Nancy and Gary Spanovich with children at a Christian camp where he talked with the kids about peace.
Nancy and Gary Spanovich with children at a Christian camp where he talked with the kids about peace.
Pope Francis released his first social media video last month: it was about interreligious dialogue and peace. “There is only one certainty we have for all: we are all children of God,” Pope Francis says in the video.  “I hope you will spread my prayer request this month,” the pope concludes. “That sincere dialogue among men and women of different faiths may produce the fruits of peace and justice.”

Gary Spanovich, an Our Lady of the Lake, Lake Oswego, parishioner and founder of the Wholistic Peace Institute, has been working on exactly that since 1999.

He has helped bring to Oregon Nobel Peace Prize winners like the Dalai Lama, former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez, and Lech Walesa, the Polish labor leader.

Those are the gigs that bring Spanovich headlines. On a daily basis he writes books, teaches classes, mediates at organizations experiencing conflicts (including the State of Oregon) and leads prayer gatherings.

He often leads people in silent meditation — on the word “forgiveness,” for example, or upon Jesus or a saint. “It has an amazing effect,” says Nancy Olmsted Spanovich, his wife and executive director of the institute, who adds that the more people there are in the room, the greater the effect of the prayer.

Spanovich doesn’t talk about Catholicism when he’s working with secular groups, but he does speak about Catholic values like compassion, forgiveness and mercy.

“We can all hear God deep inside ourselves when we’re not distracted,” he says. “That’s what monks do, it’s what the archbishop does. It’s what you do if you have a deep faith. Close your eyes in prayer. That reflection taps into a deeper place.”

Spanovich, a thoughtful, 66-year-old ex-transportation planner, says he came to his current work in part because of the encouragement of Holy Names Sister Cecilia Ranger from the days when he taught classes at Marylhurst.

The Wholistic Peace Institute had its beginnings at Spanovich’s home in Canby, around a kitchen table together with Benedictine Abbot Joseph Wood of Mount Angel Abbey (who would serve on the group’s board until he died in 2014); Jigme Topgyal, a colleague of the Dalai Lama; Father Tom Yurchak, currently pastor of St. Jude Church, Eugene; and Spanovich’s son, Chris. They were discussing bringing the Dalai Lama to Oregon in 2001.

“I was inspired to start the institute,” Spanovich says. “It was like the ‘still, small voice’ that came to Elijah in the Bible. It said, ‘stay the course.’”

He decided that meant bringing other Nobel Peace Prize winners to Oregon in addition to the Dalai Lama. Six came. Spanovich had “stayed the course.”

“It’s deepened my faith,” says Spanovich, who along with his wife is an Oblate at Mount Angel Abbey.

Spanovich says every Nobel winner he’s worked with told him they believed world peace is possible. Spanovich also always asks the Nobel winners what role they believe God played in their own efforts for peace and justice.

“Their answers are profound,” he says. “They’re all men and women of faith. Many were tortured — you don’t stand up to that without faith.”

Spanovich believes that the greatest threat to peace is politics — including the politicization of religion.

His approach sidesteps politics to allow individuals to work through faith, especially with projects like a holiday lunch and clothing drive for the Dignity homeless encampment in Portland. A number of different religious groups, including Our Lady of the Lake, worked together on that. “We got together not to talk but to work on a common problem,” he says. “That builds human relationships, and skips the politics.”

To learn more about the institute, including upcoming events (Benedictine Cyril Drnjevic is speaking on Laudato Si’ on April 15) visit wholisticpeaceinstitute.com.