A Vindication for Interreligious Cooperation
Bill and Jean Lesher's Lifetime Interfaith Partnership
by Ruth Broyde Sharone
In the past 30 years of grassroots labor, I’ve occasionally encountered couples as devoted to interfaith activism as they are to one another. Such is the case of Jean and William Lesher, two people who live, breathe, and exemplify what it means to be in partnership and to share a lifelong commitment to the interfaith movement.
“We realized that this movement had to be global. It had to be universal and it had to be big!” declares Jean Lesher, a journalist, publisher, literary editor, and author of the book Pathways to Peace: Interreligious Readings and Reflections (2005).
In her fourth book, My Two Great Loves (2013), Jean details how she met, fell in love with, and married William Lesher, whom she affectionately refers to as “The Playboy of the West.” At the time when they met in 1955, both were living abroad. Jean Olson was an English news editor for the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva, Switzerland, and Bill was a MDiv student at the Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary, serving in Geneva as an intern at the World Council of Churches. Later he would be ordained, preside at several Lutheran seminaries, and subsequently emerge as a spokesperson and leader of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, serving as the chair of its Board of Trustees from 2003-2010.
Bill’s intimate connection with the Parliament since 1993 gives him a unique perspective on the evolution of the organization which holds major interfaith conventions every five or six years. Each Parliament had its own character and flavor, he points out. Although there has been a definite evolutionary process going on from the 1993 centennial-celebrating Chicago Parliament to each subsequent parliament (Cape Town, Barcelona, Melbourne, and Salt Lake City), in Bill’s mind they were really distinct events. “You could not predict from one conference to another what the spirit, contents, or issues might be at the next one," he said, “because it was all so fluid and world events were responsible for shaping the nature of each conference.”
The very first Parliament, launched in 1893 during the World's Columbian Exposition, was held at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was a landmark event, marking the first time in history where religious leaders of the East and West met face to face. Swami Vivekananda, a monk from the Ramakrishna order in India, promoted a grand interfaith vision and emerged as the undisputed star of that first Parliament.
Ironically enough, although some 5,000 people attended that 16-day seminal event – documented in myriad photos, books and memoirs – it took another 100 years before the Parliament train would continue its journey.
Celebration of religious diversity was the main theme of the 1893 Parliament, Bill points out. The centennial Parliament, held in Chicago in 1993, was organized by the Vedanta Society of Chicago with the help of many of the local Eastern religious groups. They were determined to recapture the spirit of what was unleashed in 1893.
The theme of the second Parliament was a global ethic, Bill underscored, to advance the idea of encouraging the religions of the world to make an ethical statement together.
The Catholic German theologian Hans Kung, in consultation with many other religious leaders and scholars, produced the document at the 1993 Parliament in Chicago that has become known as “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic.” One of the most frequent quotes describing the work of the interfaith movement today can be found in the document.
“There will be no peace among the civilizations without peace among the religions!” and “There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions!”
Bill recalls how profoundly affected he was by Hans Kung’s document and by all the participants’ response to it. “It was a revolutionary event. I call it the Ten Commandments of the 20th century.”
Bill was irresistibly drawn into what would become the central mission of the second half of his life. His transition occurred between 1993 and 1999, between the second and third Parliaments. “After 25 years as a seminary president – I retired. My seminary was global and I had traveled around the world, and this new movement provided a stimulus for me to imagine what I might do.”
Jean, as always his partner, was equally enthusiastic. “We just knew that this was something major that was coming, and we knew that everyone had to be involved. Religion is the most grassroots expression of anyone’s identity. It may be a strong belief or a modest belief, but for everyone it has something to do with their self-image.”
Bill was both impressed and concerned about the fact that the religions of the world were sparsely represented by their leadership in 1993. “I knew most of the leadership, so I decided I would go around and conduct structured interviews with leaders from the various denominations. That lasted for 18 months. I discovered that the leadership was very open and engaged in the idea of interfaith, but not their communities at the grassroots level.” So not many made it a priority.
