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How the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions Changed My Life

By Kay Lindahl and Kathe Schaaf

The 1993 Parliament was a watershed event in interfaith history, following in the footsteps of the first Parliament in 1893. Both events forged new ground and introduced new interfaith possibilities. In addition to making history, the 1993 Parliament transformed my life.

My love affair with the Parliament began before I had even heard of it. In 1989 my husband and I moved to a community where almost everything was new – the oldest buildings had been around for less than 20 years. We became involved in the founding of a church, holding the first service in our living room. We soon found a space to meet in the community room of a local bank.

Within a few months our community became an incorporated city. During this time we met people from other new congregations, of many traditions. Together we lobbied the City Planning Department to include zoning for non-profits and houses of worship in the new city plan, which we accomplished.

We made some wonderful friends during that time, and when that project ended we continued to meet. I invited the group to a conversation asking, “What would it be like to have a strong spiritual base in our community?” By the end of that meeting, we had formed a local interfaith organization, the Alliance for Spiritual Community. Its main focus was interfaith dialogue and being present at community events.

Interfaith culture usually begins with new friends. Photo: CPWR

Interfaith culture usually begins with new friends. Photo: CPWR

Around the same time, I had heard about the Mastery Foundation, an organization whose main program then was a course called “Making a Difference: A Course for Those Who Minister.” The course sounded good to this fledging interfaith group. We invited them to our community, and over 20 of us took that course, truly moving us forward in our work.

A few months later I was invited onto the Foundation’s Board of Directors. We kept in touch via conference calls. I vividly remember one call in the late spring of 1993. On the agenda was a request to support a woman making a presentation on religious non-violence at something called “the Parliament of the World’s Religions,” being held in Chicago later that year. As Eileen started to speak, I knew I had to attend – love at first hearing! She faxed me a registration form. I asked if she had any space for another roommate at the hotel. Yes, if I didn’t mind two or three other women moving in and out over the course of the Parliament. So off I went, not quite knowing why or anyone else who would be there, but feeling it was absolutely right for me.

You find robes in many colors at the Parliament. Photo: CPWR

You find robes in many colors at the Parliament. Photo: CPWR

I arrived at the Palmer House Hotel as the first session was opening. The lobby was jammed with the most diverse group of people I had ever seen. Quickly dropping my bag off in the hotel room, I scampered downstairs for the procession. It was magnificent – and so colorful – monks in saffron, red, brown, gray, black, yellow, white; Native Americans with full headdress, Sikhs with different colored turbans, African religionists and Goddess followers, dressed in beautiful patterns and colors, especially one woman – in turquoise, gold, and white, all accompanied with drums and flutes, and much, much more. It was a joyous celebration precisely because we were all there. I phoned my husband that night and said, “This must be what heaven is like – everyone there together.” I had my first personal experience of knowing that peace on earth is possible.

Back in my hotel room, I confronted a 150-page program with a dazzling selection of sessions. Choosing them was like creating a college curriculum in one short week. It was difficult; the sessions all sounded interesting. Following my intuition, Isettled on a wide variety. Some were about religions I didn’t know about. Some explored dialogue skills. Others addressed specific issues, local and global, confronting us no matter where we live. I loved it! That evening, calling home I told my husband I seemed to be changing on a cellular level. I felt each cell expanding and growing in being exposed to the incredible diversity of the people on this planet and their faith traditions.

The next day I checked out the exhibit hall, finding a cornucopia of information, products from around the world, and fascinating people. I found out more about the religions and spiritual traditions that were new to me and met their practitioners. I talked to Jain women, finding out why they wore cards in front of their mouths, to Sikh men about their turbans, and enjoyed a lovely snippet of time with an Orthodox priest. Each interaction opened and expanded my heart.

Part of the Parliament’s magic is what happens along the way. For example, my mother-in-law lived in the Chicago area and took classes with Jim Kenney, the Parliament’s program chair. When she found out I was attending the Parliament, she asked me to say hi to Jim. Well, 8,000 plus people were attending, and Jim, overseeing the program, may have been the busiest. Then one afternoon, a little early for a plenary session, I found a seat down in front. I started chatting with the woman next to me and after a few minutes told her about my mother-in-law. “My name is Cetta Kenney,” she responded. “I’m Jim’s wife and I’ll be glad to introduce you.”

Another memory is a conversation with a couple from India in one of the lobbies. We talked about our families and our concerns about the world our children were inheriting. We had so much in common. I had known that intellectually. But our conversation anchored it in my soul. We truly are one family.

A highlight was hearing Hans Küng speak. When he uttered his now famous statement, “There will be no peace among nations until there is peace among religions. There will be no peace among religions until there is dialogue among religions,” I was touched to my core, as though his words were branded on my forehead. They inspired me to action and continue to keep me engaged in this wonderful world of interfaith dialogue.

Three religions, one conversation. Photo: CPWR

Three religions, one conversation. Photo: CPWR

By the time I left, I was renewed. It was like shedding a layer of skin. I was the same person and yet not the same. My soul had been fed – my heart expanded – my life dedicated to the interfaith movement. Since then in conversations with interfaith activists around the world, I’ve heard many of them relate similarly transformative experiences. Once you connect with someone at the heart level, everything changes.

Subsequently I attended the Parliaments in 1999 in Cape Town, 2004 in Barcelona, 2009 in Melbourne, and I plan to be in Brussels in 2014. They have provided me with a multitude of relationships all over the world. It turns out that my love affair with the Parliament is a lifelong commitment.