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Pastor visits six nations on interfaith peace mission

Paul Ashby, pastor of Richmond Beach Congregational UCC in Shoreline, returned in March from a “Peace, Respect, and Love in Action” Mission visiting six nations in Asia.

Paul Ashby on the steps of a Hindu temple in Sri Lanka.  Photo courtesy of Pam Ashby

Last spring, he was one of more than 700 people applying for a Lilly Endowment Sabbatical Grant.  He learned in late September that he was awarded a fully funded grant of $46,533, that included funds for his wife, Pam, to travel with him. 

His travel, completed the end of March, was to do interfaith peacemaking in Asian nations where televangelists and missionaries have spread a message of rejection and judgment against other faiths.  He went to share in dialogue about the compassion of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Paul based the dialogues on the theme, “Peace, Respect, and Love in Action,” which has been central to Richmond Beach UCC’s ministry.

His inspiration is from the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, a pioneer of interfaith dialogues, who provides a method based on sharing common ethical values, speaking respectfully about differences, and reflecting on ways different faiths open the human heart and consciousness to compassion, mercy, service to the poor, and forgiveness, said Paul.

He held public interfaith dialogues with Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and Daoist religious leaders. 

The mission took the Ashbys to Penang, Malaysia; Kandy, Sri Lanka; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Hanoi, Vietnam; Chang Mai, Thailand, and Taipei, Taiwan. They met people for dialogue and visited many temples, mosques, cathedrals and synagogues. 

Paul chose Malaysia because it is a tolerant, inclusive Muslim majority country where there is harmony and respect among the Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian groups.

“Malaysia is a country that practices freedom of religion and breaks stereotypes of Muslim countries with Sharia law,” he said.  “We held a dialogue at a Buddhist temple across from a Hindu temple up the street, named Harmony St., from a mosque in Georgetown.”

Many emails went into the arrangements, and discussion of what topics to consider.  The topics were karma and ethics, ways to meditate, and how they live together in peace.

It contrasted to Sri Lanka, where he met with Hindu and Buddhist leaders who had engaged in acts of terror during a 26-year civil war that bombed sacred sites.

“I asked what the nature of the war was, why they fought and what they hoped to gain,” Paul said.  “I explored the impact of the disharmony on the culture and people.  Many felt shame about it and did not want to talk about it.  Visiting the Temple of Buddha’s Tooth, I asked about it having been bombed by Hindu nationalists.”

The war seemed futile to Paul because Hindus wanted a separate nation within Sri Lanka, when a ferry ride away is a Hindu nation, India.  He noted that part of nationalism is the belief that every religion has the right to its own nation.

“In Cambodia, I saw the aftermath of the Pol Pot dictatorship from 1975 to 1979, that killed 2 million of the 7 million people to try to kill all forms of religion,” he said.  “I found temples revived and religion back.  People talked of the suffering, pain and horror, but out of it were gentle.  They were the most grace-filled people I met.”

He went to Vietnam to see what happened to religion after communist talk of religion being the opiate of people.

“I found religious groups flourishing, including Caodai, a form of Daoism which has a big blue eye as its symbol,” Paul said.  “The Catholic Church was also doing well in the North, as well as the South.  We visited many cathedrals and saw young people attending.”

The Buddhist leader, Thich Nhat Hanh, who had fled, returned for his final days.

“I also saw there the wasteful damage and uselessness of war to spread capitalism and democracy,” Paul said. “While communists had won, I saw capitalism doing well there.”

In Thailand, he and Pam saw many of the Buddhist temples in Bangkok and Changmai. In one historic district, there were 37 Buddhist temples in an area of 20 by 10 blocks.  There were also Catholic churches, a Hindu temple and two Muslim mosques.

There he had dialogue about the nature of compassion and whether its practice interferes with another person’s karma.  A Buddhist monk said someone’s compassion would be part of a person’s karma.

While most spoke English, in Taiwan, few did, so he had to have translation when asking at a Daoist temple about the role of luck and the role of grace.

“Before I went, previous travels convinced me that good travel makes for good religion,” Paul said.  “It teaches us to tolerate and appreciate others, to see people of different faiths and practices.

“Travel helps us see a wider picture of the world.  If we see a wider picture of the world, we see a wider picture of God,” he said, “making it hard to be judgmental.”

Paul had gone to Europe to study in France during college.  He also went to Europe during seminary, 10 years and 25 years into ministry.

The grant follows decades of interfaith outreach and peacemaking for Paul.  He received an award for helping Tibetan Buddhist refugees, and the Oklahomans for Equality “Spiritual Inclusion” award for leadership in creating understanding among faiths.  He did postdoctoral study on Asian religions at Harvard University. 

Paul is vice president of Seattle Soto Zen, has had sermons published in a Hindu journal and was given a lifetime member of the Vedanta Society of Western Washington for his interfaith peace work in Seattle. 

Paul believes that “God is greater than any one theology or anyone’s imagination.”

For information, call (206) 542-7477 or visit


PNC-UCC News - copyright © April-May 2019


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