Category Archives: Social justice

Building a Dream in Haiti

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Since 2010, BGR has been a regular partner and supporter of the What If? Foundation, a US-based organization working in Haiti. Our partnership began with BGR support for the Lamanjay free lunch program, funded by WIF. This program, which continues to this day, provides thousands of free meals to hungry children in the Ti Plas Kazo neighborhood of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince—a substantial daily meal of vegetables, rice, and protein. For many of these children, the meal offered by Lamanjay is their only meal of the day.

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WIF scholarship recipients cracking their books.

Aware that education is the most effective ladder up from poverty, in 2012 WIF started a scholarship program to enable poor children to attend school. They thereby opened doors of opportunity that in the past were tightly shut against children from poor families, who must pay exorbitant fees to enroll their kids in school. Almost from its inception, BGR has partnered on this program, too, and we have supported it consistently over the past three years. Now WIF is in the process of constructing a building to serve as a permanent home for the food and education programs. The building will bring a desperately needed school into this desperate neighborhood.

Yesterday we received a message from Suzanne Alberga, WIF Executive Director, reporting on the progress of the project. Her message is just below. I hope this encourages you, our donors, and gives you some insight into how your donations to BGR, whether large or small, are having a positive and uplifting impact on the lives of these children. Remember that without such help, these curious, capable kids, so eager to learn, would not be able to attend school, and would thus face insurmountable obstacles to a life of dignity and decency. 

Dear “Building The Dream” Supporter,

I am writing to share exciting news about the great progress being made on our “Building The Dream” project. You, as one of the project’s donors, are an important part of making this long-held dream a reality. Thank you for your support and encouragement!

Children of Port-au-Prince watching the construction underway.

Building in Haiti has been a complex process, but after many months of careful planning with our partner Na Rive, architects, engineers, and construction companies, we are in the exciting stage of watching the new building take form. An experienced Port-au-Prince based crew is working hard in the summer heat and the new kitchen-cafeteria-school building is already more than one third complete!

The Na Rive staff and entire community are deeply grateful and excited about all this new building represents.  Not only will it offer a permanent home for the food and education programs we support, but it will also bring a desperately needed school into the neighborhood.

Bulldozers at work on construction site.

I recently visited the construction site and could feel hope and enthusiasm growing with every brick being laid.  So much love and devotion has gone into this project over the years and now it looks like we’re just a few months away from its completion.  To watch the building go up is very moving, very inspiring.  And it wouldn’t have been possible without you.

The project architect, Chuck Newman of Schools for Children of the World, together with the construction manager, estimate that the building will be complete by the end of the year!

And, to prepare for this, we are in the final stretch of raising the resources needed to fully fund this construction project. To date, we have raised more than 90% of the building’s construction costs (about $700,000).  And we have about $50,000 more to go.

To help close this gap, we are planning an Indiegogo on-line fundraising campaign that will take place this fall. We’ll send you a link to the campaign as we get closer so that you can forward it on to anyone you think might be interested in supporting such an important and exciting project.  And, as always, please contact me if you have any suggestions of individuals or organizations we might approach about supporting “Building the Dream”. (info@whatiffoundation.org or 510-528-1100)

On behalf of the What If? Foundation board and staff, our founder Margaret Trost, our partner Na Rive, and all the children of Ti Plas Kazo, Mesi Anpil (thank you so much) for being a part of “Building The Dream”!

With gratitude,

Suzanne Alberga
Executive Director
www.whatiffoundation.org

Food, Dignity, and the Commons: Frances Moore Lappé

Charles W. Elliott

Frances Moore LappeCommon Dreams has published an insightful interview with activist and author Frances Moore Lappé that illuminates the foundations of the struggle for a just global food economy: democracy and human dignity. Ms. Lappé is perhaps best known for her ground-breaking work on global hunger, recognizing that world hunger is not the result of insufficient food supplies but rather our industrial model of food production and the inability of the poor to access the available abundance of food or its means of production. In short, the problem of global hunger is the problem of poverty, the mal-distribution of political and economic power, and inequality. Acting upon this recognition, rather than a myth of scarcity, undermines multinational corporate attempts to more deeply entrench industrialized control over the global food supply.