“Then Jean and I went to the third Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa. The theme there was a reflection of that moment in history, aptly called A New Day Is Dawning. It was December 1999. We were right on the cusp of a new millennium. Nelson Mandela was at that Parliament; in fact, he canceled a trip to the U.S. in order to be there.”
At one point during the Cape Town Parliament, Bill recalled, Mandela stood in front of a huge gathering and declared: I would not be here tonight were it not for the religions of Africa and the religions of the world that kept my memory alive through all the years that I was in prison. It was electrifying.
It was also a vindication of the cooperation of the religions of the world working together. Cape Town actually anticipated that the new millennium would bring an end to apartheid and a new vision for South Africa. And so it happened, in a bloodless coup.
A few years later, Jean published her book, Pathways to Peace, in preparation for the 2004 Parliament in Barcelona, also called Pathways to Peace. She poured through anthologies of the five major religions dating back thousands of years and selected scriptures from each of them. The “Universal Prayer for Peace,” originally written in Sanskrit, claimed by both the Jains and the Hindus, is her favorite scripture.
“Lead me from death to life, from despair to hope, from fear to trust,“ she recites, becoming emotional as she reaches the final sentence of the prayer: “May peace fill our hearts, our world, our universe.”
The focus of the 2004 Barcelona Parliament was an unvarnished attempt to interpret a new political reality. “The world had taken a turn. 9/11 had shocked the world. Terrorism and religious violence were at the top of everybody’s mind,” Bill remembers. Only four months earlier, before the Parliament began, there had been a terrible bombing on a commuter train in Madrid, killing 192 and injuring 2,000, the worst terrorist incident in Spain’s history.
“Coming together we wanted to know: what is there about religions that create this kind of violence? What can be done about it? The most concrete thing that came out of the Barcelona Parliament, in the light of all of those discussions, was the rock bottom commitment we shared – expressed by all of the religions represented – to come to one another’s aid, to protect each other, and to stand by one another in solidarity, wherever we are.”
At the 2009 Melbourne gathering, people began to recognize that the mission of the Parliament was not only to convene and engage the various religions of the world, but to engage the religions of the world with the institutions of society. There was a real effort to bring spokespeople from government, business, and the arts, including them in dialogue around religion. In a memorable address, H.H. the Dalai Lama praised the Parliament but with a smile also admonished the leaders for not doing more. “You are wonderful, but you are also lazy,” he said at the final plenary session. “You need to do more in the world.”
Jean noted that major objectives of the Melbourne Parliament included bringing Indigenous people from around the world, focusing in particular on the aborigines of Australia, a request made by Australia’s Prime Minister. “We also were on the verge of the Danish Copenhagen Environmental Conference,” she recalled. “We were now voicing ecumenical concerns about the climate, which had not been a part of earlier Parliaments.
The most recent Parliament, in Salt Lake City in October 2015, uncovered yet new vistas and concerns from 10,000 participants. And significant changes in programming became evident. The Indigenous representatives were now part of the organizing committees, not just invited guests. A pre-conference for women, featuring outstanding women leaders of all ages, faiths, and cultures, turned out to be one of the highlights of the entire conference. The collaborative work it inspired continues to this day. HH would approve.
As they approach their 60th wedding anniversary this year, Jean and Bill Lesher are as connected at the hip as they were when their romance blossomed in Geneva in 1955. They have many interests in common, but interfaith engagement seems to be the superglue in their marriage.
When asked what legacy they would like to leave for their three grandchildren, Jean responded. “I want them to know they live in a global world and that there are masses of people they can learn from, and that is an experience I hope they will treasure.”
Bill said he would somehow like to convey – to the next generation in general and their grandchildren in particular – to always live with a certain amount of hope. “Bad as things may be at times, fear really is our greatest enemy. It’s still a wonderful life, a wonderful creation, full of possibilities and potential.”
Header Photo: Some of the speakers at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions – Photo: public domain