The 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions
by Thomas Ryan, CSP
November 19, 2018

There have been several meetings referred to as a Parliament of the World’s Religions. The first one took place in 1893 in Chicago in an effort to create a global dialogue of faiths. The event was celebrated by another conference on its centenary in 1993, held again in Chicago. Subsequent Parliaments were held in Cape Town, South Africa (1999); Barcelona, Spain (2004); Melbourne, Australia (2009) , and Salt Lake City, Utah, USA (2015). 

The world’s oldest and most diverse global interfaith event marked its 125th anniversary in Toronto, Canada, by bringing together leaders and followers of more than 200 spiritual and secular traditions to “pursue global understanding, reconciliation and change.” 

A major rationale for choosing Canada as the host nation for the 7th Parliament is Canada’s recent and ongoing implementation of a process of “truth and reconciliation,” particularly with regard to its indigenous people. The choice of the Toronto metropolitan area as the host metropolis was triggered by its status as the most culturally diverse city in the world, and one of the most successful cities in achieving an enviable degree of civic, cultural, and religious harmony. Its motto is “Divergency Is Our Strength.” 

The theme of the November 1-7 Parliament in Toronto was “The Promise of Inclusion and the Power of Love,” with over 7,500 participants from 80 countries. The theme witnesses to how the Reign of God cannot be achieved without pursuing global understanding and inclusion among the different living faiths who share this planet. And such direct spiritual experience helps us see that it is our nature to love and to be creative in fostering right relationships among all beings here and now. Love of neighbor follows from love of God. It is the concrete actualization of one’s love for God. 

An outdoor spiritual opening ceremony led by First Nations people involved a water ceremony, a Sacred Fire, and a procession into the main plenary hall of the Convention Centre with music and dancing by the Native People. In the opening plenary assembly, it was emphasized that “love is a verb”, and that the Parliament can be a microcosm of what our world could become: inclusive and loving, with its participants proactively sharing the message of connectedness, a worldview in which we are all connected to Divinity. Not “me and you” but “us”, collective dignity. 

One of the opening plenary’s speakers was Jim Wallis, the president and founder of Sojourners in Washington, DC, a movement whose mission calls for “putting faith into action for social justice.” Wallis cited “the huge gap between north and south on our planet. Hunger, poverty, lack of moral principle to care for our brothers and sisters,” reflecting that religion is the practice of compassion, a value in all the religions. “All humanity comes from one Father,” said Wallis. “We have no business killing one another. We may have different philosophies, but the same end: inner peace. Medical scientists say constant fear is eating our human system. Compassion is very import to our physical health as well. Whether we’re secular, moral, or religious, we need to build compassion. And when there are differences, we need to solve them through dialogue.”   

Buddhist monks offering a prayer
Buddhist monks offering a prayer

 

The programmatic structure of the Parliament offers simultaneous prayer services in the different world religions at the beginning of the day, with 500 workshops, seminars, and panel discussions to enable participants to expand their interests and strengths, as well as daily plenary assemblies with multiple speakers, cultural performances and artistic exhibitions filling up the rest of the day. This article offers but a taste of session tone and content in some of the recurring themes around Indigenous Peoples, Environment, Faith and Interfaith, and the Next Generation of Leadership. 

Indigenous People

Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild
Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild

Indigenous people in Canada were once everywhere, but today have been granted only 2% of the land. Attention was given to how indigenous people can flourish again. In the colonial era, children were rounded up in September, the “crying month”, as over time, approximately 150,000 children were taken from their parents to a residential school with the goal of “killing the Indian” in them. It was against the law for them to practice their spirituality. Many died trying to run away from home to avoid this. What took place in residential schools amounted to cultural genocide. 

A major reason why the Parliament chose Canada for this meeting is that the Canadian Reconciliation Commission has committed to dealing with the indigenous people. Commission members traveled across the country interviewing indigenous people and listening to about 7,000 residential school stories of physical, mental, cultural, spiritual, and sexual abuse. School legacy issues include education, culture and language, spirituality; health; justice; governance; poverty; the missing and murdered; and child welfare.

In the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples, there are 16 Calls to Action, and principles of reconciliation are given, recognizing that reconciliation will require the leadership and sustained efforts of all levels of government as well as the continuous efforts of Indigenous and public leaders working together. In 2007 the largest Class Action Settlement was taken by the Commission. It established a multi-billion dollar fund to support survivors.          