Lappé argues that a solution to this inequality-driven hunger is the expansion of “living democracy”, exercised individually and collectively by each person’s daily choices of how we live, thus “infusing the power of citizens’ voices and values throughout our public lives.”  Continue reading

Conscientious Compassion—Bhikkhu Bodhi on Climate Change, Social Justice, and Saving the World

Raymond Lam, from Buddhistdoor Global | 2015-08-14

The Buddhist website Buddhistdoor Global recently conducted an interview with me via email. Based on the interview, the editor Raymond Lam wrote an article highlighting my work both on climate change and the mission of Buddhist Global Relief. Here is the article.–BB

VBB at Universalist Church

At the Fourth Universalist Society in the City of New York. onlytheblogknowsbrooklyn.com

American scholar and Theravada monk Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi might not receive the same high-profile press coverage as the Roman Catholic Church’s charismatic standard-bearer Pope Francis, but it is becoming evident to Buddhism watchers and commentators that his message is every bit as bold, eloquent, and sophisticated as the Pope’s. The recent focus on Bhikkhu Bodhi and other courageous Buddhist leaders who are highlighting imminent threats such as climate change or global hunger might well be influenced by a popular resonance with the urgency with which Pope Francis speaks about ecological catastrophe and poverty. Whatever the reasons, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s actions speak loudly for themselves. As the founder and chair of humanitarian organization Buddhist Global Relief (BGR), his activist work centers specifically on the issues of climate change (he is a spiritual ambassador for the interfaith climate change movement Our Voices) and hunger relief.

“When we started BGR, we initially set our mission to help those afflicted with poverty, disaster, and societal neglect. But after a short time we realized that this was too vague and not practical. Even large, well-established humanitarian organizations like CARE and Oxfam have more precisely defined missions. As a tiny Buddhist organization, we could not tackle the whole range of human challenges on this planet without dissipating our energies,” he says.

“I thus drew on my own experience in Sri Lanka and India, where I knew many people were suffering from malnutrition—though this problem is not as acute in Sri Lanka as it is in other countries. I also had read about the extent of global hunger, and it boggled my mind to realize that close to a billion people were suffering from food insecurity and that some six million a year died from hunger and hunger-related illnesses. I learned that it would take only about US$40 billion a year to eliminate global hunger. Yet worldwide, governments pour perhaps a few trillion dollars annually into military budgets, while millions die of hunger. This struck me as a tragedy and pulled at my heart. The Buddha, in the Dhammapada, had said: ‘There is no illness like hunger,’ and he often stressed the merits of providing food to the hungry. Thereby I saw a close fit between traditional Buddhist values and a more precise mission for BGR.”

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s visibility in American public discourse over the past several years, especially as a representative of a “minority” religion in the US, is already impressive. In May this year, he was at George Washington University and the White House to discuss Buddhist civic engagement and the types of policies that Buddhists would like to see implemented. From a long-term perspective, however, Bhikkhu Bodhi doesn’t believe that the small number of Buddhists in the US as a discrete movement can have a significant impact on civic life.

“We are just a few ripples on the surface of the lake. Rather, in my view, our best prospects for giving Buddhist values a role in public affairs would be to join hands with other faith-based organizations that share these values. Rooted in our respective faiths we can present a collective front, advocating for greater social justice, ecological responsibility, a more peaceful foreign policy, and an end to racism and police violence against people of color,” he suggests. “This is especially necessary in the US since fundamentalist Christians have grabbed the moral high ground, advocating an agenda that seems driven more by bigotry and religious dogmatism than by true benevolence and care for the less fortunate.”

Bhikkhu Bodhi. From youtube.com

Class on Majjhima Nikaya. Photo from youtube.com

Many Buddhist leaders as well as voices from other faiths recognize that divided, the religions cannot form a united front on mitigating and transforming many of the selfish and destructive interests that are threatening to exhaust the planet’s resources. “I do not think that we Buddhists on our own can contribute to the fulfillment of a global ethic,” Bhikkhu Bodhi says. “Our best prospects are to join with those of other faiths, and with people of goodwill who have no particular faith commitment but share our humanistic values.”

