Part I: Rudi’s Book on World Religions
In September 2006, I unexpectedly found myself in a job hunt. It seemed the perfect time to begin the transition from senior management in the nonprofit arena to work in the writing world. A posting for editor at my seminary led me to retired Unitarian Universalism (UU) minister, Rudolf Czuczka Gelsey (1926-2018). I had no idea we were headed for an 8 year run together. No regrets!
Rudi was a dynamic and charismatic man. As described at this memorial service on June 7, 2018, he often felt larger than life. No matter what churned around him, he never remained on the sidelines. Deeply affected by WWII and barely ahead of the Nazi invasions, he and his family (affluent Jewish background) fled Vienna, Austria to Croatia and then Switzerland. Consequently, Rudi stood up for justice at every turn.
Many different sources chronicle aspects of Rudi’s journey.* He honored me in the last decade of his life as we worked together on two of his books and with the organization he founded to bring his ideas on world peace to life.
Prelude to the Book on World Religions
Rudi wrote and published his first book years before we met, Imagine … a New Bible. At
age 56 (one year younger than me right now!) in 1982, spurred by mounting frustration with the Old Testament and the many stories filled with violence, he decided to produce creative, nonviolent versions of many popular stories from that sacred text. As he explained:
[T]he Bible reflects the insights and social customs of other millennia in distant lands. If the Bible were written today, chances are Biblical authors would take different directions. Even in those faraway days, the Bible was not uniform in its outlook and had two creation stories in the Book of Genesis. If there was room for alternate understandings back then, why not a new version based on more advanced knowledge available nowadays (p. 14)?
The year 2000 turned out to be a significant time for Rudi. He’d recently retired from the Unitarian Universalist ministry. That summer, he experienced a tipping point when attending an interfaith retreat in the high mountains of New Mexico. At its end, on the basis of what he had shared, the leader commissioned him to become, henceforth, a servant to the people of the planet. In 2003, he faced two life-changing events. Trudi, his wife of 41 years and mother of his two sons passed away from cancer, and he became blind. Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller’s book, From Ageing to Sage-ing, inspired him to choose a meaningful aging process. For him, these events added up to a new beginning. He poured his expansive interest in other religions and his long history of social activism into this second book.
In order to better understand his content, Rudi did participatory field work. He traveled to Japan, South Korea, India, Israel, Egypt (with Jean Houston), and Morocco to discern how different world religions were practiced, past and present. He became active in interfaith associations and relations, presenting “A Faith for the Global Village: a Dialogue among Religions in Search of Mutual Appreciation,” at the 1993 Chicago Parliament of World Religions. He also attended the 2004 Parliament of World Religions conference in Barcelona. In a world traumatized by religious fanaticism and terrorism, he advocated for mutual understanding and cooperation in race, religion, and international affairs, offering a vision of spiritual oneness and harmony.
In addition, he already had a deep understanding and personal experience of other spiritualties and religions such as Sufism. In 1984, he was initiated into the Sufi Order of the West (now, The Inayati Order). He was given the Sufi name Jelal’uddin meaning “the power of faith.” In Colorado, Rudi underwent initiation into Buddhism by ThichNhatHanh, a world-renowned monk from Vietnam with popular teaching centers in France and the United States. His Buddhist name was Joyful Bodhisattva of the Heart. For over a decade, Rudi led Sufi dances, also known as Dances of Universal Peace and often described as prayer in movement. Those deep-seated, heart connections to Sufism and Buddhism spoke deeply to him. He especially felt tremendous pride and honor to have been given personalized Sufi and Buddhist names.
Rudi’s Fascinating Book Exploring the Role of Religions in World Peace
Building upon the success of Rudi’s first book, as an octogenarian in retirement, he set about bringing a different subject to life in an equally creative way: presenting world religions through annual summit meetings between Isis of Ancient Egypt, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, and Shiva (Hinduism). He desired for his audiences and the adherents of these religions to better understand each other as well as for the world to positively benefit from the age-old wisdom in these traditions. I feel in love with his ideas plus was continually fascinated by Rudi’s depth and breadth of spirituality and social activism.
When he hired me in Fall 2006, he desired to revise his first manuscript, Conversations with Sacred Masters: Bringing the World Together (copyright, 2004). Convicted and convinced of the positive good in the world’s great religions, he wanted to present a story of the leaders and adherents working together to bring peace to earth. At this point, as mentioned, Rudi was blind. As such, he had a difficult time maneuvering the computer on his own. In addition to serving as his editor and researcher, he dictated new text to me as the words and ideas came to him. They did more than that, they flowed out of him. In our time apart, that smart brain of his continually thought and analyzed. He also kept abreast of current events, constantly feeding his mind with new ideas listening to the news and recorded books. He kept his spirituality alive with prayer, meditation, and church attendance (in the Denver area, first Columbine UU, then Jefferson Unitarian Church, and, finally, First Unitarian Society of Denver with his partner, Desiree). At the start of our sessions, he impatiently waited for me to settle in so we could get down to business.
