Journeys of Values, Faith, and Leadership

September 05, 2018

We on the GMF team come to our work from a variety of faith and value traditions, and in the midst of such distinctions, focus well together on our goal of strengthening transatlantic relations. 

In preparation for GMF’s Transatlantic Leadership Seminar on Faith, Leadership and Power, a representative group of GMF staff decided to reflect on the ways traditions that shaped us also inspire our passion and inform our strategies in GMF’s shared work. Sharing such insights on the team strengthens each of us in our roles. This was not a call to surface religion in the workplace, an activity that is legal in the United States, while not in some of our transatlantic partner countries. Rather we consider and appreciate what motivates us in our efforts to lead change. We gained insights about how our traditions, faiths, and values inform us, regardless if we are practicing a religion.

GMF President Dr. Karen Donfried’s values, faith, and traditions inform her approach to GMF’s core work.

“My father is an ordained Lutheran minister, who was a professor of theology at a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts. The church was equally important to my mother and played an important part in the life of my family as I was growing up. My father was engaged in the ecumenical movement, working to develop closer relationships and deeper understanding among Christians of different denominations.

During the Cold War, I remember vividly a family trip to what was then East Germany, visiting my father’s friends, who were Protestant and Catholic theologians. I was struck by the stories I heard from them about the many disadvantages they and their families faced in that Communist society because of their faith. Those insights sparked my interest in studying a divided Germany and the transatlantic relationship. Years later, to then see Communism end, in part because of the mobilization of faith-based civil society in East Germany, and, ultimately, to see Joachim Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor and activist from the East, become president of a united Germany, was nothing short of remarkable.

Watching the Berlin Wall fall, the Soviet Union crumble, and democracy spread across much of Europe marked the start of my professional life. And I still carry with me the memories of those now long-gone East German theologians, Karl Martin Fischer and Heinz Schuermann, from that journey through Erfurt and Leipzig all those decades ago.”

GMF Director of Congressional Relations Reta Jo Lewis also comes from a family connected to the ministry. She further reflects on values forged in the Civil Rights:

“I was born and raised in Statesboro, Georgia in a loving Methodist family where individuals have answered God’s call to serve the church to minister to God’s people. When I was growing up, I was nurtured in the Christian faith and taught the importance of having a spiritual life. It was an experience grounded in prayer and understanding that worshipping together was important to grow spiritually. My parents worked tirelessly in various political, business, and social organizations, and served as the lead litigants in a local lawsuit that successfully saw the public school system ordered to desegregate. It was during the turmoil of the  mid 1960s, when I was one of six African American students who benefited from that lawsuit which integrated our local high school. Then again in the mid-1970s as a black student at a predominantly white University, I witnessed first-hand and participated in numerous meetings, rallies, discussions, debates about whether working together and creating partnerships with families, friends, and like-minded individuals and communities from all races are an important part of inclusion and necessary for social change.

To be truly about social change, I learned early on, we need representation of all voices around the table of leadership. In leadership, it can’t be the values of man but the corporate values we share together. The longevity of our transatlantic values will bring us together on the other side of this difficult time; it is not faith in any one person but the faith that we each have. Organizations like GMF are so essential because just when you think it is settled — the struggle has only begun.”

Reta Jo’s emphasis on service similarly rings clear in the words of Director of Transatlantic Leadership Initiatives Kevin Cottrell:

 “I was born and raised Catholic, and one of my strongest influences comes from a Jesuit education in high school and an equally strong reinforcement of these principles from my family. Around the age of 16, I learned how the Jesuit tradition works toward achieving social justice through scholarship and life-long learning. The idea is that we must constantly grow and develop to refine our pursuit of service and justice. It was also a time when I had my father teaching me this through his own example. Like many of us, these faith and values come at a very formative time in life. In the years that followed into my 20s, I ultimately made the conscious decision that I was not a fit for the theological pursuit as a Jesuit or continued practice in the Catholic Church. Despite making these choices, I never lost the sense of responsibility and joy in service of others. In fact, it has only grown stronger within me over time, offering me an ever-growing sense of hope, optimism, and peace.

These experiences continue to drive and define my career and leadership. One of the principles that most strongly shaped me as the person and leader I am today is the commitment to forming and educating agents of change. This is also part of the Jesuit tradition that focuses on teaching behaviors that reflect critical thought and responsible action on moral and ethical issues. For nearly 30 years now, I go to bed each night knowing this is what I will do in the morning when I rise. Each passing day has made this sentiment stronger and I am even more grateful for having achieved this clarity of my purpose in life.”

The role of change agent is core to the Deputy Director of the Black Sea Trust for Democracy Ana-Maria Aelenei:

“Certain moments shaped who I am today. I saw my grandfather, an agnostic man who was a mayor of a small village during communism, help the people in his community trust each other and work together even long after his retirement. On Christmas Day in 1989 when the communist dictator who ruled my country for almost 50 years was executed,  I stopped dreaming of becoming the president of my country as I thought all leaders end up like that. Volunteering  helped me put into action my calling to help communities and mentor generations of future agents of change. studying the Bible, the Quran, Buddhist texts and the four Purusarthas of Hinduism reinforced a belief I have held since I was a kid: we can break bread and disagree constructively as long as we have in mind the common good and strive to build a good and just society.” 