He continues: “The major threat I see today lies in the ascent of a purely utilitarian worldview driven by a ruthless economic system that rates everything in terms of its monetary value and sees everything as nothing more than a source of financial profit. Thus, under this mode of thinking, the environment turns into a pool of ‘natural resources’ to be extracted and turned into profit-generating goods, and people are exploited for their labor and then disposed of when they are no longer of use,” he warns, echoing many similarly dire warnings from other religious public figures.

“To resist these trends, I believe, we as Buddhists can be most effective by networking with others who regard human dignity and the integrity of the natural world as more precious than monetary wealth. By joining together, a collective voice might emerge that could well set in motion the forces needed to articulate and embody a new paradigm rooted in the intrinsic dignity of the person and the interdependence of all life on Earth. Such collaboration could serve to promote the alternative values that offer sane alternatives to our free-market imperatives of corporatism, exploitation, extraction, consumerism, and toxic economic growth.”

This will be no mean feat, and might be the greatest moral challenge posed to Buddhism and humanity as a whole in our time. To muster the energy to even begin building this united interfaith front, Bhikkhu Bodhi believes that Buddhists in the East and West alike need to nurture stronger humanitarian concern in their hearts. “Western Buddhists—and I think this is probably largely true among educated Buddhists in Asia—take to the Dharma primarily as a path of inward development that bids us look away from the conditions of our societies. If this trend continues, Buddhism will serve as a comfortable home for the intellectual and cultural elite, but risks turning the quest for enlightenment into a private journey that offers only a resigned quietism in the face of the immense suffering which daily afflicts countless human lives.”

He believes there are two primary moral principles involved in this effort. “One is love, which arises from empathy, the ability to feel the happiness and suffering of others as one’s own. When love is directed toward those afflicted with suffering, it manifests as compassion, the sharing of their suffering, coupled with a determination to remove their suffering,” he says. “The other principle that goes along with love is justice. Some of my Buddhist friends have objected to this, saying that justice is a concept foreign to Buddhism. I don’t agree. I think the word Dhamma, in one of its many nuances, can be understood to signify justice, as when the ‘wheel-turning monarch’ is described as dhammiko dhammaraja, which I would render ‘a righteous king of righteousness,’ or ‘a just king of justice.’ In my understanding, justice arises when we recognize that all people possess intrinsic value, that all are endowed with inherent dignity, and therefore should be helped to realize this dignity.”

Bhikkhu Bodhi finally joins the two concepts to form a distinct ethical ideal. “When compassion and justice are unified, we arrive at what I call conscientious compassion. This is compassion, not merely as a beautiful inward feeling of empathy with those suffering, but a compassion that gives birth to a fierce determination to uplift others, to tackle the causes of their suffering, and to establish the social, economic, and political conditions that will enable everyone to flourish and live in harmony.”

He invokes the idea of dependent origination to explain the need to see the interdependence between states of mind (particularly those governed by greed and delusion) and an economic system built on the premise of unlimited growth on a finite planet. If humanity is to avoid a horrific fate, Bhikkhu Bodhi concludes that a double transformation is necessary. First, we must undergo an “inner conversion” away from the quest to satisfy proliferating desires and the constant stimulation of greed or craving. But change is also needed in our institutions and social systems. Bhikkhu Bodhi suggests that people turn away from an economic order based on incessant production and consumption and move toward a steady-state economy managed by people themselves for the benefit of their communities, rather than by corporate executives bent on market dominance and expanding profits.

“At its most radical level, the Dharma teaches that the highest happiness is to be realized through the complete renunciation of craving. But few are capable of such a degree of detachment. To make the message more palatable, we have to stress such values as contentment, simplicity, the appreciation of natural beauty, and fulfillment through meaningful relationships, and the effort to control and master the mind.”