In Conversations, leaders of six great world religions meet annually to discuss religion and to find ways for the world to work together for justice and peace. Rudi’s creativity to present the history of the world religion’s in this manner fascinated and fascinates me. He presented the majority of the book in a Socratic dialogue between the six leaders. Rudi described his work in the book’s Preface:
My work offers a unique approach. In seeking to connect with the hearts and minds of different prophets and spiritual masters, I give voice to the primary representatives of six great religions. The characters have the opportunity to address humanity with the benefit of hindsight and awareness of current conflicts among religions and nations. [Isis, Moses, Jesus, Muhhamad, Buddha, and Shiva] convene in contemporary at consecutive summit meetings consecrated by their respective faiths….
Religion is about love, compassion, and spiritual living rather than clergy, canon, and creeds. Out of the depth of being, a desire arises to explore the mysteries of life and to attune to a higher power within and beyond. Faith helps us deal with all of life and death, with transitions and transformations. Religion encourages us to live deeply, strengthens us when we face evil, assists us in finding our places in the universe, and invites us on an inner journey….
The world’s religions need renewal. Our mission is to reclaim our spiritual inheritance, to reacquaint ourselves with the divine spark in and around us. The book’s purpose is to send readers on a journey of deepening awareness and daring initiatives.
We worked hard to have Conversations published by a traditional publisher. Time and again the answer to our proposals came back, “no.” Rudi’s ideas and the manner in which he brought them to life did not easily fit into a specific genre. Publishers just did not quite know what to do with it! So, Rudi courageously moved right along with self-publishing. In addition, he did wonders at self-marketing. At every opportunity, face-to-face and in written communications, he shared with people about this phenomenal book on world religions. Due to his extensive network, old and new, he sold books. A least a few times a year, even toward the end of his active life in his last apartment, we would put in orders to the photocopy business and receive a few new boxes of his book for sale.
Rudi titled his the last chapter or epilogue, “Free Fall into the Future.” He declared: “Now that the sacred masters have agreed upon controversial theological and historical issues, the time has come for the world religious community to assert its powerful influence ushering us into a world without war.” His final words in the book: “All [six sacred masters] intone peace, shalom, salam, shanty followed by the Hebrew Ticcun Olam which means heal the world.” I concur!!! Amen.
Stay tuned for Part II: World Peace in Word and Deed
Additional Resources on Rev. Rudi:
The organization, Unitheum, lists a biographical sketch of Rudi. Based in Germany, their motto is: A Place for the Unity of Religious Ideals – on Duty for Peace. In this listing of “Voices,” Rudi was so proud that his followed that of Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, past President of the Sufi Order International, of which Rudi was a member/adherent. Other notables on the list with whom Rudi resonated deeply include His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Professor Hans Kung.
A biographical article/interview about Rudi on page 9 of his congregation’s newsletter, Jefferson Unitarian Church, Golden, CO.
Sermon: Coping with Trauma and Hatred: Where Do We Go from Here? Given at the Universalist Unitarian Fellowship of Rappahannock, VA, September 16, 2001
Sermon: “A Faith for the Global Village: A Path to Harmony among the World’s Religions” (topic of his 2nd book).
Sermon: “Search for the Holy Grail and the Struggle for Wholeness,” July 28, 2002.
Sermons: 5 (out of 47) sermons of Rudi’s while minister at UU Fellowship of the New River Valley, Blacksburg, VA, 1995-1999.
Rudi is mentioned in this colleague’s sermon (4th paragraph). Rev. Thomas Perchilik references the honor given to Rudi by the UU Ministers’ Association—his peers voted for him to represent the ministers in the denomination who had serviced for 50 years. Twenty-five years prior, Rudi received the same honor. He preached both times, 25 years apart!
Rudi is mentioned in this book:
“The Unitarian congregations that had the most success with integration had ministers who were social activists: Jenkin Lloyd Jones at All Souls in Chicago; Holmes and Donald Harrington in New York City; Stephen Fritchman in Los Angeles; Leslie Pennington, Jack Kent, and Jack Mendelsohn at First Unitarian in Chicago; Rudi Gelsey in Philadelphia…”
A report from Rudi from on his attendance at the Parliament of the World’s Religions held in August 1993 in Chicago (p. 3). Rudi also presented a paper at that meeting based on his ideas for his second book on world religions.
Listing of the records of First UU Church of Detroit, housed in the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, includes Rudi’s pastorate there.
Correspondence from Rudi in 1974 in the Religions Collection at Harvard’s Library, Unitarian Universalist Association, Committee on Aging Records, 1967-1983.
This church’s historical sketch devotes one paragraph to Rudi! He served the UU Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia, PA starting in 1964.
In honor of Rudi, they also have a Rudi Gelsey Social Justice Award banquet. They mention it on their website under the sub-heading, “To Be Involved in Service to Others.”
In Part II, additional resources to include guest blogs by him, newspaper articles, and a youtube video clip.