The Fletcher Initiative on Religion, Law & Diplomacy (FletcherRLD), a student-run organization at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, hosted its fall conference, entitled “Approaching Religious Literacy in International Affairs,” on Nov. 3.
The conference was framed around the question, “How do you train a diplomat, a businesswoman, or a soldier to be an effective & transformational leader in a religiously pluralistic world?” with a goal to introduce graduate students and the Fletcher community to the importance of religious literacy, according to its website.
Clare Gooding, a second-year master of international business student and co-chair of FletcherRLD, elaborated on the conference’s purpose.
“Religious literacy is a core component to working effectively and respectfully in today’s world,” Gooding told the Daily in an email. “FletcherRLD wanted to bring speakers who could begin to break open the intersection of religion with the core disciplines of Fletcher students: International Business, Security Operations, Humanitarian Response & Conflict Resolution.”
James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School, opened the conference, followed by an introduction to religious literacy from Diane Moore, founding director of the Religious Literacy Project at the Harvard Divinity School.
The conference included three panels discussing the relationship of religious literacy to security operations, international business and conflict resolutions, using case studies of the Balkans, global business operations and modern Yemen, respectively. The panelists included professors from the Fletcher School, other universities and representatives from non-governmental organizations.
Preceding his keynote address, CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Sean Callahan (F ’88) was awarded the Dean’s Medal by Stavridis. Stavridis said that this award is given once or twice per year, and fewer than 40 have been awarded to date.
Stavridis commended Callahan for his work with CRS, an interreligious organization that aids with education and medical relief globally.
“For those of you who are not acquainted with CRS, it is global, its budget approaches a billion dollars a year, it raises funds around the world and redistributes them with low overhead, high integrity, and the sharpest sense of geopolitics, strategy and need,” Stavridis said.
After accepting the Dean’s Medal, Callahan began his keynote speech by identifying two integral parts of international work: trust and values.
“You don’t engage in businesses and you don’t do a lot of investment unless you can trust that individual,” he said.
He followed this up with an explanation of why it is crucial that religion be taken into account. Callahan described the immense reach and power that religion could have if properly understood.
Callahan expressed his amazement at the power of religion to unite. He cited Mecca as a prime example of the ability of religion to bring people together.
“If we’re trying to change the world, why wouldn’t we harness [religion]?” Callahan said.
Callahan explained that CRS deliberately does not conduct short-term interfaith “projects.” Instead, the organization’s entire workforce revolves around the idea of interreligious work. At CRS, staff members of all religions work side by side on a daily basis, and Callahan sees this as the most effective method of creating understanding and appreciation between people of different religions.
Callahan identified education for young people as one of the most crucial tasks for CRS. He described his experiences of seeing how eager students are to learn and the lengths that villages will go to educate their children.
Callahan emphasized the impact that CRS can have, noting that when the Ebola virus hit Guinea, the government knew it had mishandled the situation and turned to CRS for help. In an effort to prevent the virus from spreading to loved ones who wanted to care for the bodies of their deceased, CRS created a team to conduct safe and dignified burials for people who died from the virus.
“We [in the religious community] take credit for stopping Ebola,” he said. “We can get rid of polio.”
The next step is distributing mosquito nets all over West Africa to fight the spread of malaria. Callahan was optimistic about the possibility of eradicating malaria through these means.
“We can allow these children to grow up fully productive individuals, so they can work in businesses and jobs, they can move to the next level and they can be productive citizens,” he said.
Callahan ended his speech by reiterating the idea that religion is an integral part of everyday life and that to aid any country, we need to first understand its religious practices and beliefs.
“When we’re on this long road together, let us make sure that we understand people — that we’re not asking who they are, but we’re respecting who they are,” he said.