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Honoring our Spiritual Foremothers

By Kathe Schaaf


“Bearing the Light” at Rockefeller Chapel Photo: 8 Eyes Photography

“Bearing the Light” at Rockefeller Chapel Photo: 8 Eyes Photography

On November 3, University of Chicago’s magnificent Rockefeller Chapel hosted the inaugural event of the Women’s Task Force at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. The evening was dedicated to Bearing the Light: Honoring our Spiritual Foremothers. A gathering of 500 witnessed women representing diverse faiths sharing stories honoring a woman from their spiritual tradition during an evening punctuated by drumming, ethereal chants, and Indian dance.

“This is a night to celebrate the courage and wisdom and love of the women who have gone before us and to inspire one another to speak from the deepest truths of our lives today,” explained the Rev. Dr. Anne Benvenuti, a co-chair of the new Task Force.

Women’s Voices

At a time when talk of women’s leadership is on the rise throughout our culture, the conversation is vibrant in the interfaith community. The Council for a Parliament of the World Religions has stepped into this arena, creating the Women’s Task Force, to assure that women’s voices are heard at the vital intersection of women’s issues, religion, and spiritual leadership.

Many other faith communities and interfaith networks are supporting the same cause, creating new initiatives to support and nurture women’s full participation. On their own, interfaith women are connecting across the globe, across religious boundaries, creating a growing web of feminine wisdom and leadership.

These women stand on the shoulders of their predecessors, strong leaders who have helped shape the interfaith movement beginning with the first Parliament in 1893. Marcus Braybrook’s companion articlein this issue highlights some of the rich history that women made at that gathering 119 years ago.

The thread of that leadership continues till today. Here are a few of the women, exemplars, who have changed the face of interfaith in the past 20 years.

Barbara Fields

Barbara Fields

Barbara Fields shaped and guided the 1993 Parliament as program director. After working tirelessly for more than a year weaving together the elements of this centennial event, Barbara went on to launch and lead numerous other global interfaith initiatives. She is co-founder and director of The Gandhi King Chavez Season for Nonviolence since 1998, and of the Synthesis Dialogues with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, Dharamsala, India, 1999; Trent, Italy, 2001; and Rome, 2004. She developed a U.S. interfaith network to support the Abraham Path Initiative based at Harvard University. 

Serving as executive director of the Association for Global New Thought, she recently co- convened Awakened World 2012 in Italy, which brought together more than 250 global leaders from among the world’s major faith traditions with spiritual activists for a week of dialogues and resulted in “The Charter for an Engaged Spirituality for the 21st Century.”

Kay Lindahl

Kay Lindahl

Kay Lindahl began her interfaith journey by founding the Alliance for Spiritual Community in 1991. After being inspired by the 1993 Parliament, she helped build several regional, national and international networks, including the Religious Diversity Forum, North American Interfaith Network (NAIN), and the United Religions Initiative (URI). Along the way, she attended all four modern Parliaments and today serves as a Coordinator of the Ambassador program for CPWR.

The author of four books about deep listening, Kay has been honored frequently for her interfaith work, including the 2010 Interfaith Visionary Award from the Temple of Understanding. In 2010, she was a co-founders of Women of Spirit and Faith and co-edited the anthology Women, Spirituality and Transformative Leadership: Where Grace Meets Power, honored as one of the Top Ten Spirituality and Religions books of 2012 by the American Library Association.

Bettina Gray interviews Swami Chidananda at the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne.

Bettina Gray interviews Swami Chidananda at the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne.

Bettina Grey has been involved in interfaith work since the 1970s when she chaired the Berkeley Area Interfaith Council and launched her first radio interview show, called "Spiritual Resources." Starting out as a young composer, she went on to become the first documentarian of the interfaith movement.

During the 1993 Parliament, Bettina created “Parliament of Souls,” a series of 27 half-hour profile interviews filmed for PBS.  They were seen by millions worldwide, setting the tone to open up broader and more in depth television coverage of religion and spirituality. Guests included the Dalai Lama, Sir John Templeton, W. D. Mohammed, Azizah al Hibri, Swami Chidananda, Diana Eck, Hans Kung, Martin Marty. KQED Books published the book, Parliament of Souls: In Search of Global Spirituality (1995), edited from the interviews.