Helping Rural Orphans Attend School in Qinghai Province, China

BGR Staff

Shambala Foundation is an independent, non-governmental, non-religiously affiliated humanitarian organization alleviating poverty in Asia (unrelated to the network of Shambhala meditation centers in the US). The organization is registered in Hong Kong and focuses primarily on China. Shambala’s projects and programs promote education for disadvantaged communities, which makes it an excellent partner with BGR.

Shambala Foundation’s main project is called Orphanage Without Walls, which it took over in 2012 and officially registered in 2013. Shambala supports 650 orphans and their foster families by providing educational opportunities, social support, and basic needs.

In the spring of 2014, BGR entered into a partnership with the Shambala Foundation to provide books, clothes, shoes, and school supplies for rural orphans in Qinghai Province, China. Most of the children are of Tibetan ethnicity. Through this collaboration, Shambala Foundation has been able to provide important materials to students in Qinghai Province to support their education and motivate them to continue schooling.

Shambala worked closely with each child and their guardian or relative to discuss solutions to keep them in school. The project had a strong impact in fulfilling basic needs for winter clothing and shoes, materials to support the children’s studies, and books beyond their school textbooks to promote literacy at home. In total, Shambala provided 100 students with these materials while also giving advice, support, and training in basic literacy skills.

Providing these materials had other impact on parents, relatives, guardians, and neighbors in showing that the child has value, and that education should be taken seriously and supported both materially and emotionally by the family and community.

The following photos show some of the beneficiaries of the project.

Sham-2014-01

Dekar Drolma, best student in her class, receiving clothing and school supplies.

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Sangjyi Drolma, local project manager, explaining how important reading at home is for doing well in school.

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Sangyi Drolma bringing supplies to OWW kids at Sangwa Boarding School after visiting their guardians for training.

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Rinchen Lhamo with her stepmother. Her school is very difficult to reach from where she lives because the roads are unpaved and dangerous.

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Rinchen Lhamo’s mother ran away and her father became a monk. She enjoys studying at a boarding school with her classmates.

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Tsering Lhamo’s father died in 2012. She is very talkative and active when Shambala staff visit her.

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Deqin Yangzam is finishing her last year in middle school.

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Kamo Yag and grandmother after receiving clothes and school supplies.

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Yangzen Drolma and Tsezen Drolma, pictured with their grandfather. They were really happy to see Sangyi Drolma and receive all of the supplies.

All of us at Shambala Foundation and our students
truly thank everyone at Buddhist Global Relief
for your kind support and important work!

Making an Impact in Cambodia

BGR Staff

The following is a letter from Ed Malley, the treasurer of Lotus Outreach International, our partner for educational projects in Cambodia. The letter, addressed to BGR’s ED Kim Behan, was a response to the grant we offered Lotus Outreach for their projects in the coming year (mid-2105 to mid-2016):

Dear Kim and all of Buddhist Global Relief,

Thank you so very much for your generous donation to provide education for the women and girls so in need in Cambodia. It is so wonderful that your funding covers the gamut of our educational initiatives from the Non-Formal Education program where sex workers learn the basics, to GATE where girls can progress through lower and upper grades, to GATEways where a college education becomes a reality for so many who likely never even dreamed of the possibility. Your gift, along with your previous support, will have a dramatic impact on both the lives of each student, but also on her family, her neighbors, her community, and all of Cambodia.

Also, though I suspect you already are well aware, the young women and girls are so heartfelt appreciative. The joy of learning and the determination to help themselves and others through our programs is abundant. And the smiles will melt your heart!

I would also like to mention that your support brings other benefits as well. When I told Glenn Fawcett, our Executive Director of Field Operations, of your continued support this year his excitement was palpable. For Glenn, working for so many years to reach and provide life changing skills through education to the at-risk women in Cambodia, a reaffirmation of his life’s work by organizations such as yours cannot be underestimated.

With warmest wishes,

Ed Malley,
Treasurer
Lotus Outreach International

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Four girls at desks
Two Girls over Book

Glenn with students

A Message to America in the Midst of Our Mourning

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Rev. William Barber, in a stirring sermon on the Charleston killings, reminds us: “We must be concerned not merely with who the murderer is and what makes him tick, but about the system, the way of life, and the philosophy that produced him and produces others.”

