“The transformational value of philanthropy throughout the ages has been in the power of ideas to change the world by making a difference in what you are most passionate about. Giving is the gift of who you are, your time, energy, creativity and vision. You don’t need to give a million dollars to be a philanthropist! You can give of your deepest self. Giving is something anyone can do, regardless of their means. In my work as President of the Russell Berrie Foundation, I have had the privilege of meeting extraordinary heroes and «she-roes» whose generosity fulfills Mother Teresa’s calling to «do small things with great love!». In a world where humans are destroying our planet, causing wars that displace millions of people, committing acts of terrorism in the name of God, people of all faiths are called upon to be a light unto others in the way each of us live our values. As we face humanity’s greatest challenges, philanthropy can be a force for good in addressing issues of poverty, the environment, refugees, and human slavery”. – Angelica Berrie, the President of the Russell Berrie Foundation
An English-American political activist and philosopher, one of the Founding Fathers of the Unites States Thomas Paine once said: «I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy». In this interview with Angelica Berrie, the President of the Russell Berrie Foundation and the real philanthropist of our time, we talk about the important role of the philanthropy and charity, about the mission of interreligious dialogue and education (especially «Russell Berrie Fellowship in Interreligious Studies»), and about the great figure of her husband Russell Berrie, whose whole life was a difficult struggle against injustice… struggle, in which true Love for God, people and the whole world won.
Dear Angelica, I would like to begin our interview with the conversation about great person and your beloved husband, Russell Berrie. Can I ask you to share your Love story with us?
I first met Russ in the Philippines at a meeting with his company.
Russ Berrie & Co. imported impulse gifts and toys from Asia and my papier-mâché company was one of its vendors. On our first meeting, which was to negotiate an order, he pulled out his appointment book and invited me to watch an at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. I said «yes!» and the the rest is history!
What kind of man was your husband? What noble personality traits of your husband inspired you during your family life, your marriage, and continue to inspire now, even after his death, giving you spiritual and moral power to do extremely good things and to overcome injustice?
Russ was a gifted sales entrepreneur who wanted to be known as a «good salesman».
As a young boy, he sold baseball score cards at the old Yankee Stadium. These were used score cards that people threw away after the game. He would erase the scores which were written with pencils at that time, and resell them at 10 cents each, the same price as new scorecards, making a 100% profit!
He started his gift company designing plush animals like teddy bears, which he became famous for. He imported all kinds of impulse gifts which could be anything from ceramic mugs to baby gifts, wedding gifts, Christmas and seasonal gifts, and the world famous RUSS Trolls. RUSS became a global gift brand with a slogan of «Make Someone Happy!».
He brought his own humanity into the way he did business and the way he practiced philanthropy. He cared about people and brought all of who he was as a human being to the way he gave. Russ wanted his giving to reflect his values and passions, making transformational gifts in his entrepreneurial style. He wanted to make a difference in the areas of diabetes, sales education, Jewish life and community, inter-religious understanding and Israel.
In his gift business and in his philanthropy, he cared about touching lives – making one person happy, making a difference in the life of even one human being.
This is the spirit of Russ that we honor with every act of generosity by the «Russell Berrie Foundation».
How can you explain for other people why the philanthropy and also charity work are so important during very difficult days of the 21st century, especially in times of the wars, violence and human indifference? In this context, can you tell about your own experience of the charity work, and also few words about a purpose of the book «A Passion for Giving: Tools and Inspiration for Creating a Charitable Foundation», which you co-authored?
The transformational value of philanthropy throughout the ages has been in the power of ideas to change the world by making a difference in what you are most passionate about.
Giving is the gift of who you are, your time, energy, creativity and vision. You don’t need to give a million dollars to be a philanthropist! You can give of your deepest self. Giving is something anyone can do, regardless of their means.
In my work as President of the Russell Berrie Foundation, I have had the privilege of meeting extraordinary heroes and «she-roes» whose generosity fulfills Mother Teresa’s calling to «do small things with great love!».
In a world where humans are destroying our planet, causing wars that displace millions of people, committing acts of terrorism in the name of God, people of all faiths are called upon to be a light unto others in the way each of us live our values.
As we face humanity’s greatest challenges, philanthropy can be a force for good in addressing issues of poverty, the environment, refugees, and human slavery.
According to your personal point of view, why the Russell Berrie Fellowship in Interreligious Studies is so important in our post-postmodern world? What do you expect from the students and alumni of this Program in the near future?
The need for inter-religious leaders in an increasingly interreligious world led us to create the Pope John Paul II Center for Interreligious Studies at the Angelicum (Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas; Rome, Italy).
Inspired by Pope John Paul’s vision of interreligious dialogue, the «Russell Berrie Foundation» partnered with the Angelicum to invest in the next generation of Catholic leaders. We are planting seeds of hope for the future of the world, with Fellows in over 30 countries who have been trained to become bridges of understanding between faiths.
Of course, interreligious dialogue is very important nowadays, and it can confront and overcome the problem of secularization, but… what, in your opinion, are the biggest barriers to the creation and development of interreligious dialogue?
The first barrier that most people may not even encounter is to encounter the Other.
It is always amazing for me to hear that until they enrolled in this program at the Angelicum, many of our Fellows had never met a Jew. Encountering the Other is the first step in the beginning of any relationship.
Pope John Paul’s personal relationships with his Jewish professors and his best friend in Poland transformed the way he saw the Jews as «our older brothers».
Understanding Judaism in the context of your Catholic faith, encountering all kinds of Jews in Israel and learning about the complexity of coexistence in a shared space that is holy to many different faiths, gives our Fellows a unique perspective that they carry back to their own countries. The most important thing our Fellows learn in this program is that «to be religious is to be interreligious».
