For the Jewish people, it is Jerusalem. For Muslims, it is Mecca. For Catholics, it is Vatican City. For non-Catholic Christians, it is Bethlehem. For Buddhists, it is Bodh Gaya. For Hindus, it is Varanasi. For Tibetan Buddhists, it is Llasa. For Sikhs, it is Amritsar. And on and on. It seems that every religion has its "Holy City" -- a place that holds special significance to that particular faith, belief system, or movement.
These wonderful cities provide a spiritual connection to the past and a place where individuals can go to feel closer to something beyond their limited physical existence. They offer a location where people can come together with others of like-mind to worship, pray, meditate, and become better human beings by recommitting to radical teachings of how to better treat each other and thus eventually truly become One.
I would like to add the town of Copán Ruinas, Honduras to the list of holy cities. Strange, you might think. "What religion has a unique connection to Copán?" My answer is... "None, if you only think of religion in terms of specific traditions and hierarchical structures designed to pay homage to a deity or deities."
I think that all too often religions get way too caught up in their operational aspects. In other words, those things that allow them to thrive as unique entities and remain separate from each other. Most religions have their own set of rules, regulations, and guidelines by which their members are encouraged to abide in order to be deemed members in good standing.
This emphasis is unfortunate, in my view, because it misses the point of what those special individuals who inspired the founding of the world's great religions were trying to make. It is the messages of these spiritual masters that were central to their lives. The religions that subsequently sprang up evolved from these new ways of thinking, speaking, feeling, and acting. Over time, they were influenced by various cultures, events, and agendas, which led to different translations and interpretations of the teachings, divisions within the religions and further divisions, hierarchies and sub-hierarchies, and rules and more rules.
For me, religion represents two things. First, it represents following the spiritual teachings of someone in whom you trust and believe. These teachings should provide the path toward enlightenment and unity with each other and with the Beating Heart and Mind of Creation. Secondly, it represents following these teachings within a community. We humans tend to be happier within communities, and we certainly can accomplish so much more working together.
If you allow me to simplify "religion" on my terms, then it is not such a far stretch to conceive of Copán Ruinas as sacred ground.
For the past 11 years, Copán Ruinas has served as the site of an annual pilgrimage by people from all walks of life, various faiths, and different countries. The purpose of the pilgrimage has been to come together as a community to find ways to become more enlightened and learn how to work as One. The ultimate aim has been to better support the poor and underprivileged within Honduran society by empowering them through education, healthcare, and a variety of community building projects. And to do so in a positive spirit of compassion, harmony, and joy.
This annual pilgrimage has brought people face to face with others who enjoy giving of themselves to others in need. I sense that these individuals do this for no other reason other than that is what they feel compelled to do, rather than for any promise or expectation of rewards. Somewhere along the line, they have discovered the truth that it is by "emptying oneself" selflessly to others that we become One in the spirit and gradually start to transform the world for the better, starting of course with a little piece of it known as Honduras.
It is no small feat for 150-200 people from diverse backgrounds to meet each year for three days and three nights and then leave with renewed energy, confidence, goodwill, and new contacts to continue their work in partnership with the people of Honduras. That is exactly what the Sustainable Honduras Conference has accomplished during three conferences in Washington, DC and 11 in Copán Ruinas.
Copán is extremely well suited for this particular kind of gathering. Its proud but humble people, its central park, its coffee shops, its colorful restaurants and hotels, its cobblestone streets, its marketplaces, its river and green mountains exude charm, warmth, something mystical. The place is accessible spiritually. It has the effect of bonding those who visit it, and that is precisely what we seek. It is that effect that, to me, provides meaning to the concept of a Holy City.
People have asked me each year to send them a report of the results, conclusions, recommendations, and expectations of the conference. When I say to them that there will be no such report, they look puzzled.
The results of the conference lie in the benefits of the relationships that develop from the event. The conclusions are that focusing on education, healthcare, and community building are the right strategy for empowering the people of Honduras and changing the country for the better over the long-term. The recommendations are that those who are helping Honduras should continue to do so consistently, selflessly, wisely, creatively, and with a positive attitude... and that they should find ways to do so in a more coordinated manner, in partnerships -- actively and enthusiastically sharing information so as to take advantage of each other's strengths and minimize each other's weaknesses. Hmm, "sharing". What a novel concept.
The expectations are that within one or two generations Honduras will be transformed into a model for other developing countries to emulate. In the final analysis, isn't religion really all about transformation?
This year's conference in Copán will take place on September 24-26.