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My Five Days at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

By Joran Oppelt


The Parliament of the World’s Religions was held on October 15-19, 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Roughly 10,000 people attended this year’s event, representing hundreds of nations and more than 50 faith traditions. Attendees included academics engaged in roundtable discussions of peace, disarmament, conflict resolution and climate change; leaders of various faith communities (Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Neopagan, indigenous, interspiritual, and more) committed to spreading peace and compassion in the world; as well as spiritual seekers and activists dedicated to healing their own communities from within and using interfaith dialogue to bridge some of those divides.

Guest speakers and panelists included biologist Jane Goodall, author Karen Armstrong, activist Eboo Patel, New Thought minister Michael Bernard Beckwith, Sojourners founder Jim Wallis, and many more, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who fell ill at the last minute and couldn’t attend.

Impromptu groups and coalitions formed during and after a number of lively discussions and plenaries in order to leverage the momentum created at a particular session. The halls of the 679,000 square foot Salt Palace Convention Center and its 66 meeting rooms stayed alive all week with talks of peace, interfaith harmony, and global awakening.

The Sikh community provided langar each day for more than 5,000 interfaith activists. – Photo: JO

The Sikh community provided langar each day for more than 5,000 interfaith activists. – Photo: JO

The spiritual tone and flavor of this gathering was best expressed by the Sikh community, which provided Langar, an act of lovefor us all. Langar is the community meal offered at Sikh gurdwaras (temples) everywhere, food shared regardless of faith or caste. Approximately 5,000 received their midday langar each day for five days.The Sikh community donated the food, and they volunteered the time to prepare, serve, and clean up.

The menu was a rotating blur of rice, lentils, curry, naan, yogurt, fruit, vegetables, coffee, and chai tea. People lined up each day before noon, donning a head-scarf and removing their shoes. They were seated on the floor in long rows and shared the meal with strangers and newfound friends. Each day the line was longer, as word spread of the fragrant Basmati rice and spicy lentils. Truly one of the best meals I’ve had. After the event, nearly 1,000 lbs. of leftover food was donated to a local Catholic charity that serves the homeless

Honoring Women of the Interfaith Movement

The thousands attending the plenary focused on women gave Marianne Williamson a standing ovation. – Photo: JO

The thousands attending the plenary focused on women gave Marianne Williamson a standing ovation. – Photo: JO

The Parliament’s theme this year was “recovering the heart of humanity.” With the refreshing, dynamic Inaugural Women’s Assembly, the first of six thematic plenaries; the active role of indigenous peoples and Earth-based traditions; and the continuing conversation around climate change, much of the Parliament focused on turning social issues and recently identified problems into concrete actions and takeaways.

The assembly that kicked off the Parliament on Thursday closed with a rousing speech from author and recent congressional candidate, Marianne Williamson. Williamson addressed the majority of female leaders in the crowd, saying, “We are the mothers of the world. Those who are inspired by the religions of the world should not ignore the problems of the world. We know how to hold the suffering in the world. We know how to give birth to the radical joy in the world.” Referring to increased violence and corruption across the globe, she brought the crowd to its feet, imploring, “We who are the mothers of the world — it’s up to us to say, ‘this will not be happening in my house.'”

The Red Tent Movement, grounded in Anita Diamant’s popular book, sponsored the Women’s Sacred Space. Men were welcome to enter the gauzy, red room, a meeting place modified to resemble the inside of a darkened, Persian tent and lovingly referred to as the “womb of the Parliament.” When the doors

A workshop being held in the Women’s Sacred Space, designed by the Red Tent Movement. – Photo: Guiliana Serena

A workshop being held in the Women’s Sacred Space, designed by the Red Tent Movement. – Photo: Guiliana Serena

would occasionally burst open, though, releasing crowds back into the bustling hallways, most were women, and they were beaming. It was like a charging station for the female soul.

Stories circulated about the Indigenous Grandmothers — a group of female elders from the various tribes present at the Parliament. If you were lucky enough to fall in with this group, you were treated to prayers, songs, and dances from various faith traditions. You were entrusted into a circle of maternal power forged by language and culture at this historic, once-in-a-lifetime gathering. As their languages and cultural practices shrink from the Earth, the Grandmothers seem intent on planting what remaining seeds they have.

Dancing the Spirit

Former Catholic priest and iconoclastic author, the Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox, was on hand Friday to lead 300 or so lucky people in a Cosmic Mass. Those who had managed to squeeze into Ballroom H were treated to a transformative experience.

The Green Man at the Cosmic Mass – Photo: TIO

The Green Man at the Cosmic Mass – Photo: TIO

The Cosmic Mass is typically held in Oakland, California and resembles a Catholic mass, but with a 21st century twist. It includes electronic music, video projection, and ecstatic dance as well as prayer, communion, and a grieving ritual which asks attendees to get on all fours and moan until they are emptied of their suffering.

I had run into Fox’s assistant and director of the Mass, Skylar Wilson, on Friday morning. I offered my services and was promptly given the job of puppeteering the Green Man during the Cosmic Mass event. The Green Man was a huge disembodied papier-mâché head on a pole, draped in green gauze and flanked by two large hands, also on poles (Took three of us to operate it.) The Green Man was accompanied by a second puppet — the female figure, Gaia (Mother Earth). These two gigantic puppets represented the union of the sacred masculine and the divine feminine. 

