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An Illuminating Mission

The Fetzer Institute is working toward a more loving world
Encore-Magazine-Fetzer-Institute-building-December-2016
The Fetzer Institute’s building glows on an autumn night. Photo by Brian Powers

John Fetzer wanted to build a better world and set the foundation for it by establishing The Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo in 1954.

The broadcast media executive was devoted to unconditional love, which he said “is the unifying energy field that mobilizes the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual resources in the caring and sharing with one another.”

Fetzer’s vision of utilizing what he saw as the high-vibrational energy of unconditional love to help build a more spiritual, more loving world is the cornerstone of the work of the Fetzer Institute. Based on what the institute’s leaders and staff have learned by bringing together futuristic thinkers for meaningful dialogue, the institute has implemented and funded a number of programs that focus on “mind-body-spirit connection,” “love and forgiveness,” and integration of one’s “inner life of mind and spirit” with one’s “outer life of action and service.”

Admittedly, such philosophical and even esoteric paradigms can be a challenge to implement in a world in which many business, political and social models still adhere to a Darwinistic dog-eat-dog mindset, but the institute is undaunted in its mission.

Bob Boisture, CEO and president of the Fetzer Institute, notes that today’s global physical world includes advanced technological resources that “could enable every person on the planet to live in dignity, sufficiency and security.” However, fueled by racial conflicts, religious phobia and polarization in the democratic process, “we also have the power to destroy ourselves and the planet in multiple ways,” he adds. “Our future is in our hands, but it is much more in our hearts. We need to be courageous in affirming that the only adequate answer is love.”

A former attorney in Washington, D.C., specializing in assistance to nonprofits, Boisture was an advisor to the Fetzer board from 1993 to 2011, when he officially became a member of the board. He stepped into the top leadership position in March 2013.

Since he has taken the helm, Boisture says, the institute has striven “to talk more about our spiritual identity and to live more deeply from our core.” The Fetzer paradigm holds that the path to a loving world begins with individuals opening their hearts in love.

The Fetzer Institute has worked toward that loving world by initiating dialogue among visionaries throughout the world. Its programs, mostly based in the U.S., touch the local community but also extend their reach globally.

Fetzer Institute’s Guiding Purpose
“To awaken into and serve Spirit for the transformation of self and society, based on the principles of wholeness of reality, freedom of spirit, and unconditional love, and the integration of the inner life of mind and spirit with the outer life of action and service.”

For example, in 2014, building on several years of work, the institute brought together an international group of visionary health-care leaders and practitioners that coalesced into the Global Network for Spirituality and Health. This network successfully advocated for the World Health Organization to officially recognize the importance of ministering to the spiritual as well as physical needs of medical patients.

This recognition led to an initiative to create training that would enable health-care providers to meet these new standards of comprehensive, compassionate care. As part of its commitment to this endeavor, the institute is exploring the potential for bringing such education into the curricula of the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker School of Medicine.

Another institute program, the Wellbeing Project, focuses on helping social activists who work for the public good to avoid burnout. Contrary to popular belief, social activists are not superheroes capable of bucking the status quo year after year without wearing out. The project helps them find and nurture a deeper sense of well-being within themselves and connect more meaningfully with their community of peers.

“Social transformation doesn’t happen in a laboratory; it happens in the world,” says Linda Grdina, Fetzer’s program officer for this project. “Informed by current research, the Wellbeing Project provides an opportunity to learn how inner development can be cultivated and sustained to generate positive action at the individual, organizational and sector levels.”

The Fetzer Institute’s most recent initiative focuses on healing American democracy. “How can we listen in a way that helps us find common ground essential for cooperative action?” Boisture asks. The answers involve “the hard spiritual work of democracy,” he says. The institute’s contribution “is to bring people together in a space that allows us to listen deeply.” (See sideba at right)

Other institute programs, past and upcoming, involve helping teachers deal with professional burnout, encouraging the spiritual development of children and youth, and supporting personal spiritual practices through Web-based resources.

“Some programs may focus more explicitly on work with individuals while others may focus on group or community, but ultimately we aspire to foster the understanding that these are inextricably linked, that the well-being of any one of us depends on each of us and all of us together,” says Deborah Higgins, an institute vice president who oversees programs.

Choosing to walk its talk, the entire institute community, from top executives to hourly employees, participates in a three-hour meeting each week to engage with the ideas and practices behind its mission and programs. The topics discussed center on respect, compassion and love in the workplace; support for individual spiritual paths; and exploration of contemplative practices.

