Experiencing the Parliament of the World’s Religions
Toronto, Interfaith, and the State of the World
by Paul Chaffee
Nineteen years ago … but I remember it vividly. Stepping onto a crowded hotel elevator, I encountered interfaith luminary Huston Smith and a group of American Indian leaders in their full tribal vestments. Huston had invited them to the 1999 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa to introduce them to the world’s religions. They were interviewed at length and featured in packed-out workshops. Subsequent Parliaments in Barcelona, Melbourne, and Salt Lake City have all included indigenous presentations and programs. But the Toronto Parliament earlier this month did much more.
A two-hour fire ceremony preceded the opening assembly, where several hundred indigenous leaders in magnificent vestments processed into a hall filled with thousands. (The fire they lit outside was tended throughout the conference and ceremoniously extinguished at the end.) Next morning, the first full day of the Toronto Parliament, the initial Assembly was titled “Indigenous Peoples Program.” Half a dozen Canadian chiefs along with indigenous leaders from Hawaii and three African countries were featured presenters. Daily indigenous ceremony punctuated each day, and more than 30 workshops addressed the issues indigenous traditions face.
As the sixth of the modern Parliaments, which started in Chicago in 1993, a certain identifiable culture has emerged. The traditional procession at the opening is a moving exercise. Most sessions began with words of appreciation and thanks to the Aboriginal communities who were the first to live here.
Once again the Sikh community provided langar for the more than 7,500 who attended Toronto. The assemblies, plenaries, and 900 workshops were but a portion of the overall program – which included a film festival, remarkable performances by more than two dozen music, dance, and drama soloists and companies, spontaneous singing and dancing opportunities in the halls, prayer boards and commitment boards covered with slips of paper people left, and a multitude of conversations with new friends and old. Deep in the bowels of the conference center, again, some 300 booths, like a country fair, had representatives from the many causes who were eager to engage passersby. Several dozen TIO contributors were in Toronto, including Ruth Broyde Sharone, whose workshop told of her progress in producing “INTERFAITH: the Musical,” currently running an Indigogo campaign.
A Deeper Spirit
Your Parliament will be different than mine, or anyone else’s, since each of us makes our own decisions about what to attend, which speakers to seek out, the most important issues to explore.
That said, my own experience in Toronto suggested a maturing, a seriousness of purpose that seemed to dig deeper than previous Parliaments. There were fewer workshops from groups who’ve discovered the spiritual key to connecting all religions, and many more how-to workshops presented by social justice advocates dealing with on-the-ground interfaith issues. Sample workshop titles make the point … “Native American Graves Protection,” “The Role Media Plays in the Empowerment of Women and Girls,” “The Art of Connecting with Nature,” “Women, Power, and Peace,” “The Rise of Populism – How We Can Stem the Tide,” and about 900 more.
Underlining the whole week was a communal consciousness of the tragic terror and death suffered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania four days before the Parliament opened, along with other recent acts of terrorism around the world. The need to respond to violence was invoked over and over, in plenaries, in workshops, and in the halls, including long discussions about non-violent activism. Donald Trump’s presidency and “Christian supremacism” were roundly criticized on a number of occasions.
Early this year, the word went out that the Parliament was seeking presenters that would draw a large audience. However, celebrities like Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Jane Goodall, who have attended earlier Parliaments, are few and far between. But Parliament planners kept asking and prevailed. They attracted leaders who may not be known to the general public but are interfaith stars in their own right, people like Karen Armstrong, Eboo Patel, Swami Agnivesh, Matthew Fox, Margaret Atwood, Jim Wallace, James Lawson, William Swing, David Rosen, John Cobb, Victor Kazangian, Sakena Yacoobi, as well as hundreds of others who are deeply respected in their own arenas for making a difference. The overall program, however you shaped your version of presentations, turned out to offer a rich menu of offerings.
In short, there was a felt sense that the world is in serious trouble and that people of faith and practice need to put our disagreements aside, take hands collaboratively, and do everything we can to heal the Earth and support the oppressed. Despair and hopelessness were given little air-time.
Personally, I found the workshop titled “The Moral, Spiritual, Legal, Practical Response to Humanity’s Greatest Threat: Nuclear Weapons” so compelling that I signed up to be part of a group that is working hard to shine light on this terrible situation and to inspire nations with the weapons to stand down – an impossible task that has to get done.
In Toronto I was also deeply enriched by the major assemblies on Women’s Dignity, Climate Action, and Justice but was unable to attend several others that garnered good report. If you want a better understanding of the week, talk to others who attended – each of us has part of the story. Join in yourself by looking at a number of the plenaries and assemblies on the Parliament’s Facebook page.
Unless you were one of the global team who put this mega-event together, it’s impossible to imagine what they had to do to make it work. Leaders in Chicago, where the Parliament is headquartered, and leaders in Toronto faced incredible financial and organizational challenges. Kudos to them all! We left inspired, if a bit exhausted, and enriched in the quest to create a vital, healthy interfaith culture for us all.
This issue of TIO explores interfaith in Canada, including stories from the Toronto Parliament. Compared with most countries, Canada has been a leader in developing grassroots interfaith activities. Equally important, it has been willing to tackle the tough issues in their own country – in particular their historic relationship with First Nations. However far they have to go to achieve cultural, economic parity with indigenous communities, Canada is doing infinitely better on this score than most countries, starting with the US. Canadians, in short, are writing important chapters in the development of interfaith. The articles this month tell part of that story.
Header Photo: Kayla Koterwski-Tate, The Storyteller Media