Fox briefly introduced Creation Spirituality, a teaching that acknowledges a spiritual connection to the Earth, proposes replacing the concept of “original sin” with “original blessing,” and finds expression in four paths – the via positiva, via negativa, via creativa, and via transformativa. An invocation followed, a calling-in of the directions, music and drumming , a grieving ritual, a prayer, and a “passing of the peace.”

Then it was time to dance.

As a leader of spiritual community, the Cosmic Mass was a revelation. It was a religious experience like none other, connecting everyone in attendance directly to one another and to the Source of all. It held masculine and feminine power in balance and oriented us to the cycles of the season, not only in the world but in our hearts. It was joyous, heart-breaking, contemplative, and awe-inspiring, a ritual ceremony proudly wearing the clothing of 2015 (video, technology, social media). For those who seek a post-modern worship experience, one that Fox likes to say is rooted not is “text” but in “context,” then the Cosmic Mass may be that experience.

Learning About Ministry to Religious Nones

On Saturday, I met with Angela Thurston. Angie is a student at Harvard Divinity School, and president of the student group, the HDS Religious Nones, that is, religiously unaffiliated, the subject of her workshop the day before. She and her group gather for weekly meetings to explore personal spiritual practices, sing, and share from the heart. People are welcome from any – or no – faith tradition.

The “nones” meetings follow an arc of personal narrative, opening with a check-in (a look back on the week), testimony about how spiritual practice is being applied to daily life (a focus on the present), and closes with a personal intention as well as intentions for the group and the broader community (a look forward). They sing from a Unitarian Universalist hymnal.

With her colleague Casper ter Kuile, Angie has published a report called How We Gather. It has been described by the New York Times as “an early effort to understand the landscape of new institutions that millennials are creating to meet their needs for community, purpose and, in some cases, spiritual experience.”

An Opportunity for One-on-One

The Mormon Temple, caught in the late afternoon is the centerpiece of Temple Square. – Photo: TIO

The Mormon Temple, caught in the late afternoon is the centerpiece of Temple Square. – Photo: TIO

When Sunday came, I was ready for some local flavor. I needed to get off the beaten path, find some good Mexican food, and see some sights. Tammy Monroe from Wisdom Circle Ministries joined me and we decided to hoof it to a highly recommended restaurant called the Red Iguana.

On the ways we stopped off at Temple Square, world headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS Church), a ‘Mecca’ for Mormons. Even non-Mormons should make a point to visit the magnificent site — a 10-acre, beautifully landscaped, flower-laden complex, considered holy ground.

Temple Square is also home to the Sea Gull Monument. According to legend, “The Mormon pioneers planted crops in the spring of 1848, after suffering great hunger during their first winter in the Salt Lake Valley. As the crops ripened, hordes of devouring crickets descended upon them from the foothills east of the valley. The Saints fought them with clubs, fire, and water. As they despaired of saving the next winter’s food, their prayers for deliverance from almost sure starvation were answered when thousands of sea gulls came to feed on the crickets. The Sea Gull Monument commemorates this modern-day miracle. The sea gull is now the Utah State bird.”

Red Iguana was worth the hike. Tammy and I had plenty of time to discuss what we both agreed to be a huge gap in a newly-emerging ‘market’ – the development and training of interfaith ministers along with resources and social networks to support them in their work of community building, leadership training, fundraising, and religious literacy.

Bright and early Monday morning, I was honored to present the story of Integral Church to a capacity crowd in one of the conference rooms at the convention center. Most of those attending were leaders of faith communities seeking to nurture interfaith dialogue in their neighborhoods and cities and/or implement interspiritual conversations among their own congregations. A handful were fledgling leaders looking to build communities of their own.

We covered the nuts and bolts of starting a church from the ground up with no parent denomination, the concept of Spiral Dynamics as applied to values and leadership, language and marketing to the religiously unaffiliated, spiritual expression in an interspiritual setting, and the stigma and challenges of meeting in a circle. A video of the 45-minute presentation is on the right..

Looking Back

There weren’t a hundred things I missed at the Parliament, there were thousands. Like life itself, there was no way to see, hear, or feel everything. You had to make choices all day long. But that means the experience, where so much is shared by so many, remains unique and personal to everyone who came. For me the Parliament was a richly-textured, colorful, and visceral five days. It was an immersive experience that put 10,000 people in one place and simply asked them to respect and deeply listen to one another.

Some attendees said they had a “felt-sense of connection and experience — of truly walking the path.” Some felt that their faith and relationship to mystery deepened. Some talked about being pushed slightly outside their comfort zone, of “casting the net beyond their own faith groups” to the realms of community, work, parenting, and politics. Some discovered new tools for accountability and growth.

The Parliament will reconvene in 2017, and I will be ready. Thank you to the board of directors and planning committee for the 2015 Parliament, and to the 800 volunteers. To those that did the heavy lifting, I hope you take a long, well-deserved nap. To my newfound friends and those I don’t see often enough, the honor and pleasure was all mine.

We are co-creators of this world, and we have been given the gift of sight. A vision of the world working together toward peace and harmony. We now carry that vision home and bear the burden of allowing this ripple to continue outward. This wave of compassion will eventually wash over all beings. The “heart of humanity” rests in all of us. And this love for one another feels like a poison when we hold it inside. We must send love out from our hearts if we want to live.