Speaker: Victor Kazanjian

United Religions Initiative: Seeking Wholeness in a Time of Brokenness

The Rev. Victor Kazanjian is the Executive Director of the United Religions Initiative (URI), a global grassroots interfaith peacebuilding network of more than 1,000 multifaith groups working in over 100 countries to build bridges of cooperation between people of all beliefs and cultures.

Defying the conventional wisdom that issues of poverty, conflict and violence are best engaged by organizations with a heavy central infrastructure, URI’s decentralized, network-based, light-framed, shared leadership, relational organizational approach is giving people around the world the power to meet their challenges and build cohesive, connected and peaceful communities.

Peace and justice begin at the grassroots,” Victor says. “Cooperation Circles are the heart and soul of this organization, the foundation upon which a sustainable movement towards peace and justice can be built. Ultimately this effort requires work at all levels of society – local and national governments, public sector institutions such as education and social service, the private sector, and transnational organizations like the United Nations. But … while we strive to be active in all levels of peacebuilding, at its core, URI is a grassroots network.”

Victor is an ordained 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. Prior to joining URI, Victor was an influential international voice addressing the spiritual lives of students, multicultural peacebuilding programs, and all manner of transformational education. He served as Dean of Intercultural Education & Religious and Spiritual Life and Co-Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Wellesley College, where he “moved religious and spiritual life from the margins of the institution to a partner in implementing the college’s core educational goals” as well as invited “all people of all beliefs (theistic and non-theistic) to work together to build community at Wellesley.”  He also co-founded Education as Transformation Inc., an international organization that works on religious diversity and spirituality in higher education.

Victor is an author, educator, recognized thought-leader and trainer in areas of intergroup dialogue, multicultural and interreligious understanding, conflict transformation, diversity and democracy, social justice, community organizing, and peacebuilding. He holds degrees from the Episcopal Divinity School and Harvard University, and is visiting faculty at the Malaviya Center for Peace Research at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, India, where he served as Fulbright Professor of Peace and Justice Studies.

“As a child, I grew up as one among many.  It was not unusual for me, when at my grandparents’ dinner table, to be surrounded by people of a wide variety of beliefs,” Victor described in a keynote address with Valarie Kaur to the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions. Victor’s grandfather, Harold Case, a progressive Methodist pluralist (before pluralism entered the interfaith lexicon), was Boston University’s president during Victor’s growing up years. President Case started an African Studies department at BU in 1953 and convinced Howard Thurman, the country’s first intentional interfaith minister, to leave San Francisco’s historic interfaith, interracial Church he’d helped found a decade earlier, to become Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. Victor remembers that Dr. Thurman turned out to be “like a wonderful member of our family” during his childhood and, in the long run, “the most important spiritual influence in my life.”

“These were the civil rights days in the United States, and dinner table conversations at my grandparents inevitably included updates from the front lines,” Victor recalls. “Only later in life did I realize that those conversations had included visits from Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and, most frequently and most significantly for my life, Howard Thurman, … whose friendship with my grandparents left an indelible imprint on my life and shaped my understanding of religion in ways that continue to unfold.”

As Victor noted in his 2018 keynote to the Parliament of the World’s Religions, “There is no place for exclusivism in religion or politics or in our world.  It has arguably been the single greatest source of suffering throughout history.  Religious exclusivism – the belief that my truth is the only truth – violates the core spiritual tenets of all beliefs.  The claim of exclusive knowledge of the truth is, in a religions sense, idolatry, in a political sense extremism, and in psychological sense narcissism.  In all these cases, exclusivism leads to the dehumanization and exclusion, not to love and inclusion.”

His deep childhood grounding in celebrating “one among many” has led Victor to study and embody deeply Gandhian principles of pluralism and grassroots change.  Along with Gandhi’s grandson, he for many years led the Gandhian Legacy Tour to India and taught a January term class on “Grassroots Development, Conflict Resolution, and the Gandhian Legacy in India” while at Wellesley College. He also had the unique opportunity to teach about Gandhian perspectives on Diversity and Democracy at the Malaviya Centre for Peace Research at Benaras Hindu University while on a Fulbright. 

Join us in conversation with this innovative, deeply committed, and transformational change agent!

David Bonbright

David Bonbright

Nov 9, 2019

Sustainable Social Change and Philanthropy: From Transactions to Relationships

Jerry White

Jerry White

May 5, 2018

Noble Resilience to Nobel Purpose

Parker Palmer

Parker Palmer

Feb 23, 2019

An Elder's Look Back at Healing Our Divided Selves and Worlds