Rev. Dr. William Barber II is the president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and the national chair of the NAACP’s Legislative Political Action Committee. Since 1993 he has served as pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, in Goldsboro, NC. Rev. Barber has also been the spiritual leader of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, which organizes weekly Monday demonstrations in the state to protest state policies on such issues as voter suppression, discrimination, and government legislation that hurts poor citizens. In this capacity he has emerged as one of the leading moral voices in America today, a powerful voice of conscience in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr.

This past Sunday, June 21st, Rev. Barber gave a magnificent sermon on the murder of nine members of the Emanual African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the previous Wednesday night. The sermon is truly shattering, a stirring call to the conscience of this nation to confront its dark legacy of racism, violence, and discrimination, a legacy that continues today wrapped up in certain code words that advance racist attitudes without violating the conventions of polite discourse.

The following are a few highlights of the sermon. These are drawn from my personal notes, hurriedly taken down as he speaks. They should not be regarded as an official transcript. You can view the entire sermon here.

There is a history in this country whereby racialized political rhetoric and racialized policies spawn the pathologies of terrorism, murder, and violent resistance. What we are seeing is the transformation of the Southern strategy. You don’t have to use the ‘n’ word anymore. You talk about policy, but the policy is in coded language. You suggest that the real problems in this country are being caused by “them”—the lethal word is “them” or “the folk in urban communities.” You’ve got to be willfully deaf to miss the racism.

Some are saying “We have got to move to healing and closure.” Now is not the time for this. Our society needs the healing of truth and change. The governor (Nikki Haley) said, “We’re going to fight this by giving the killer the death penalty.” Giving the perpetrator the death penalty is not going to fix what needs to be fixed because the killer is still at large. You’re not going to kill racism, violence, and poverty by arresting one disturbed young man and then dumping on him the sins of slavery, Jim Crow, and the new racialized extremism that has captured almost every Southern legislature and court house. It will not bring closure and healing. It will simply bring a cover-up.

[By executing the killer] you can’t heal a society that is sick with the sin of racism and inequality, where too many people perpetrate by word and deed the violence of undermining the promise of equal protection under the law. You can’t just say that this is one insane young man—you’ve got to deal with what drove him insane.

This is not a head wound that can be healed with a few stitches, a bandage, and some salve. The unequal distribution of freedom and money and land and dignity in the South has to be addressed with radical surgery. We need change, not closure. We must remember that the perpetrator has been arrested, but the killer is still at large, the killer is still free. We must be concerned not merely with who the murderer is and what makes him tick, but about the system, the way of life, and the philosophy that produced him and produces others.

Finally, we must understand what happened when the family members [of the victims] said, “We forgive him.” Don’t misinterpret this. Within the nonviolent faith tradition, it has always been clear that hatred cannot drive us to hate, that evil cannot drive us to evil. Their forgiveness is a sign of resistance. It means: “Don’t let the system determine how you are going to act.” When the system says you’ve got to curse, you praise. When the system says you’ve got to hate, you forgive. When the system says you should be angry, you love.

Their forgiveness was a prophetic forgiveness. They’re saying to America: “We’re not going to let you blame all this on that boy. We don’t want the death penalty, because that is only killing the perpetrator, it ain’t killing the killer. If America is serious about this moment, we can’t just cry ceremonial tears, while at the same time refusing to support the martyrs’ fight against racism.”

By refusing to hate him, the families are challenging the schizophrenia of American morality. They are saying: “Are you going to decry the killings, but then support giving people more guns? Are you saying you hate the killer, but then pass healthcare policies that are killing folks? Are you going to wave the Christian flag at the funeral, but keep the Confederate flag up on state buildings? If we can forgive the man who killed our loved ones, America, why can’t you change? If you really want to deal with this, you’ve got to embrace justice, equality, and love, you’ve got to end racism and poverty.”