Indigenous women Margaret Lokawa (L) and Manulani Meyer
Indigenous women Margaret Lokawa (L) and Manulani Meyer

In an evening plenary session on “The Future Generation,” Jessica Bolduc, a French-Ashinanabe from the Batchewana First nation in Northern Ontario, said 

“The destruction of our ways of life came with colonization and the creation of Canada and the United States.  Indians were seen as a problem that got in the way of European progress. Our communities were pushed onto reserves, and children separated from their families in residential schools. The starting point of transformation is a recovery of our beliefs. It is time for us to seek justice and be liberated.”  

Beverley Jacobs, who lives and practices law at her home community of Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in Southern Ontario, added: “We know that these are indigenous lands and territories. Here in North America there is a land claim process. So there is a continuing struggle and fight. Colonizers still have to understand our connection to the land.”

Faith and Interfaith 

In a plenary on the theme of Understanding, religious historian Karen Armstrong, whose book A History of God is an international bestseller, observed that “Now we do not just look at people in our own tribes, but at the whole world, because we are linked together as never before—on the web, in the stock market, in environmental effects. Brexit,” she said, “is a symbol of the disease of nationalism. At a time when the world is becoming increasingly international, people are retreating into nationalist ghettos.” 

And another speaker, Dr. Ingrid Mattson, a Muslim religious leader, reflected that “we are only beginning to understand the efforts being made to foment discord and chaos among people through use of the internet. It is not religion but fear that is the greatest source of irrational violence in the world today. Fear is easily manipulated, and we are being manipulated.”

In another plenary, The Parliament’s 2018 Chairman of the Board, Robert Sellers, expressed his conviction that faith must be linked incontrovertibly to interfaith. “We can no longer simply stay in our religious silos. The problem to be faced is how to combine loyalty to one’s own tradition with interest in another or other traditions. We don’t have to water down our own beliefs in order to draw inspiration from the faith and practice of others. We can simply say, ‘Tell me about your path and the light you find in it.’ We can profoundly affirm our way while at the same time respecting other ways. We are all pilgrims on the journey. Let’s do it together.”

Panel: Countering War, Hate, Violence (R to L) Izzeldin Abuelaish (Palestine), Swami Agnivesh (India), Shilapiji Maharaj Sadhviji (England), James Lawson (U.S.), Lakena Yacoobi (Afghanistan)
Panel: Countering War, Hate, Violence (R to L) Izzeldin Abuelaish (Palestine), Swami Agnivesh (India), Shilapiji Maharaj Sadhviji (England), James Lawson (U.S.), Lakena Yacoobi (Afghanistan)

In a workshop on “Welcoming the Stranger with Our Head, Heart, and Hands”, Manohar Grewal, former president of the World Sikh Organization, reflected that where immigrants are concerned, a challenge is shyness. How to overcome it? Appreciative inquiry. It begins with one-on-one questions, like: “Could you share with me something that’s precious to you in your faith practice?” He observed that in small communities,  people are generally more open and accepting.   

“Interfaith opportunities begin in the driveway where I feel my neighbor glaring at me,” said Grewal. “How to respond? Start with common, everyday things, but converse. People can share with one another over a shared meal. Young people can get to know one another in interfaith camps. People can learn more about one another by setting up an interfaith library.”  

In a panel on “Taking the Interfaith Plunge: Making Interfaith Engagement Accessible to Everyone,” Tarunjit Butalia, founding trustee of the Sikh Council for Interfaith Relations, was asked, “Of all the events you have been involved in, which were the most successful?” He responded: “We put together every year a prayer gathering. This year’s theme is Addressing Poverty with Head, Heart, and Hands. We will follow that up with a service project. How do different interfaith organizations work with one another? Coordinate. Cooperate. Collaborate.” 

Another panelist, Maneck Nawroji Bhujwala, a Zoroastrian priest born in India but now living in California, shared: “I invite people to our seasonal festivals so they can see how we worship and taste our food. We have community service projects, and a National Day of Prayer, visiting different places of worship, giving people a chance to learn about other religions with a Question and Answer opportunity.” 

Sara Raheim, a Muslim American and co-chair of Next Generation task force, shared how some of her family and friends were afraid that her interfaith work would water her own faith down. “But it’s not a blending of traditions,” she said, “but a coming to appreciate and celebrate what makes us unique.” 