Bettina’s Creative Films website attests to her career as a film-maker, interviewer, and composer, all the while remaining steadfastly active in interfaith organizing. She co-founded NAIN, serving as its first vice-chair in the late 80s and recently as chair (2008-2012).

Yoland Trevino, second from l., meets with URI Multiregional officers in Mexico.

Yoland Trevino, second from l., meets with URI Multiregional officers in Mexico.

Yoland Trevino has attended every Parliament since 1999 and supported the Indigenous Task Force for the 2009 Melbourne Parliament. Fifteen years ago she was instrumental in forming the United Religions Initiative (URI) Council for Women, along with URI trustees Annie Imbens-Fransen and Betsy Stang. Since 2002 Yoland’s leadership roles at URI have included two consecutive terms, from 2005 to 2012, chairing the Global Council.

Yoland has supported herself through all this volunteer leadership through her international consultancy in community development, which continues to support her interfaith engagement. She currently is a facilitator of the Women’s Global Initiative at URI, which has the goal of galvanizing the energies of women within URI and in partnership with other existing women’s coalitions or organizations. A Mayan, she is an international pioneer in bringing indigenous traditions to the interfaith table, in part by founding the Indigenous Global Initiative at URI.

These women are among hundreds more providing leadership to international, regional, and local interfaith organizations since the 1893 World Parliament of Religions, when more than 20 women spoke on behalf of women’s suffrage and interfaith bridge-building. The four highlighted here all stressed how many other women leaders are bringing their creativity and passion to the interfaith arena.

Melbourne Becomes a Tipping Point

The 2009 Melbourne Parliament was a tipping point for many, a moment when a cluster of elements related to the Divine Feminine, feminine principals, women’s issues, and their spiritual leadership converged. I carried 1500 small pink buttons to Melbourne asking “What happens when women lead?” and the Parliament became a living answer to that question.

Remarkable women from around the world shared their wisdom about women in leadership. Workshops on the Divine Feminine were filled to capacity. After one of her passionate presentations, someone said, “Joan Chittister is the rock star of this Parliament!”

Jimmy Carter’s message in Melbourne became another rally cry: “Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women's equal rights across the world for centuries.” 

We face exciting questions now: How do we create a global alliance to amplify women’s faith voices? How do we move beyond networking to collective impact? Women from many interfaith networks and initiatives (including the Women’s Task Force at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the URI Women’s Global Initiative, Women of Spirit and Faith, and more) will begin to explore these questions in 2013 through a collaboration called “The Alchemy Project,” and a new chapter of the interfaith story will be written.

How to Get Involved

The Women’s Task Force was created in July 2012 to assure that the voices of women are heard at the vital nexus of women’s issues, religion and spiritual leadership. The Action Plan for 2012-2013 includes:

  • building a dynamic, engaged community of women representing diverse faith perspectives, affiliated organizations and a range of global women's issues;
  • convening a series of regional events in major cities making visible women leaders from diverse faith traditions;
  • creating a strong presence at the 2013 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in March 2013 which has the theme of eliminating violence against women;
  • participating in The Alchemy Project, a global alliance to amplify women's faith voices, along with other interfaith women’s networks and organizations;
  • funding development to assure that indigenous women, low-income women, young women, elders and rural grassroots women from all parts of the world are invited and supported to bring their wisdom and leadership to CPWR and wherever women's issues are being discussed in a religious or interfaith context;
  • engaging diverse young women spiritual and thought leaders;
  • creating a platform to support local grassroots women's sacred listening and action circles.

The Women’s Task Force is co-chaired by Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions trustees Anne Benvenuti, Phyllis Curott, and Kathe Schaaf. They welcome the participation of individuals and organizations from the global interfaith community. Contact them at wtf.cpwr@gmail.com. To learn more, visit our CPWR webpage and our Facebook page, Women’s Task Force at the Parliament of the World’s Religions.