Climate Change is a Moral Issue

A Buddhist Reflection on the Pope’s Climate Encyclical, Laudato si’

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

On June 18, Pope Francis issued an encyclical letter, Laudato si’ (Praised Be), “On Care for our Common Home,” pointing to climate change as the overriding moral issue of our time. The encyclical boldly proclaims that humanity’s capacity to alter the climate charges us with the gravest moral responsibility we have ever had to bear. Climate change affects everyone. The disruptions to the biosphere occurring today bind all peoples everywhere into a single human family, our fates inseparably intertwined. No one can escape the impact, no matter how remotely they may live from the bustling centers of industry and commerce. The responsibility for preserving the planet falls on everyone.

The future of human life on earth hangs in a delicate balance, and the window for effective action is rapidly closing. Tipping points and feedback loops threaten us as ominously as nuclear warheads. What heightens the danger is our proclivity to apathy and denial. For this reason, we must begin tackling the crisis with an act of truth, by acknowledging that climate change is real and stems from human activity. On this, the science is clear, the consensus among climate scientists almost universal. The time for denial, skepticism, and delay is over.

Our carbon-based economies generate not only mountains of commodities but also heat waves and floods, rising seas and creeping deserts. The climate mirrors the state of our minds, reflecting back to us the choices we make at regional, national, and global levels. These choices, both collective and personal, are inescapably ethical. They are strung out between what is convenient and what is right. They determine who will live and who will die, which communities will flourish and which will perish. Ultimately they determine nothing less than whether human civilization itself will survive or collapse.

Since religions command the loyalty of billions, they must lead the way in the endeavor to combat climate change, using their ethical insights to mobilize their followers. As a nontheistic religion, Buddhism sees our moral commitments as stemming not from the decree of a Creator God but from our obligation to promote the true well-being of ourselves and others. The Buddha traces all immoral conduct to three mental factors, which he calls the three unwholesome roots: greed, hatred, and delusion. Greed propels economies to voraciously consume fossil fuels in order to maximize profits, ravaging the finite resources of the earth and filling its sinks with toxic waste. Hatred underlies not only war and bigotry but also the callous indifference that allows us to consign billions of people to hunger, drought, and devastating floods without batting an eye. Delusion—self-deception and the deliberate deceiving of others—is reinforced by the falsehoods churned out by fossil-fuel interests to block remedial action.

We thus need to curb the influence of greed, hatred, and delusion on the operation of social systems. Policy formation must be motivated not by narrow self-interest but by a magnanimous spirit of generosity, compassion, and wisdom. An economy premised on infinite expansion, geared toward endless production and consumption, has to be replaced by a steady-state economy governed by the principle of sufficiency, which gives priority to contentment, service to others, and inner fulfillment as the measure of the good life.

The moral tide of our age pushes us in two directions. One is to uplift the living standards of the billions mired in poverty, struggling each day to survive. The other is to preserve the integrity and sustaining capacity of the planet. A rapid transition to an economy powered by clean and renewable sources of energy, with transfers of the technology to developing countries, would enable us to accomplish both, to combine social justice with ecological sustainability.

At the very outset, we must start the transition by making highly specific national and global commitments to curb carbon emissions, and we must do so fast. The Conference of the Parties meeting in Paris this December has to show the way. The meeting must culminate in a climate accord that imposes truly rigorous, binding, and enforceable targets for emissions reductions. Pledges and promises alone won’t suffice: enforcement mechanisms are critical. And beyond a strong accord, we’ll need an international endeavor, undertaken with a compelling sense of urgency, to shift the global economy away from fossil fuels to clean sources of energy.

Pope Francis reminds us that climate change poses not only a policy challenge but also a call to the moral conscience. If we continue to burn fossil fuels to empower unbridled economic growth, the biosphere will be destabilized, resulting in unimaginable devastation, the deaths of many millions, failed states, and social chaos. Shifting to clean and renewable energy can reverse this trend, opening pathways to a steady-state economy that uplifts living standards for all. One way leads deeper into a culture of death; the other leads to a new culture of life. As climate change accelerates, the choice before us is becoming starker, and the need to choose wisely grows ever more urgent.

The above essay was originally written for OurVoices, an interfaith initiative bringing faith to the climate talks. It may be viewed in its original site here.