Such a vision of harmony among religions also shines through in the words of GMF Fellow Adnan Kifayat:

“I grew up with strong role models: my father is a scholar of Islam and my mother is a business woman. Culture is a strong driver in a Pakistani home. I have been able to see women do far more than expected in the traditional, cultural sense. Through my Dad, I have gained an appreciation for history, that is classical history, and I have come to understand the heights achieved by Islamic societies through time. I have grown up with an image of what is possible, and when things around me do not rise to that level, I want to do more to get us there. Seeing the current state of things is almost unacceptable to me, and this gives me drive. For example, a few years ago I took a trip with my parents to Spain and saw the worldly achievements the Caliphate in Spain had achieved hundreds of years ago. That inspired me. You see so much news in the policy world about all the things that are wrong, broken, and needing to be fixed — and then you see what is possible. This is not like going to Mars, this is what has already been achieved, and is in our reach. So, these seeds are planted that make me want to help toward such achievements.”

GMF’s Ankara Office Director Özgür Ünlühisarcikli reflects  as well on inspirations of Islam and inclusivity: :

“I come from a Turkish family with diverse approaches to religion. While I have Muslims, agnostics, and atheists in my immediate family, approaches to religion range from conservatism to radical atheism among my relatives. All of them are my family and equally dear to me. My country is not any different. Modern Turkey is tribalized along the lines of secularism versus conservatism with the social distance between the two increasing by the day. On the contrary, I feel I belong to neither tribe but to Turkey in its entirety. I am a faithful Muslim practicing some aspects of Islam and not others and trying to get closer to Allah in ways that are not part of formal Islamic practice. I believe that Allah’s compassion is endless, and that Allah would be displeased with me if I judged, on His behalf, who deserves more of His compassion.

Ever since I was a child, the diverse environment in terms of faith that I grew up in, and my own complicated relationship to faith have led me to the mission of creating bridges between different worlds to which I belong. I was not aware when I started writing this, and I realize now that this is what I have been trying to do in my work at GMF and that this is why I love what we do.”

The search for unity in diversity is also brought forth in Transatlantic Leadership Initiatives Deputy Director Filip Medic’s description from the Balkans:

“I come from a region with a high degree of religious fluidity. Throughout our history, it has not been uncommon for people to switch from one strand of Christianity to another, or to cross over from Christianity to Islam and vice versa. Similar trends have also occurred with the rise of agnosticism and atheism, especially after the arrival of Communism, whose rise and fall the two have somewhat mimicked. With such diversity, unity has always come from the prioritization of our shared needs as human beings, which originated from faith-inspired Humanism, with its subsequent iterations in Liberalism and Socialism. It was only when such prioritization was shunned, as with the advent of nationalism, that regional diversity produced divisions and strife, triggering widespread economic and societal hardship and decline. The key takeaway of all this historical experience, and my growing up through the violent breakup of former Yugoslavia, is to always look for what unites us rather than divides us as humans; emphasize diversity as a facilitator of progress, rather than its detractor; and highlight its helpfulness in breaking up group thinking and leverage a greater range of alternatives for dealing with contemporary challenges.”

Lessons of past conflicts inform Counselor for Inclusive Leadership Lora Berg’s approach as well:

“My father was one of four in his extended family to survive the Holocaust; he arrived in the United States from Warsaw on the eve of the war. I work with passion to ensure that minorities will be included in political processes and leadership, with the belief that inclusive legislatures and institutions more broadly will in turn strengthen inclusivity in our societies. For me, there is no question that I am motivated directly by human rights concerns and the legacy of World War II. I am attracted to the Jewish idea of “improving the world” and I belong to an open-minded congregation that embraces atheists, agnostics and believers, as well as interfaith couples. Inclusion is a key theme for me, and I am learning all the time.”

Focusing closely on secularism, GMF Paris Program Officer Kristel Ba shares:

“Secularism, one of the great principles of French society, was taught to me from an early age, and provides a foundation for my personal and professional value system. In the family sphere, I was taught by my mother, an atheist who grew up under the communist regime of the Balkans of the 70’s and 80’s under anti-religious propaganda, and by my father, who discovered the precepts of the Quran at Quranic school, and also recognized how faith could be misused. He wanted us to find our own balance regarding faith. My parents always had at heart to give me my freedom of conscience. And my school taught me to develop my convictions.

Secularism offers a commitment to the equality of citizens regardless of conviction and/or belief, yet subject to respect for others and public order, and therefore for the Republic. I see this as a means and not an end in itself, positing the principle of liberty, at the same time for all, and equal for each person. In the service of liberty, secularism includes the freedom of speech, ideas, and debate.

This sprit also guides my work at the GMF. We aim for each member of our organization — and outside — to have the opportunity to express themselves freely — in a safe space — with the goal of facilitating dialogue, creation, collaboration, and learning. At GMF we work every day for inclusion, and to strengthen relations between Europe, the United States, Asia, and Africa. We do this in part by ensuring respect for others as a core value.”

We at GMF have so enjoyed learning about this aspect of one other’s approaches to leadership on our diverse team. If this topic inspires you, consider signing up for the Transatlantic Leadership Seminar of Faith, Leadership, and Power and please feel welcome to share your own reflection here.

GMF Leadership Programs Team