Faith leaders gather for retreat at Best Friends
"In a world of increasing violence towards others, ourselves, and the planet we call home, we believe it is absolutely essential to reclaim and recover a commitment to compassion for all living things." Rev. Michael Bruner.
It was the first evening of a two-day retreat at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary for a small group of religious leaders from around the country and beyond. Feeling particularly inspired, one of them, Rev. Michael Bruner, professor of religion at Azuza Pacific University, jotted down some ideas for the preamble to a proclamation to which the group hopes thousands of faith leaders from many countries will eventually add their names. Most of the group were meeting each other for the first time, and Michael Bruner’s "jottings" raised a cheer from everyone.
"You get the feeling that you’re part of something that’s going to be very big and very wonderful," said United Methodist Church Pastor Jonathan Massey of Chandler, Ariz. "We’re ready to take the next jump into the rights of other living beings. It’s a major step spiritually and ethically."
Rabbi Robin Nafshi, of the Jewish Community Center in West Orange, N.J., said kindness to animals is an important part of the Jewish faith. "We are taught that we have an obligation for their well-being and to avoid causing pain whenever possible."
The group dove deep into some of the issues that have divided people of faith in their attitude to animals – like the question of whether non-human animals have souls. But the group quickly concluded that theological debates of this kind really don’t address the issue. Rabbi Nafshi pointed out that all living beings are endowed by the Creator with "nefesh", the breath of life. "They are sentient beings, and that’s what matters most."
Imam Qasim Ahmed, Founder and Director of the Islamic Learning Institute, Inc., added that "An animal is a living, breathing being we have a responsibility to care for. We humans are born into the heavenly state…It is disobedience that removes us – In order to make a difference for the animals, we must focus on the humans…on bringing the humans back into the obedience state. Animals are not disobedient ... so we can learn from the animals. The animals have always been there [in a heavenly state]."
Several people noted that even raising the subject of animal protection can be challenging. A few were heard to say things like "I can’t really say ‘that’ from the pulpit." Rev. Zandra Wagoner, professor of religion at the University of La Verne, pointed out that historically there has always been pressure in Christian traditions to toe the line and not rock the boat.
"I have no doubt that if this initiative takes flight and becomes a real conversation within our faith communities," she commented, "there will be backlash. And sadly the Christian tradition has a long history of dealing with conflict through censure, excommunication, firing, and defrocking." She said that any initiative will need to include encouragement of faith leaders to be courageous. "There is so much pressure to be mediocre, middle-of-the-road, don't-rock-the-boat ministers and priests. It will help if there is a critical mass of religious leaders who are advocating on behalf of the animals."
The two-day retreat included participants from overseas, who joined in through a webinar hookup.
In the breakout sessions, groups worked on subjects like Companion Animal & Community Welfare; Commercialization & Exploitation; and Wildlife Preservation & Protection – with the goal of determining benchmarks for how people of faith and leaders of faith might be called upon to support animals from a spiritual perspective. For example, the Wildlife Preservation & Protection group suggested a boycott of companies that benefit from deforestation; the Commercialization & Exploitation group said leaders of faith should help expose corporate cruelty; and the Companion Animal & Community Welfare group pointed out that while millions of homeless animals are still being destroyed in shelters each year, people of faith are obligated to put compassion into action for all of God’s creatures.
When the various groups came back together to report on their discussion, there was much passion laced throughout their reports. One in particular had everyone sitting right up in their chairs. With a voice that would have done justice to the Ten Commandments being delivered on Mount Sinai, Father Larry Evans of Our Lady of Mercy Church in Jersey City, N.J., read from the draft text of the Sports & Entertainment group:
"We, as people of faith, have been called upon to care for the most vulnerable among us. And because animals are sentient beings who are dependent on us for their quality of life and wellbeing, we call upon all people of faith to reject arenas that harm and exploit animals and instead choose to support sports and entertainment venues that are both educational and beneficial to animals."
The retreat concluded with many of the religious leaders expressing gratitude for being called to this very important work of the soul and, particularly, for being introduced to other like-minded faith leaders; "Until now," said one, "many of us thought we were alone in seeing the connection between animals and faith. Now we know there is hope and we believe there are many more of us out there."
When members of the group have completed their work on the proclamation, they’ll be inviting religious leaders of all faiths and denominations to add their names to it.
"Every major religious tradition holds that we are called upon to protect all living beings," said Paul Berry, executive director of Best Friends, "and never has this been more urgent than now. Here at Best Friends, we’re delighted and inspired by the enthusiasm of these leaders and the colleagues they represent. And we want to help them, in every way, to bring the message of kindness to animals to their congregations."
There’s news about animals and religion at network.bestfriends.org/religion/news/, where we’ll also be updating the continuing discussion that began at the recent gathering.
Photos of Larry Evans and Michael Bruner and group shot by Rebecca Preston
Photo of group at the blessing by Michael Delgado-Hand