Shanta Premawardhana is President of OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership. He is an international speaker who trains people of faith to act collaboratively and effectively to counter religious extremism and religion-based injustices. He will share a vision of the role Minnesota’s faith and interfaith organizations have in the quest for just communities at, “In a Time Such as This: The urgent need for building stronger multifaith communities in Minnesota.”
To give some context to Mr. Premawardhana’s work and motivations, he generously answered a few questions for us.
Q: Do you belong to a particular faith tradition? If so, what can you tell our readers about how that faith tradition has influenced you?
R: Yes. I worship with the faith community at Ellis Avenue Church in Chicago, a member of the Alliance of Baptists – a radically inclusive and progressive fellowship of churches. I grew up in Sri Lanka, Baptist in a majority Buddhist country. Growing up, I experienced a discrepancy between the imported exclusivism of my church which bumped up against my lived relationship with Buddhist friends and neighbors who I experienced as devout, sincere, moral and loving. This consternation eventually led me to seminary, which, of course, didn’t resolve the problem. So, I went to graduate school! I learned that the answer was not in “received” theologies that seminaries teach but in the “contextuality” of the margins. The strongest faith influences for me came as I engaged with people on the ground: listening to and learning from their questions, struggles and stories, and trying to live in solidarity with them.
Q: What led you to pursue interfaith work – what was the driving motivator?
R: My first motivation in studying Buddhism and Hinduism was to ask how can the Christian gospel-story broadly understood as liberation, be told in the Buddhist or Hindu idiom. It was a good, deepening exercise.Later, it was the realization that my relationships with other religious persons, and my engagement with their traditions gives me a deeper appreciation of the divine, or that which is ultimate. Today, the motivator is the realization that we are all in the same boat, struggling to keep afloat. When we recognize the critical nature of the struggles our communities and our planet are facing, it is irresponsible for us not to work together. Religious communities are ubiquitous around the world, we are the world’s largest voluntary network. We have the theological resources, people, money, institutional gravitas to make things happen. Religion has legitimized many systemic ills in the world. It is now our call to be the force for the healing and the restoration of the world.
Q: You train religious leaders across the world. Is there a particular leader you’ve worked with who stands out? For what reason do you remember that person so vividly?
R: Rev. Abare Kallah is a Christian leader in Northeast Nigeria who lives and works in the context of Boko Haram. He believes that the answer to extremist violence is to build relationships with Muslim persons and for Christians and Muslims to collaborate on issues that matter to people in the margins of their communities. Therefore, he builds Interfaith Peacemaker Teams. He is tireless in his efforts and courageous in being willing to go to some of the most dangerous contexts in pursuit of peace. He is strategic in what he undertakes, and therefore achieves substantial results for peace in this community.
Q: In your mind, what are the fundamental ingredients for religious collaboration?
R: Above all it’s a willingness to listen to, learn from and live in deep solidarity with the other.
Q: Tell us about the Interfaith Unity Award you won in 2007.
R: It was in recognition for the opportunity I had to provide leadership to Christian communions in the United States to stand in solidarity with the Muslim community in the aftermath of 9/11 when they faced a significant level of Islamophobia. At the time I served as the Associate General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA.
Q: What do you hope participants at MnMN’s “In a Time Such as This” take away from their conversation together?
R: I would like to talk to Minnesota leaders about what that title means to them. To me, there is no option but to build interreligious collaborations, not just to talk to each other, but to act together, powerfully and strategically and thereby win over the forces that seek disunity and harm.