Stones in the Sacred Household: The 2021 Parliament of the World’s Religions, by Trebbe Johnson

A hopeful report from the 2021 Parliament of the World’s Religions

The world is in a state of bereavement. That was the fundamental premise that convinced Stephen Avino, then Acting Executive Director, now Executive Director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, that convening a 2021 session of the global interfaith community was imperative. Long months of pandemic, the certainty that we are all heading toward climate calamity, and in the United States months of political and social instability, have sunk billions of people around the world in loneliness, grief, and anxiety. The Parliament board agreed that they needed to address this crisis and scheduled an online gathering for October 16-18 with the theme “Opening our Hearts to the World: Compassion in Action.”

The eighth convening of leaders and followers of the world’s diverse spiritual traditions was a plea for cooperation, compassion, and spiritual activism. It was also a chorus of offerings of comfort and inspiration, reminders that, even in the midst of our most dire predicaments, we belong to something greater and more mysterious. Far from being remote from worldly challenges, an accusation sometimes leveled at religion, this Parliament reminded participants that religion, now more than ever before, must be essential to solving those challenges. 

The World’s Parliament of Religions first met in Chicago in 1893, taking advantage of the influx of visitors and dignitaries to the World Columbian Exposition to bring spiritual leaders together to discuss more metaphysical visions for the future than could be sampled among the gilded pavilions of the fair. After a long hiatus of one-hundred years, the parliament has met every few years in Chicago, Cape Town, Barcelona, Melbourne, Salt Lake City, and most recently in Toronto in 2018, attracting people from around the world. To attend that first gathering, many delegates had to travel for months over sea and land. In 2021, we simply clicked on a little blue line and there we were amidst thousands of others. 

Although the planners had worried that members of the world’s spiritual community might be reluctant to meet online, they were gratified by the response to their announcement. Among the spiritual leaders, nuclear disarmament and peace activists, ecologists and government officials, musicians and dancers who gave presentations were His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Grandmother Flordemayo, Rabbi David Rosen, Karen Armstrong, Pope Francis, Honorable Dr. Karan Singh, Eboo Patel, Terry Tempest Williams, Jane Goodall, Bhai Sahib Mohinder Singh Ahluwalia, Mindahi Bastida, Jonathon Granoff, Vandana Shiva, Baba Wanbe Abinbola, Imam Elam Jaleel Muhammad, Mother Maya Tiwari, and Vy Higgensen’s Gospel for Teens choir. 

Instead of unfolding around topics of interest to particular groups, such as women’s issues, indigenous issues, or social justice, as at in-person gatherings this event followed what board of trustees member and 2021 program chair Phyllis Curott called “an emotional arc. We would begin where we all are, all over the world, which is grief. Then we would bring together sources of hope. How do religious faiths give us healing, solace, and resilience, so that in the midst of things that break our heart and break our spirit, we find ways to go forward? Having retrieved this optimism, how do we cope with the things that make us grieve? How do we take inspired action to make the world a better place? How do we bless each other? How does our wisdom tradition enable us to go into the future?”

The planners encouraged religious leaders to speak on climate issues, and many did so. Dharma Master Hsin Tao invited participants to rediscover their love of the Earth, that the essential ecology of the community might be restored. Jain monk Muni Shri 108 Pramanasagar Ji Maharaj stated that, if every religion would realize that its primary responsibility is to protect nature, many of the world’s problems could be solved. “This is how we move from adharma to dharma,” he said, speaking of the path away from that which is unethical, immoral, or unlawful and toward that which is aligned with spiritual duty and inner truth. And, declared Andrew Harvey, author and founder of the Institute for Sacred Activism, at the closing plenary, “We need to accept coexistence. We need more than prayers!”

