TOKYO — This weekend's G20 Interfaith Forum began with a humbling question: Will the work being done here even matter?
Assembled religious leaders, scholars and policy experts can work together to bring religious values to bear on global challenges. But they can't guarantee world leaders will listen.
"Sometimes (politicians) are just not interested in the religious aspects" of their work, said Enda Kenny, the former prime minister of Ireland, during the forum's opening panel.
Instead, policymakers are focused on practical problems, like economic stagnation. They think in terms of costs and feasibility, not spiritual health.
Religious actors must be aware of that as they work to influence secular policies, said W. Cole Durham Jr., founding director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University and chairman of the G20 Interfaith Forum.
"Too often, important religious insights and recommendations fail to gain traction because they are not put in ways that are persuasive to busy government officials and policymakers," he said.
This year's G20 Interfaith Forum participants hope to avoid that mistake.
"We have to move from general talk about values … into practical cooperation where we show that religion is not the main part of the problem — only in some cases it is — but it is also part of the solution,” said the Rev. Gunnar Stalsett, Lutheran bishop emeritus of Oslo.
Over the next three days, around 2,000 faith leaders, scholars, humanitarian activists and policy experts will work together to envision a better world. They'll outline steps that must be taken and programs that must be launched to address issues like poverty, human trafficking, climate change and war. Among those participating are leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Elder Gerrit W. Gong, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and Sister Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the general presidency of the Relief Society.
Then, they'll attempt to pass on what's said to some of the world's most influential political leaders, who gather later this month in Osaka at the G20 Summit.
People suffer when politicians overlook the moral dimensions of their work, the Rev. Stalsett said.
"If national self-interest dictates policy, the common good fails," he said.
Although the G20 Interfaith Forum has existed in its current form for six years, its leaders are still figuring out how to maximize its impact. Each year brings new challenges, since the secular G20 Summit changes location and organizers each year.
"It's difficult to be part of that structure, because the structure itself doesn’t exist," said Alvaro Albacete, deputy secretary general of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, or KAICIID.
However, the forum is starting to gain some traction, organizers said. Last year in Argentina, several of the country's officials, including the vice president, took part and shared their support.
Last year's meeting raised the profile of concerns such as human trafficking among secular leaders, said Juan Navarro Floria, member of the forum's organizing committee and law professor at Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina.
"Because of the work of the G20 Interfaith Forum, the issue of human trafficking was included in the final commitments of the G20 Summit," he said.
This year's forum, which is titled "Peace, People, Planet: Pathways Forward," includes several high-profile politicians such as Kelly and David Cameron, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom.
Additionally, Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, offered a greeting to forum participants in the printed forum program.
"It is of great interest and encouragement that this forum is being held ahead of the forthcoming G20 later this June," he wrote.
Kenny noted the letter during his remarks, explaining that the G20 Interfaith Forum must work hard to ensure its message is heard outside of religious and academic circles.
"From a political perspective, it won’t happen unless you make it happen," he said.
However, even if this year's interfaith gathering still doesn't merit mention at the G20 Summit, it will still have value, organizers said. The forum facilitates new partnerships between groups that are on the front lines of solving the world's problems.
"Which are the structures on the ground? Those are the religious communities," the Rev. Stalsett said.
Topics up for discussion include corruption, violence, the global refugee crisis, health care and climate change. Speakers will share their own expertise and then give participants the opportunity to highlight lesser-known programs or propose new solutions.
"We have a rich diet, a rich menu for us," said Katherine Marshall, executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.
The forum will also address the relationship between faith groups and government leaders more broadly, exploring what needs to be done to ensure that political decisions are moral as well as effective.
Too often, global leaders purposely steer clear of religious wisdom, Marshall said.
"It's something that we call religious illiteracy. (Within some governments) there's difficulty in knowing exactly how to start thinking about relationships with religions," she said.
Even when government officials aren't paying attention, faith leaders have a responsibility to speak up on behalf of vulnerable communities and criticize problematic policies, the Rev. Stalsett said.7 comments on this story
"Because they bind together the lives of past, present and future generations, religious narratives have the power … to challenge the present order of things," he said.
In the midst of many political challenges, religious actors can do the hard work of convincing people that a better world is possible, Durham said.
"As we reflect in this forum on how religious voices and religious actors can contribute to progress with respect to peace, people and planet, we can help to underscore one of religion’s deepest resources: its continuing reaffirmation of hope for a better world," he said.