How do you think, why the role not only of Church’s clergy, also representatives of high religious elite from all religions, but especially of lay people, young students, is so important in the context of interreligious dialogue?
There are many ways our Fellows can work to increase interreligious understanding. Faith leaders and lay leaders on the ground can connect their communities through shared values around goals like economic development, water, sexual trafficking, human rights, poverty, food security, health issues, humanitarian aid.
In Africa, one interreligious program involves different faith leaders, nuns and lay people working together to distribute mosquito nets to combat malaria.
In the United States, Catholics, Jews and Muslims operate soup kitchens and feeding programs together in their communities. This is the true meaning of leadership, when our Fellows actually begin to out into practice in their own community what they learned in this program!
Of course, this is a paradox, but even today, we have a lot of gender problems all over the world. What is the role of women not only in our program, but in general, in the development of interreligious dialogue?
Women are playing a leading role as a majority of NGO’s around the world are led by women. Women religious are also leading a lot of community programs in Africa especially, partnering with other faith leaders and nonprofits to create change together.
Women are natural bridging leaders and social agents who are on the front lines at every level, on campuses, in villages, in local municipalities, in countries around the world.
Honestly, I can tell, that it’s very difficult to be a woman, lay person, in religious environment. Personally I, as a religious journalist and a representative of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, felt a certain kind of moral discrimination. It’s not something terrible… But it’s not very pleasant when people doubt the mental and spiritual potential of women who work in ecumenical and interreligious areas. How can we resist and deal with this problem, especially by using our Russell Berrie Studies in Interreligious Dialogue?
Women face discrimination in every part of the world. Even the Dalai Lama has shed tears over this issue when it was raised by Tibetan nuns.
Here are some important facts:
In a world where women hold up half the sky, we should be conscious of our collective responsibility toward women who do 2/3rds of the world’s work, receive 10% of the world’s salaries, and own only 1% of the means of production. Helping women and girls create economic empowerment opportunities can unlock enormous potential for global productivity and lead to sustainable economic growth because women are the most effective conduits through which change is possible. Imagine the enormous women can have on the world! We could move the needle to alter these statistics:
- 70% of people living in extreme poverty worldwide are women;
- 2/3rds of the world’s illiterate adults are women;
- only 1% of the world’s women own land;
- one hundred million girls in the developing world will become child brides, increasing the likelihood of a girl dying in childbirth by 5X, increasing the likelihood of her dropping out of school, reducing her chances of employment and perpetuating the cycle of poverty for women.
Here in America, women now control 60% of the private wealth.
Over the next 30-something years, women are expected to inherit 70% of the $ 41 trillion in inter-generational wealth transfers. That’s a lot of philanthropic power!
The power of women giving, alone or together, creates potential for disrupting the status quo in philanthropy as our voices will impact the future of wealth and giving.
My call to action for women who want to disrupt the world is: Let’s tip the balance from poverty to progress by helping other women! You can do this in your work as a Fellow in Rome or back in your own country by choosing a path that empowers other women!
Why is religious education so important for the future leaders in many countries? What are your impressions of cooperation with the Angelicum University in Rome (where Russell Berrie Fellows have their studies)?
Religious education through our program at the Angelicum is a path to leadership within the Catholic world. When our Fellows begin to take on roles of responsibility in their own countries, as many have now done, you will have a network of change agents around the world who share a common vocabulary, shared experiences, a common philosophy and core values from your formation at the Angelicum. Together, this network can learn from each other and leverage your efforts to increase impact together.
You are the first waves of Interreligious Fellows in the world. There has been no other program with a curriculum like this in any other university and you have the unique opportunity to be on the front lines when you graduate from the Angelicum, taking on roles in your community and in your countries that could make a difference.
And my personal question: do you think that religious journalists really can help in creating new type on ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, based on respect and Love?
Religion is on the front pages of the news around the world. Today, because of all that is going on in the world, there is a need for educated journalists who can analyze and interpret the role of religion in terrorism, in global conflicts, in community issues etc.
Check out a few influential women journalists who have made religion their focus:
Krista Tippett, NPR
Laurie Goodstein, NY Times
A lot of the people can and will say, that the creating of interreligious dialogue is something, connected more with the dreams, than with the reality. That it is a work for dreamers, and we can’t expect for the results exactly at this moment. What would you answer to them?
Interreligious dialogue is more urgently needed than ever. We have to do the work that generations before us have neglected, laying the groundwork in childhood education of basic tolerance training, exposing children to different faiths so the next generation will grow up with open and pluralistic mindsets. This cannot happen only in college. There is very little in the way of education that is being done to address this on a systemic level. If all public schools, Catholic schools, and madrassas do this in different countries, it would change the world!
I think that the ecumenical and the interreligious dialogue wouldn’t be possible without the Love which is its heart. I and other members of our Russell Berrie Family are interested in what is your personal definition of the word «Love»?
There are, for example, several quotes about Love, which I want to draw your attention.
«A religious man (or woman) is a person … whose greatest passion is compassion».
Jesus taught: «Love thy neighbor as thyself».
The Golden Rule: «Do unto others as you would have them do unto you…» is echoed in many religious traditions. It is easy to love those who are most like you but we have to learn to love the radical Other, those who are least like us in their basic philosophy and beliefs.
Love begins with a first encounter. When we first encounter the Other, when we see ourselves in their eyes, when fear turns into familiarity, then acceptance, then friendship, love becomes possible.
«When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them». Martin Buber