In the plenary sessions and in many of the more than five-hundred workshops and panels that took place, presenters also spoke of the Covid pandemic and racial injustice as both sources of grief and grounds for repentance. Several speakers acknowledged the role that religion has had in oppressing people of their own and different faiths. Fr. Joshtrom Kureetdhama, the pope’s advisor on environmental issues and a member of an interfaith delegation to the Holy Land that included indigenous people from Australia, Thailand, and the Americas [see Trebbe Johnson, “Gifts in the Promised Land,” Parabola, Summer 2020], called for religion to pay more attention to the wisdom of indigenous people, whose ways of respecting the Earth remain vital, despite the widespread theft of their land and culture. Soraya Deen, founder of Muslim Women Speak, asserted that Muslim men, believing that their gender is favored by God, have used their religion as justification to treat women as property. Making the issue of oppression personal and heartbreaking were four young people from Mumbai who presented a panel about the pain they have experienced due to poverty, discrimination, and sickness. “We must assure that every single solitary human being is treated with fairness and equality by virtue of the sacred breath they breathe,” proclaimed the Very Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, Canon Theologian at Washington National Cathedral.

A testament to the need for religion to address the crises facing the world was the participation of Pope Francis and His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox Church, who had been absent from recent gatherings. The pope’s message, conveyed in a letter from a papal nuncio, stated in part: “His Holiness … trusts that this experience of fraternal dialogue will draw attention to the universal aspiration of the human spirit to peace and the moral imperative to act with compassion in meeting the needs of our brothers and sisters in the larger human family.” In early September the pope and the patriarch had met with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to sign a statement for delegates to 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, beseeching “every believer of good will” to act wisely on behalf of the Earth.

In an effort to reproduce some of the most rewarding features of past parliaments, Accelevant, the technological organizers of the event, created online “lounges” where people could connect with strangers from around the world, and included links to “expos” in which a variety of organizations and enterprises shared information about their work. Technology did enable some minor adharmic behavior, as many people tried to promote their own programs on the Chat function while others were speaking. The loneliness that Covid has left and that technology is incapable of soothing was perhaps nowhere more palpable than in Matthew Fox’s beautiful and stirring Cosmic Mass. In the segment called Via Negativa, Fox asks participants to get down on the ground on all fours and intone the sounds of their grief. Then, after several minutes, he invites everyone to listen to the sounds of others. As if by magic, lamentation shifts to a song of longing, understanding, and love. Online, with everyone muted, we were left alone with our own cries, which only deepened the sense of isolation and sorrow. It was a poignant reminder of how the physical presence of others is an intrinsic part of the spiritual community. 

Official numbers for how many people attended the 2021 Parliament are not yet in. Although four thousand registered, another advantage of the online gathering was that people could gather in one another’s homes or places of worship to partake of the event together. A woman in South Africa told communications director Miriam Quezada that the financial cost of airfare and hotels would have prohibited her from attending in person; being able to join over the internet, she said, changed her life. Four thousand plus people is a lot. But considering how many religious leaders did not attend the Parliament highlights how rare is the motivation for people of different faiths to join together to learn, find inspiration, and create opportunities for ceremony and sacred activism. According to Quezada, the challenge for the organization now is how to spread that message in the most meaningful way. “Religious communities can be in the forefront of not just understanding compassion,” she said, “but making sure it’s actually being incorporated into the daily lives of their faithful.”

The next big collective action for the Parliament of the World’s Religions will take place in Chicago in 2023. At the closing plenary, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that the city would help the Parliament celebrate its 130th anniversary by hosting the gathering in the city where it all started. 

In a brief talk during the opening plenary Michael Reid Trice, a Parliament board member and professor and Director of the Center for Religious Wisdom and World Affairs at Seattle University, introduced the Greek word Koinonia as an expression of community. “In the Christian scriptures,” he said in a later conversation, “in I Peter 2:4, the term is used to exemplify how we are all participating as living stones in the household of God. I like this image, because it feels substantial and spiritual, and invitational to a hurting world.” In this hurting world, there are many forces at work that could either cause that sacred household to crumble and or build it up stronger than ever. The Parliament of the World’s Religions and its followers must be among the builders.

By Trebbe Johnson

Trebbe Johnson is a consulting editor to Parabola. Her books include The World is a Waiting Lover and Radical Joy for Hard Times, coming in Fall 2018 from North Atlantic Books. For twenty-five years she has led wilderness rites of passage programs and counseled hundreds of journeyers on how best to return home.