Big names. Big think. Big action?

Imagine cold-war combatants like former US Secretary of State George Schultz, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev holding hands and being serenaded by a pop singer strumming a hymn to world oneness.

Imagine a kind of New Age United Nations without the bureaucracy and protocols.

Imagine a place where Queen Noor of Jordan, primatologist Jane Goodall, political activist Jesse Jackson and industrialist David Rockefeller Jr. can sit and chat about an enormous range of ideas and interests.

Imagine no further. What can fairly be called the mother of all conferences is, or has been, host to all of the above, and more.

The State of the World Forum is about to convene for the fifth year, yet this gathering is so broad in scope and so star-studded it continues to defy neat description.

But from a small Victorian home converted from military to civilian use, practically beneath the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Forum springs forth annually to "envision and create a sustainable and compassionate civilization."

A few years ago you could have called it the Big Think. But chided by critics for being little more than a high-octane gabfest, the Forum is increasingly about Big Action, too.

The Forum's roots lie in the hope and disorder that followed the cold war. Mikhail Gorbachev, out of work but not out of ideas, started a foundation after leaving office in 1991, which eventually became the Forum.

Though Gorbachev has receded into the background, the Forum's reputation has continued to grow, drawing an extraordinary range of social, religious, political, and academic leaders together each year.

Its stature is now such that in 2000, it'll convene in New York alongside the special millennium heads-of-state assembly of the United Nations. The Forum will complement the UN session with its own gathering of civic and grass-roots leaders for a global "town hall" meeting with the UN's heads of state.

Distinctive elements

The Forum is distinctive for three reasons: its diversity, its focus on developing and listening to youth leaders around the world, and its unabashed incorporation of the spiritual side of world affairs.

"We put questions of spirit on a par with politics and economics," says Forum president James Garrison.

The six-day conference beginning Oct. 1 will include a speech about capitalism and compassion, a dialogue about 21st-century learning, a session on the philosophical implications of quantum physics, and a discussion of the "crisis of spirit and the search for meaning."

Each day will begin with a meditation session, and the first day's plenary session will be held in San Francisco's Grace Cathedral.

Although it all sounds a bit left of center, Mr. Garrison says the Forum is decidedly non-ideological. Indeed, its alumni cover the spectrum, from former President George Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to media-mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner and poet David Whyte.

It's an eclectic group to be sure, and Garrison admits the debates are often heated.

But the idea is to build programs and influence by creating a network of leaders that cuts across disciplines, ideologies, and geographic boundaries, and to construct concrete programs out of the dialogue.

Ongoing initiatives include the global youth leadership effort, a program to eliminate nuclear weapons, another to ease conflicts and promote coexistence, and one headed by Jane Goodall to identify and spread practices that promote early childhood development.

While the Forum is placing new emphasis on action, Garrison makes no apologies about the importance of the mind-bending discussions.

Time of transition

As he sees it, the world is in the middle of an enormous change from the rigidity and certainty of the cold war to something else, and from an era of industrialization to a technology and information-driven economy.

Sprinkle in a lot of soul-searching about what it all means and you have a time of transition when "questions are a lot more important than answers," says Garrison.

While the Forum is not open to the public, it arranges for parts of its sessions to be broadcast or accessible through other means.

Former US senator from California, Alan Cranston, is leading the Forum's program to eliminate nuclear weapons, and he describes the Forum per se as a "transforming event for many."

Indeed, Garrison recalls one of the Forum gatherings when the late singer John Denver performed and asked the audience to take hands. George Schultz, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Mikhail Gorbachev joined the chain.

"It was quite a sight," recalls Garrison.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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