“Our workplace is a microcosm of what we encounter beyond our walls,” Boisture says. “With employees who practice diverse faiths — Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, modern alternatives and indigenous traditions — the challenge both at work and in our programs is to find a common spiritual ground.”

From this challenge came a common-ground statement: “We are drawn into community by our shared experience that there is more to reality than the physical realm, and that this ‘Something More’ binds us to each other and to all that exists in a deeply interconnected, meaningful and sacred way, and calls us to a life of love.”

The Fetzer staff has internalized this statement in many ways.

Administrative assistant Kim Hillebrand notes that living the Fetzer paradigm involves a change in perspective. “Two years ago,” she says, “we were all looking around at each other trying to figure out how we could create a healthy and vibrant community. Over time we came to see that what we want starts within ourselves, as individuals, in our minds and in our hearts.”

“The basis for everything we do here is love,” says Mary Marshall, special projects assistant. “We care for each other. We care for ourselves. When we do that as a community, we can take it out into the world.”

For some, personal development within the organization has carried forward to family life. “I’ve never been in a work environment where we talked intentionally about parenting and the spiritual development of children (so) they might flourish and explore their potential and passions,” says Interim Program Director Mohammed Mohammed.

The Fetzer Institute’s overall “theory of change” requires that the institute keep spirit (aka God, love) at the center of its work and, among other strategies, leverage a movement-building model and contribute to a “new narrative.” This fresh worldview “combines a scientific understanding of physical reality with a deep spiritual understanding of the sacred reality within and beyond physical reality,” Boisture says.

“We are encouraged that there is a movement emerging and that many individuals and organizations are working from a deeply spiritual place to contribute to the greater good. Across cultures and wisdom traditions, there are many spiritually grounded efforts focusing on social, economic and environmental issues. Our strategy is really about how we do our part, small but mighty, to help us all see each other and to accelerate the growth and strength of this comprehensive, spiritually grounded movement for societal transformation.

“We also invite people to go into a sacred space … (and) listen to … the voice or presence that calls them to a sacred sense of oneness with that presence, with each other and with the natural world, to live from that place of oneness rather than a place of ego.”

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Healing Democracy
Institute investigates how to heal the heart of the American democracy

In October, a month before this nation’s very contentious presidential election, the Fetzer Institute hosted a gathering of 15 internationally known experts, writers and speakers to address the issues and challenges of how to heal democracy in America.

The purpose of the discussion was to identify and name the spiritual and moral underpinnings necessary for a healthy democracy and to develop an understanding of the principles that would guide this work toward a more functional American democracy.

The participants represented the fields of institutional advancement, international relations, interreligious engagement, spirituality, social change, philanthropy, inclusion and diversity, youth and family programs, mindfulness, gender justice, organizational strategy, mediation, negotiation and political compromise.

The participants considered their commitment to the integration of the inner life with outer work, the importance of holding a bold vision and decentralized approach, and the essential need to work with many others and be inclusive and open to all perspectives and voices. Some offered their interpretations of a healthy democracy:

• “Democracy is leading with mercy in relationships and everyday actions. I connect with you to learn from you. I am better because I know you,” said Usra Ghazi, a foreign affairs officer at the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs who also works in the nonprofit sector on interreligious development.

• “The practices of healthy democracy are love, forgiveness and knowing one’s self — you are good, you belong, you are no better than anyone else,” said Patricia Moore Harbour, an author and expert on leadership and innovation in public education.

• “Democracy is about how you raise your kids, how you treat your partner, how you make your household decisions,” said Kavita Ramdas, senior advisor to the president of the Ford Foundation and an advocate of equitable development, gender and racial justice, and social change philanthropy.

• “Democracy is not ‘we won,’ but ‘we’re one.’ Let’s unleash the truth of our human nature, which is goodness, and move from doubt to possibility to probability to inevitability,” said the Rev. Deborah Johnson, founder of a large omnifaith spiritual community.

Currently, the Fetzer Institute’s program team is synthesizing and integrating the ideas from this discussion into an overall plan that will involve more discussions and actions by both internal program personnel and external experts.

According to the program’s mission, the institute hopes these efforts over the next four years will bring citizens and governmental leaders at all levels to realize that “to heal our democracy we must recognize the sacred dignity and worth of every person; bring to civic life a wholehearted commitment to the greater good; admit that we, too, are fallible and must be open to having our minds changed by those with whom we disagree; recognize that, in a democracy, principled compromise is a virtue, not a vice; and see that we are all in this together and that, in the long run, none of us can prosper unless all of us prosper.”