A Global Gathering of Faith and Interfaith Communities
What to Expect at the Toronto Parliament
by Brian Carwana
The 2018 Parliament of World Religions, coming to Toronto November 1-7, will be an enormous interfaith event, with estimates of up to 10,000 attending. Yet few, if any, of those 10,000 will have heard of Mariatu Kamara before she addresses the Parliament. She was 12 years old when, during Sierra Leone’s civil war, guerrillas came into her village and killed her family. She was raped, tortured, and then, rather than killing her, her tormentors decided to cut off her hands. Alone, bleeding, and lacking hands, Mariatu managed to march until she could solicit help and find medical care. Her life was saved, but she endured further tragedy when her son, conceived from the rape, died before his first birthday.
That Mariatu survived is amazing. Then, despite all odds, she has created a vibrant life. She lives in Toronto, is pursuing a university degree, has published a book on her experiences, and worked with Free the Children and UNICEF. Her voice, her courage, and her physical body are testaments to the possibilities of the human will. Attendees, I suspect, will return home with a permanent memory of this brave Muslim woman.
Mariatu Kamara is but one of many remarkable speakers who will share their stories, expertise, and wisdom during the 2018 Parliament, November 1-7, in Toronto. Another speaker I eagerly anticipate is Payam Akhavan. His Baha’i’ family fled the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran after relatives were killed for their faith. Akhavan recounts that, as a teenager, his life was changed by a young Iranian 16-year-old Baha’i’ girl name Mona.
Required to write a school essay on religious freedom, Mona criticized the regime’s hypocrisy and brutality instead of handing in the sycophantic piece that was expected. Authorities invaded the teenager’s home at night and arrested her. They tortured her for months before executing her. Mona’s last defiant act was to smile at the hangman at her execution.
Shattered by this event, Akhavan committed his life to fighting for justice. At age 26, he became the youngest prosecutor of war crimes in the history of the United Nations. He is an international expert on genocide, helping to procure justice and foster transitions to peace in conflict-ridden areas such as the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Rwanda, and Syria. Akhavan challenges us, saying that seeing our obligation to help others as a burden or as charity is a failure of compassion, a failure to love.
Kamara and Akhavan are but two of several hundred presenters. Compelling speakers will include Margaret Atwood and Karen Armstrong. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (winners of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize) will participate. Yet, despite the importance of headliners, the Parliament is about so much more.
Amazement at the Parliament Experience
My own introduction to the Parliament was in Salt Lake City at the 2015 gathering. Admittedly, I am a religion junkie. I direct the Encounter World Religions Centre, an educational organization located an hour from Toronto. Encounter is an unusual beast, educating people in the world’s religious traditions, sometimes through classes, but ideally by combining classroom learning with visits that incorporate ritual, architecture, and interactions with religious communities and their leaders. As such, I have breathed interfaith daily for 20 years and am immensely comfortable in diverse communities and spaces. But when I attended the 2015 Parliament, I was still amazed at all I saw.
Entering the foyer on opening day, I was taken aback by the sheer diversity of what I saw in the vast halls of Salt Lake City’s conference center. In front of me were Tibetan monks making a sand mandala, whose progress I would track for days. Behind the Buddhists was an indoor Jain temple with a monk speaking with anyone willing to sit with him. Surrounding me and populating the space was an incredibly varied group of people of different races and cultures, many displaying their devotion bodily through saffron robes, veils, turbans and (in the case of Hindu sadhus or renunciates) elaborate face paint and dreadlocks. More than a hundred booths were platforms where, individuals, communities, and groups could feature their work, their message. Minutes after I arrived it was clear how much I could learn here, how many there were to learn from.
Other memories similarly stem from small moments. No one attending can forget the Sikhs providing thousands of free lunches every day to every attendee, something they do at every Parliament. The Sikhs are religiously committed to sewa or service, and, hence, Sikh benefactors finance the lunches while Sikh volunteers from numerous countries come to cook, serve, and clean up. It is an inspiring demonstration of caring for one’s neighbor and facilitates great conversations as attendees eat together, sitting next to one another and sharing where they are from, what brought them, and what they learned that morning.
I recall learning about the Yoruba tradition with an eclectic room of listeners including a Buddhist monk, two veiled Muslim women, and a small contingent of Navajos who asked good questions and made wise observations about the similarities and differences with their own tradition. The Parliament is unique in its ability to bring together diverse peoples from across the globe, united in their concern for human suffering and their desire to create a better world.
The Parliament also includes ritual and performances. An elegant Hindu woman performed a beautiful rendition of the dance of Shiva Nataraj, and the sacred music evening at the Mormon Tabernacle stacked one transcendent moment after another in perhaps the most moving musical performance I have ever witnessed. The sacred music evening is a staple at every Parliament, bringing world class performers from the various traditions in music, dance, drumming, and chant.
Getting Down to Business
The workshop sessions are the heart of the event. Hundreds of talks, performances, and panels share practical ideas, educate the mind, pull at your heart-strings, and sometimes reveal outright heroism. Your toughest task: deciding which of the two or three sessions you want to attend when they are scheduled at the same time. Presenters include global luminaries, activists tackling problems both local and international, young people stepping up to make a difference, and academics and thinkers who have reflected on religion, best practices, and personal well-being.
Given this rich opportunity, I enthusiastically joined the Steering Committee for the 2018 Parliament in Toronto. My role includes co-chairing Canadian Programming, where I joined with others to help create an exciting schedule.
Each day of the 2018 parliament addresses a key theme.
The opening day focuses on Indigenous issues, where Canada is finally beginning to reckon with its sordid past. Appropriately, this day’s programming is planned completely by an Indigenous Working Group and is filled with Indigenous voices both from Canada and abroad, including Naomi Lanoi and John Borrows.
Day 2 focuses on Women and Girls and includes speakers like Sakena Yacoobi who has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates for her risky work in supporting girls’ education in Afghanistan. During the Taliban’s reign, her organization supported 80 underground schools. Today her Afghan Institute of Learning provides teacher training to women, promotes education for boys and girls, and provides health education to women and children.
Day 3 tackles the global environmental crisis we face and our responsibilities therein. Climate champions including Vandana Shiva and Christiana Figueres will offer inspiration and also challenge us to take seriously the urgent need to create sustainable societies starting here and now.
Day 4 looks at Justice, including a keynote talk from Njeri Kabeberi, executive director of GreenPeace Africa. She won the 2017 Munir Mazrui ‘Lifetime Achievement Human Rights Defenders Award’ for her work to increase women’s rights in Kenya.
Day 5 addresses Hate, Violence, and War, including presentations by Kamara. It also gives a platform to the Next Generation, young leaders such as Anja Fahlenkamp, founder of Faiths in Tune, and Rawaad Mahyub, president of A Common Word Among the Youth (ACWAY), who offer hope for the future.
The final morning addresses the 2018 theme: The Promise of Inclusion, the Power of Love.
The Parliament of the World’s Religions is a rare opportunity to meet interesting people who share the hope for a better world, to hear from inspiring, learned speakers, and to be moved by ritual, dance and human stories. I hope to see you there.
Header Photo: Toronto – Photo: Max Pixel