Environment 

There were numerous workshops, panel discussions, and a Climate Action Assembly addressing current environmental concerns. The Climate Action Task Force of the Parliament is working to strengthen the growing global faith-based climate movement, bringing people of many traditions together in common commitment and effective action. 

A shining example of this is the work of a Tibetan Buddhist leader, His Holiness Karmapa, who has created an eco-monastic movement across the Himalayan region which now has 55 monasteries devoted to ecology. “Religious figures must work in consort with scientists toward preserving the environment,” said Karmapa. “We are all mutually responsible for one another. May we work together hand-in-hand for the sake of all living beings, not just humans.” 

Another speaker on the topic was Cardinal Blaise Cupich of Chicago, who integrated into his presentation content from Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si on the environment and human ecology. “The deterioration of the planet is real, and at human causing,” said Cupich.  “We are to approach creation with a sense of awe and wonder, committing ourselves to be the servants and stewards of our creation rather than its masters. We need to support an integral ecology.”

And as for the inter-relational environment of the Parliament itself, it was enhanced by a daily free lunch called a “langar,” prepared and served by the Sikh community in Ontario. In the Sikh religion, the equality of all people is emphasized. To express this, everyone removes his or her shoes, puts on a head scarf, is seated together in rows on the floor, knee to knee, and has the same choice of vegetarian food, enjoyed over conversation together. 

Change 

In the closing plenary, Larry Greenfield, the Executive Director of the Parliament, cited several responsibilities of the religions of the world:

  • A responsibility not just to care for themselves, but for our creation, our environment. 
  • The religions of the world can and must be the central agents of change, but to do that, the religions must also change. 
  • They must change their thinking that they can do this by themselves. Collaboration among them is now a necessity. 
  • Religions of the world must take on free markets and capitalism; they must condemn and overcome political and economic forces that threaten the well-being of creation. 
  • Religions need to recover the power of civil disobedience, non-violent action. 

They must resist the building of walls at their borders, the killing of animals and deforestation. 

“If we truly believe in the power of love and inclusion,” said Kanwaljit Kauer, President of the Global Sikh Council, “we will not compromise our principles in the face of the needs of immigrants and refugees. We cannot keep truth, justice and compassion out of politics. In the absence of justice it is difficult to have a peaceful life. Pledge today to bring godly values into public life.” 

“We are all equal members of this human family,” declared Kauer.  “We have learned a lot, but learning has to be practiced, or it’s meaningless. There is only one race: the human race. There is much in common in our different faiths. And God is less interested in our ‘religious labels’ than in the way we conduct ourselves.” 

Bob Ray, a lawyer who teaches Public Policy at the University of Toronto, concurred: “We must find a politics that emphasizes our shared humanity, goals, prosperity. We are failing to recognize that we are passing on the earth to future generations. Sustainability has to be built into every decision that we make. We must assert both faith and science. Religion, tragically, has given rise to as much hate as it has given to love. We have to challenge those who would make of our religion an instrument of destruction. We have work to do. There is an agenda that requires change and action.” 

William Barber, Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign in North Carolina, underlined this: We must move beyond the dominance of greed for power, money, consumption. We commit ourselves to this global ethic, to understanding one another, to acting in compassion for one another.”

“We are here to learn from each other and to share with each other,” said Swami Chidanand Saraswati, president of Parmath Niketan, one of India’s largest spiritual communities.  “If there is any shortage on this earth, it is a global consciousness shortage.” 

At the Parliament’s end, Molly Horan, Director of Communications, made a statement that struck a chord with us all:We’ve (Parliament participants) been the opposite of greed, of segregation. We’ve been a circle of friends. I can’t think of any other event on earth that attracts this level of convening.”

And in closing, Buddhist Audrey Kiagawa, a UN rep and the first incoming woman Board Chair of the World Parliament of Religions, sent participants forth with these words: “Every single person in this room is a leader. As you go back into your own communities, look for the role you can play to help create a world that is just, peaceful, and sustainable for all.” 

“Engaging in Religious Pluralism: Opportunities and Challenges” panelists (L to R): Fr. Thomas Ryan, Jessica Moss, Fr. Joseph Varghese, Shiv Talwar, April Bolin
“Engaging in Religious Pluralism: Opportunities and Challenges” panelists (L to R):
Fr. Thomas Ryan, Jessica Moss, Fr. Joseph Varghese, Shiv Talwar, April Bolin


Paulist Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Boston, MA. Special thanks to Rev. Deborah Hart of Toronto for providing the photos for this article.