, because my mom is going to be all over me about this. She is a feminist, religious leader…”
It was an extraordinary journey of over 20 years. I was Dean of Religious Life. I then became the Co-Director of the Peace Studies Program, which was an extraordinary combination of academics and activists looking at applying principles of peace-building in the world. Later I became Dean of Intercultural Education, joining all cultural communities — African American, Asian, Latino, LGBTQ, and religious communities – to learn about being part of the global community in a multi-cultural context. The students were my teachers. We experimented and co-created what was sometimes referred to as “the Wellesley model,” an interfaith program in which no one religious tradition is dominant. This has now become a model that many campuses have followed.
Preeta: Tell us a little bit about United Religions Initiative (URI). What drew you there and what is their unique promise?
Victor: My wife Michelle and I — Michelle was also a Dean at Wellesley — had been at Wellesley for quite a while. Our two boys had grown up and were out of the house. We both had a desire to explore more international dimensions to our work. When I was just out of Harvard, I came out to California and I worked for the Episcopal Diocese of California doing youth work at a time when the Episcopal Church was on the cutting edge of HIV/AIDS work. I worked for the Diocese for about a year and a half. 30 years later, as we were finishing our time at Wellesley, the position of executive director of URI came open. And Michelle said, “this is you.” This is your work. This gets you into community organizing in an international context.
I began to learn about URI. In getting to know about the organization, I saw people with all beliefs working together on local humanitarian concerns within Cooperation Circles. These are interfaith circles. The work was far greater than what they reported. There was a natural humility about the work that was stunning to me. The shared relationships and heart connections forged through these circles is as powerful and as important as the work that they do.
When I was first ordained, the image I had of what it meant to be a priest was to be a spiritual midwife. I think that those of us that work for URI are peacebuilding midwives. We don’t have the answers, we don’t tell people what they should be doing. We come in as a resource, in service of their creative projects. We often serve people who are often marginalized. We honor their wisdom and then help them actualize their dreams, for their community. There are over a thousand of these groups in over a hundred countries.
Preeta: How do Cooperation Circles work?
Victor: There are two categories of Cooperation Circles. A Circle must have at least seven people of at least three different belief communities. Cooperation Circles are self- organized and self-funded. There are two kinds of groups: one is the small groups of folks who come together in their community. There groups are large existing groups or even NGOs who want to become part of the URI Network. It’s very diverse. Also, URI is that it is decentralized. The work never comes from the global office. We are on every continent.
Preeta: How do you keep the momentum going in Interfaith work?
Victor: There is a beautiful tension between particularity and universality. We can either choose to be one thing, “I am Christian. I am a Muslim. I am Jewish. I am Hindu. I am atheist. I’m agnostic.” or, “I’m a universal being who sees the spiritual connectedness of all life.” There’s a false dichotomy, I believe, in that. This dichotomy has grown, and many religious institutions have used the exclusive ownership of the truth, as a way to create and sustain their institutional structures. They create a balkanized world where they gather their people together and against everyone else. That is what has perpetuated and corrupted the spiritual essence of all traditions.
In my own tradition as a follower of Jesus, Jesus was both drawing on his deep Jewish roots and stepping beyond. Those two actions were not in conflict. They were in conflict for people who came later, who introduced a whole anti-Semitic dimension to the Christian church, the cause of some of the greatest horrors in our history. There is a place for people to root and explore in particularity of practice while attuning to whatever is both beyond and among us. At the same time, we feel the connection that we have that transcends all particularity. There is some force of life and love at work in this world, in all living beings, in mother earth, in all belief systems that are life-affirming.
The tensions inherent in balancing particularity and universality often cause human beings to struggle. To be human is to live in these tensions; yet somehow we have created ways for people to believe that they can step out of that tension and live in some sense of singularity and certainty – where if I just do this and I just profess this and if I just go to this congregation and do these things, I am all set. My life will be somehow blessed. Instead, we could learn to say we live in this ocean of tension, a creative place where we engage in love, compassion, and radical humility.
Preeta: What practices allow you to navigate the tension between being and doing?
Victor: As is true with many people I certainly went from being more externally focused as an activist and then coming close to burning out. Gradually, I became more and more connected to the Inner Space to the nurturing of self. Particularly in the west we have this notion of being self-centered as being a negative thing. But there’s also being centered in Self, that is about appreciating the inner dimensions of our being. As a stutterer, I had to figure out how to love myself through the torrent of discomfort as child. Currently I have drawn from the extraordinary teachings of many of my sisters and brothers from many traditions. Everyday people with beautiful practices enhance and shape mine. Staying rooted in beingness allows all my encounters to become part of some larger organism rooted in movement towards life, love, compassion, and balance.
Janessa: Aryae Cooper Smith is on the line with a question.
Araye: Given all of the new kinds of challenges going on in the U.S. and the world, I’m wondering if you’re seeing a difference in what’s going on in URI. What is going on in cooperation circles to respond to this very recent sharpening of divides in the world?
Victor: What I’m seeing in North America is a radical wake-up call. There are not only are people using hate and fear to divide, but there are opportunistic ways in which those who distort religion are supporting that division. But there is also an awakening of people with a worldview of connectedness, not of division. We’re seeing communities waking up from what used to be a lovely annual Thanksgiving Interfaith service, to a daily activism around forging connections and commitments. We stand with each other around synagogues, mosques, churches, gurdwaras. and temples. We forge new connections strong enough to last through this hurricane of shadow and division.
Araye: It sounds like the forces of darkness stimulating the forces of light.
Victor: Yes. We’re also looking at our own shadow. Rather than a situation where “we” are objectifying a “them,” we see that there are people locked in the pain of isolation, fear, anger expressed through hatred and division. That’s a shadow of the human condition. And so we have an opportunity to look at our own shadows. We learn to understand how we can transform those shadows to bring forth the light of understanding, the light of dispelling ignorance through education and most importantly the light that comes from loving human connection.
To learn more about URI and Cooperation Circles please visit https://uri.org/.
This interview was edited by Rev. Bonnie Rose. Awakin Calls is a weekly interview series and community podcast that highlights the work and inner journeys of individuals who are transforming our world in large and small ways. Each call features a moderated conversation with a unique guest. Past interviewees include a calligraphy artist, a path-breaking neurosurgeon, an evolution biologist, a pioneering venture capitalist, and a socially conscious hip-hop rapper. Awakin Calls are ad-free, available at no charge, and an all-volunteer-run offering of ServiceSpace, a global platform founded on the principle of “Change Yourself. Change the World.”