When I first heard of the United Religions Initiative (URI), I was a bit sceptical about what I had just gotten myself into. Being tasked with the humbling duty to represent Kenya as a Youth Ambassador in the Great lakes Region was by no means a small task. I wasn’t too nervous about the ‘diplomatic’ role but was definitely jumpy about this global grassroots’ organisation that had the word religion in its official trading name!
I definitely have no issues with religion(s) and their various forms and structures but I am quite aware of the tension and conflict that has and still arises all in the name of religion. With limited information available about URI, I honestly did not know what to think! It did not help much either that a Google search field lead me straight to a UN site. The page informed me that the UN recognisees this organisation and the effort it places on interfaith work. My mind could only register a super-religion at this point!!!
That was three years ago and thankfully none of my fears came to light! The United Religions Initiative is a global grassroots interfaith network that cultivates peace and justice by engaging people to bridge religious and cultural differences and work together for the good of their communities and the world. They implement their mission through local and global initiatives that build the capacity of their member groups and organisations to engage in community action such as conflict resolution, environmental sustainability, education, women and youth programs as well as advocacy for human rights. The purpose of the United Religions Initiative is to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings. The Young Leaders Program connects youth from diverse backgrounds to bridge their differences, and enables them to grow as leaders whilst also encouraging them to work together for the greater good of humanity. The Youth Ambassadors program on the other hand is a voluntary fellowship for young adults around the world interested in developing their leadership whilst deepening their involvement with URI over the course of a year. Ambassadors receive focused support, mentorship and a small seed grant to implement an original project.
My URI journey started from a point of curiosity as well as a need for a platform to not only grow as a leader but to also garner skills and support which I needed to take my mentorship project dubbed Sisterhood to the next level. Reflecting on the URI’s Charter, preamble, purpose and principles it became clear to me that they recognize our diversity and respect and celebrate that. Further they encourage us to support this diversity especially in our programming. I had never factored the need to have holistic representation of the teenage girl in my mentorship program. Last year through the support of UR’s seed grant, I was able to implement a debate for the International Day of the Girl child, which brought debaters, and a panel of judges from varied backgrounds together to strategize on best practices and the best way forward for the Kenyan teenage girl. It was remarkable having such rich discussions with very different people about issues that affect all of us regardless of race, colour, tribe, religion or traditional belief! Through URI, Sisterhood has definitely reached new heights but that is far from all. Through this network, I have been able to experience a flavour of different religions through voluntarily attending various places of worship. Mostly in the company of Nyambura Mundia, (URI Nairobi’s office Administrator) I have been able to get over various stereotypes and prejudices that I knowingly and subconsciously held. None of the places tour guides wanted to convert me but rather they were quite keen to explain their religion and traditions as well as various practices, which I believe has made me a more informed human being. Through URI I have also been able to network with amazing young leaders making significant impact in their own communities from coffee shops in Nairobi to elaborate training sessions held in Kampala and most recently in a retreat session held in San Francisco.
From my initial starting point, I think I got way more than I ever bargained for by joining this network. I have learnt important skills of engaging diverse audience and the need of incorporation and inclusion for successful projects and more so the great friendship bonds I have made among interesting young leaders around the world! Someone once told me that if I do it right, I can have lasting connections in every part of the world…URI taught me why this is important and has made this task more than half done easily!