By Edward Guthmann
Published 4:00 am, Friday, March 6, 2009
It didn’t bother her, Marites Africa says, when she had to apologize for being a woman in order to meet with Muslim religious leaders in Manila. “I’d cover my head and respectfully stand before them, knowing that it is not in their tradition for women to speak in a mosque to the men.
“I felt that it was necessary for them to accept me. I said, ‘I apologize for standing before you as a woman. I respect you and I wish for you to respect me as well.’ ”
Africa, 50, is a Filipino peace activist. She arrived in San Francisco this week to be honored by United Religions Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to ending religiously motivated violence and war.
She was raised Roman Catholic in the Philippines, a country where Muslim-Christian hostilities peaked in the early 1970s during the regime of President Ferdinand Marcos, and continue today. By working in poor communities plagued by crime, drug trafficking and anti-Muslim prejudice, Africa brought Muslims and Christians together, earned the trust of Muslim leaders (imams) and created a model for interfaith cooperation, dialogue and healing.
Founded in 2000 by Rev. William Swing, Episcopal bishop of California, URI is a global network of 400 “cooperation circles” encompassing 120 faith traditions in more than 320 communities in 70 countries. Saturday night at the Westin St. Francis hotel, Africa will be honored by URI during its sixth annual Circles of Light Gala. “Marites has deep roots in her Catholic faith,” says the Rev. Charles Gibbs, URI executive director. “She has an openness to see the divine at work in other faiths. She is a mystical activist whose spiritual depth fuels practical engagement. … She dreams and gets things done.”
Although she comes across as almost prim in her manner, there’s no mistaking Africa’s resolve. When she made the commitment to building an interfaith alliance, “I started by checking out the Yellow Pages and looking under religions. I found some Hindu temples, Buddhists. So I called and asked them to come to a conversation circle. Nobody would come because they didn’t know me.
“Some of them were really nasty. One member of a Christian denomination said, ‘If you’re going to talk about people of different religions, it’s like the work of Satan.’ ”
Africa started making pilgrimages to places of worship throughout metropolitan Manila, a complex of 14 cities with 12 million residents. She met with Jews, Taoists, Sikhs. She organized weekly “inner circles,” where 10 to 20 people met in private homes for interfaith prayers and discussions about building peace.
On Dec. 31, 1999, she organized Peace at the Dawn of 2000, an interfaith gathering of 300 at a Manila park. Building steam, Africa and her cooperation circle were soon participating in political rallies, holding prayers at the sites of bombings and other violence.
“In 2003, we began to reach out to grassroots communities. Not just engaging in dialogue but building relationships. That year we were told there were over 1.5 million Muslims residing in metro Manila. ”
The first community where Africa and her circle concentrated their efforts was Tala, where 20 percent of the families were Muslim. (The Philippines as a whole is 81 percent Roman Catholic, 5 percent Muslim and the remainder various denominations, states the CIA World Factbook.) “We learned that it was the most violent community in the city, the drug-trafficking capital. You’d hear gunshots every day and dead bodies would be found in the river by the mosque or in the plaza.”
At one point, a Muslim member of Africa’s Cooperation Circle was shot and killed. “We thought, ‘Do we back out of this commitment or do we stay?’ And we decided, ‘We are not peacemakers only in times of peace. If we want to be more relevant we must remain here.’ ”
Within a year, she says, the violence and Christian-Muslim tensions started to ease. Today, she and the URI circle are still in Tala, where a Muslim-Christian council holds monthly workshops, oversees a cooperative store and an ambitious micro-enterprise project in partnership with the government.
With funding from the Australian Embassy, Africa took the work she had accomplished in Tala to three other communities in Manila. She also designed a training program to facilitate dialogue between imams and Catholic priests, and established a national imam-priest dialogue forum.
Bob Walter, the Marin president and executive director of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, sees URI’s work as crucial. All over the world, “a lot of folks come up against dogmatism and intolerance and the shadow side, if you will, of religion. And URI provides an antidote. It says, ‘There is fellowship. And it crosses culture and race and gender and religion.’ ”