History of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders

As plans for creating the Interfaith Academy were advancing, the question was posed: Who will own the Elijah Interfaith Academy? It seemed that such a unique initiative should not be simply owned by an institution, a university or an organization of goodwill. If the Academy was to have recognition and if it was to serve effectively, it needed to be affiliated with the world’s top religious leadership and owned by them. The suggestion thus arose: Create a Board of World Religious Leaders.

The task was daunting. How to get world religious leaders to collaborate with our vision? The strategy chosen was to have religious leaders invite other religious leaders to the project. Having identified one key religious leader in each religion with whom we had an established relationship, we set forth to invite religious leaders of major standing and representation from all over the world to our first gathering of world religious leaders, held in Seville, Spain in November of 2003.

Our success surprised us. It was the vision that captured them, a vision they felt was unique and compelling. The religious leaders appreciated the importance of creating a framework for collaborative reflection. It served a need; it allowed religions to collectively make a powerful contribution to the wellbeing of society. We were able to draw to Seville a total of about 70 world class religious leaders and scholars, thereby establishing the uniqueness of the framework that brings scholars and religious leaders together in common reflection.

In Seville we tried doing something that apparently had never been tried before: Bringing religious leaders of this stature together on a platform of content, conversation and frank exchange, rather than formal orchestrated ceremonies of prayer and goodwill. It was a gamble, that again raised skeptical warnings in advance of the meeting. Yet, it was, by the testimony of the religious leaders, a roaring success. The Seville meeting was prepared by the Elijah Think tank on “Religion, Society and the Other: Hostility, Hospitality and the Hope of Human Flourishing.” Papers were disseminated in advance. No speeches were given. The emphasis was on working in small groups, building friendship, relationships and honest exchange. Consequently, religious leaders were able to engage each other as never before, based on the understanding and high degree of collaboration previously achieved through the work of the Think tank. The format indicated a real need was being served. The Seville meeting revealed a need for more content to inform the work of religious leaders, for more personal contact between them and for additional projects to be carried out on their behalf.

Religious leaders assembled in Seville agreed to constitute themselves as the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders, providing direction for the work of the Interfaith Academy and undertaking ongoing collaboration under the auspices of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. The leaders suggested a plan of work for the future and further requested that their contact not be limited to the periodic meetings, arranged by Elijah. The body of assembled leaders was simply too valuable a resource. It had, so they felt, to be given a more powerful voice in society on an ongoing basis. This led to the creation of the “response process,” by means of which the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders could address contemporary issues involving religion as these arose in the world. The “response process” would allow for ongoing collaboration between the Academy and the Board of World Religious Leaders in the form of shorter position papers, addressing current crises. Several such position papers have appeared. Situations such as the Mohammed cartoons, the publication of the Da Vinci Code movie, Pope Benedikt’s speech at Regensburg University, as well as issues relating to youth suicide in Asia and more, have been addressed through the “response process.” The work of the “response process” is disseminated through Elijah’s networks, through its media efforts and through the media channels affiliated with our religious leaders. Broadening the dissemination of this work remains one the ongoing challenges we face.

The Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders numbers about 70 major leaders who are engaged personally, or through their delegates, in Elijah’s work. The overwhelming majority have been enthusiastic and appreciative. A good number of them have been able to share the fruits of their work at Elijah within their communities, through newsletters, reports and other means. Beyond that, a number of strategic partnerships have emerged through collaboration with organizations affiliated with religious leaders who deeply share Elijah’s vision. Thus, an important partnership has been developed with the Taiwan based Museum of World Religions, founded by Dharma Master Hsin Tao. This organization has collaborated with Elijah in organizing several educational and academic initiatives, in the United States and Europe.

The Museum and Monastery hosted the Elijah Board’s second meeting, in November 2005 on the theme “The Crisis of the Holy.” From the organizational perspective, the meeting took the work of the Board of Religious Leaders forward in several important ways. Relations deepened, and so did the commitment of participants to Elijah. A number of practical initiatives involving religious leaders and their organizations grew from this second meeting. But maybe the most noteworthy contribution was a fuller appreciation of the import of the framework. The meeting taught us that the unique format we had created was in fact not only gaining the support of religious leadership but serving them in unexpected ways. The intimate conversations and friendships, the focused discussions and the high level of academic moderation all indicated that the forum provides an opportunity for transforming the world’s religious leadership through encounter, study and fresh reflection. Participants thus discovered , much like the students at Elijah School programs had previously discovered, that these encounters are moments of growth and transformation. Given the roles these figures play within the world’s religions, this transformation is of potential significance to their organizations and to the teachings they provide. We thus discovered that the Board of World Religious Leaders could in fact function as a means for subtly and quietly transforming religions from within. It has been an important part of Elijah’s vision from the start to help religions grow through study and encounter with members of other religions. That the meetings of the Board of World Religious Leaders ended up providing such opportunities is further confirmation of the vision and insight that inform Elijah’s work.

A second strategic partnership has been formed with the Birmingham based Sikh organization, Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewek Jatha. Joint programs have been held in Jerusalem and Glasgow, and the next meeting of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders will be co-hosted by them in Amritsar, this coming November. The meeting’s other co-host is His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Several other members of the Board of Religious Leaders have expressed interest in hosting programs or have otherwise found ways of partnering their organizations with Elijah programs. Of particular note is the partnership with the London based Shi’a organization, the Al Khoei Foundation. The Al Khoei Foundation is one of the organizational sponsors of the Muslim theology project, described above. Thus, the Board has turned out to be more then simply a collection of important religious leaders who endorse Elijah’s vision. It has, in many cases, created inroads into religious communities, thereby advancing the work of Elijah.

Elijah’s work with the Board of World Religious Leaders has led to invitations to moderate interfaith sessions of religious leaders for bodies other than its own board. Elijah was invited to run the program for the First Congress of Imams and Rabbis, that took place in Brussels, in January 2005. Over 100 Imams and Rabbis took part in this ground breaking event. Elijah prepared the background concept paper, developed the program, moderated the event, and ensured its success. The event earned Elijah further recognition among the religious leaders of Judaism and Islam, worldwide.

The Current Board of World Religious Leaders