TOKYO — It took a trip to Japan for me to hear an old Canadian joke. It’s about someone lost in a rural area who turns to a farmer for help.
“I urgently need to get to town. How do I get there?” the wanderer asks.
After a long pause, the farmer responds, “If I was going there urgently, I wouldn’t start from here.”
Chris Ferguson, general secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, told the joke to critique the work of the G20 Summit, an annual gathering of leaders of the world’s top economies that will take place in Osaka later this month. Participants debate boosting trade or adjusting tax rates rather than tackling bigger, more important problems, he said.
But the joke also holds a lesson for the event that brought Ferguson and me to Tokyo this week. The G20 Interfaith Forum, which seeks to build bridges between faith communities and G20 leaders, has a good vision for the future, but it might need to take a different path in order to more quickly achieve its goals.
Currently, much of the forum’s energy is focused on strengthening its relationship to the G20 Summit.
Speakers discuss how to get the attention of politicians. They outline policy recommendations and try to package them in a way that appeals to people in power.
"Too often, important religious insights and recommendations fail to gain traction because they are not put in ways that are persuasive to busy government officials and policymakers," sad W. Cole Durham Jr., founding director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University during the forum’s opening session.
The G20 Interfaith Forum won’t succeed in bringing a moral voice to politics until it’s on the radar of secular politicians, said Enda Kenny, the former prime minister of Ireland.
“They should at least note your recommendations,” he told forum participants. “It will give you the opportunity to follow through with effect and impact.”
That’s a fair conclusion, but it’s not an inspiring one. Religious leaders shouldn’t sit around waiting for politicians to pay attention to them when they can make a difference on issues like hunger, poverty and human trafficking now, said Jonathan Duffy, president of the Adventist Development and Relief Association, during a Saturday afternoon presentation.
“We cannot afford to wait politely to be invited to a seat at the decision-making table,” he said. “We must also not use a lack of a seat as an excuse for lack of action.”
David Moore, general counsel for the U.S. Agency for International Development, offered a similar assessment of the forum Sunday morning. Participants can’t spend so much time worrying about being recognized by the G20 Summit that they miss chances to work together to build a better world, he said.
“There are resources here and an opportunity for us to cooperate to think about best practices and to think about how we can do more independent of our linkages to the G20 (Summit),” he said.
Listening to conversations at the G20 Interfaith Forum, it’s impossible to deny the value of religiously motivated humanitarian activity.
Religious leaders like Elder Gerrit W. Gong, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, presented on the service projects their churches have been involved in around the world.
They described offering shelter to victims of natural disasters, advocating on behalf of religious minorities and helping refugees establish new lives.
These testimonies make it clear that faith groups already know what must be done to help people in need. But the leaders struggle with how to share their wisdom with a wider audience.
“Religious leaders are sometimes full of fear,” said Mohammed Abu-Nimer, a senior adviser to the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, or KAICIID. “They give up a crucial leadership role as trusted peacemakers with a prophetic voice.”
Building a stronger partnership with politicians is one way to gain confidence. But so is banding together and finding strength in numbers, Duffy said.
“We must use our collective voice … and be a moral compass to the world,” he said.
Religious actors must show that change is possible on a large scale, instead of just talking about why change needs to happen, Duffy and others said.
For example, to address climate change, a key focus of this year’s forum, they could unite in an impressive display of sustainable environmental practices. A recent Quartz article suggests banning plastic from sacred spaces in order to raise awareness about the importance of protecting the environment.
“We need to tell the G20, ‘We are not waiting for you, the alliance is already started,’” said the Rev. Joshtrom Kureethadam, a Catholic priest who works on environmental issues for the Vatican.
Nearly all participants agree the G20 Interfaith Forum still has work to do.
And the forum members' work goes beyond formatting policy recommendations in politician friendly ways, they said.
“Let’s keep our eye on the ball and be clear that our interfaith cooperation is to draw the G20 to the real agenda,” not just find ways to fit our goals into theirs, Ferguson said.
This year’s forum, the sixth of its kind, added several high-profile politicians to the typical lineup of religious speakers. But the gathering didn’t hold their feet to the fire and urge them to commit to truly moral leadership, said Alvaro Albacete, deputy secretary general for KAICIID.
“Why don’t we confront them with the voices of religious leaders?” he said. “We should sit them together and provide a space for them to change their views.”
In other words, forum leaders shouldn’t defer to politicians. It should wake them up to the realities of the world’s suffering, said Lord George Carey of Clifton, an Anglican priest and former Archbishop of Canterbury.
“The world is on fire,” he said. “We want to show (politicians) the reality of what’s happening to the very poor of our world.”
Religious leaders and politicians should be in dialogue, said Sister Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and director of Latter-day Saint Charities, during her remarks to the forum on Sunday morning, referencing the story of a Lutheran church in Sweden that donated part of its land to a mosque to fit the spiritual needs of refugees.
“The two groups decided to put a hall in between” the two houses of worship, she said, so there could be shared activities between the two faith communities.
That’s what the G20 Interfaith Forum is seeking to establish with the G20 Summit, Eubank added.
“We’re trying to build a social hall,” she said.
Or as Jan Figel, the European Commission’s special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief, put it, “We need to promote dialogue instead of monologues. In dialogue, we are gaining.”