It was November 1, 1984. On the previous night, India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards, an act of retribution after Gandhi had sanctioned the Indian army to storm the holiest of Sikh temples, the Golden Temple of Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar, Punjab, in an effort to oust Sikh separatists. Gandhi’s death ignited outrage among Hindus. Armed with sticks, stones, and cans of gas, they surged through city streets, intent on massacring any Sikhs they could find. Telling this story at the opening plenary of the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions, Nitin Ajmera, follower of the Jain religion and Chair of the Parliament’s Board of Trustees, told how that night had given him direction for his life.
When a mob ran into his community in New Delhi, Ajmera’s father and other neighbors went out calmly to meet them. Young Nitin, age twelve, and his brother were told to stay in their room. Through a crack in the door, however, the boy could see light, and as he pressed closer, he heard the voices of the men telling the intruders that no Sikhs living in that area were to be harmed. Eventually, the mob left.
From then on, Ajmera told me later, “I struggled with disharmony. I struggled with people negatively talking about things. I became the person who is always the mediator.” Encountering a disagreement or crisis, he would think, “Let it not be that broken. The Jain point of view believes in a multiplicity of viewpoints. If you can realize different perspectives, it will drive you to solutions that will be better for all of us.”
A multiplicity of viewpoints, described, prayed over, celebrated, sung, danced, and debated by practitioners of many spiritual practices drove the five-day convening of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, held August 14-18 at Chicago’s McCormick Place Lakeside Center. There are those who think of religion as a lofty preoccupation, divorced from the sorrows and suffering of the real world. But from its beginnings, the dominant message and fervent plea of the Parliament has been just the opposite: to bring together people of diverse faiths, that they may face and resolve some of the world’s most grievous problems.
Since the first Parliament in 1893, also held in Chicago, much about the agenda has changed. Back then the organizers had assumed, perhaps more tacitly than expressly, that by the end of the event, representatives of the many religious traditions who attended from around the world would have come to the conclusion that Christianity was the superior faith. Among the most popular speakers at that historic assembly, however, were Soyen Shaku, the first Japanese Buddhist Zen monk ever to come to the United States, and the charismatic Hindu Swami Vivekananda of India, who was hailed by the New York Herald as “undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions.” In his speech Swami Vivekananda declared, “Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism.”1
Now, one hundred thirty years later, the sad reality of how greatly that prayer has failed to materialize is all too apparent. Far-right groups are gaining power all over the world, climate change advances inexorably and more violently each year, and people in many countries are targeted because of their spiritual beliefs. With its theme of “Defending Freedom & Human Rights” the 2023 Parliament invited its seven-thousand-plus participants, representing more than two hundred faith traditions in ninety-five countries, to come closer to the metaphorical cracks in the door that Nitin Ajmera described and ask themselves, What, then, is ours to do?
Each day the theme unfolded with plenaries focused on the topics of Crisis, Conscience, and Community, with a Call to Action on the final afternoon. It was often hard to recall who’d said what at which sessions, for the themes, as was perhaps to be expected, merged. After all, crisis is everywhere, responses to crisis are motivated by conscience, and no workable response to crisis exists without community. Laced throughout these daily themes were “tracks,” focuses of interest to particular constituencies, such as Indigenous, The Next Generation, and Women. Other tracks, like Climate Action and Peace & Justice, concentrated on issues. Many sessions took place concurrently as panels, workshops, ceremonies, and films, while other offerings were open throughout the day, inviting people to stop by, chat, and explore. You could take a meditative walk through a labyrinth, don a headset in the Kids of PoWR area and go on a virtual tour of sacred places from the Sistine Chapel to the Kaaba, or visit the women’s Red Tent and be interviewed by filmmaker Dale Allen on questions like, “What is your responsibility as a woman of your faith to protect our next generation of women?”
Whether the morning brought sun, rain, or driving wind, it began ceremonially at 7:00, as members of Chicago’s many Indigenous communities, including Winnebago, Otoe, Menominee, Sauk, Ojibwe, and others, lit a sacred fire. A traditional focal point of any gathering at which Indigenous people meet to discuss spiritual matters, the fire had burned continuously at previous Parliaments until it sank into embers on the last day. Regulations in Chicago required not only that the fire be lit in a metal container on the South Terrace instead of on the ground, but also that it be extinguished at the end of each day, an obstacle the First Nations community smoothly accommodated by offering a ceremony of Thanking the Day at 7:00 each evening.
Attendees had many opportunities to discover how people of diverse spiritual practices are working together. Jewish, Christian, Jain, and Hindu panelists discussed how religions with specific dietary proscriptions are confronting widespread problems of hunger, waste, and environmental degradation. An interfaith panel that included Muslim, Baptist, and First Nations/Cree representatives examined the moral and spiritual responsibility of global leaders to make reparations for mass atrocities. Members of Friends Across Faiths International presented a program of music and prayers for Ukraine and shared stories about the visit they had made together to that resolute, embattled country. Perhaps the most demonstrative teaching of how a faith can be generous and inclusive of all was offered at a daily lunch, langar, served by members of the Sikh community to anyone who wished to partake. At the entrance to a large tent we removed our shoes, then sat to have a white scarf tied around our heads. Those who were able sat in long rows on the floor as members of the community came by to ladle delicious vegetarian food onto our plates.
But the aim of this Parliament was not just to vaunt successful collaborations. Around the world people continue to be victimized because of their faith. Sometimes the brutalities of prejudice are carried out indirectly, as if a people’s spiritual traditions counted for nothing. For example, Zaya Guarani, a model and activist of the Kamorapi and Guarani Mbya ethnicities of Brazil, described the day she, her mother, and grandmother had to flee when developers rolled into their Amazonian village and set it and the surrounding rainforest on fire. Frequently the persecution is more direct. At an early morning presentation, Heni Zuberi and Omar Kanat described the atrocities that Muslim Uyghur people are suffering physically, mentally, and spiritually at the hands of the Communist Chinese. Chinese workers even move into the homes of Uyghur families, each interloper assigned to trail one family member. The outsider might suddenly demand, “What are you thinking?” followed more threateningly by, “Are you thinking about God?” Even the most basic human rights of prisoners have been stolen; they are not permitted to sleep with their blankets over their heads, lest they take advantage of that modicum of privacy to pray.
In many places, religion is the bludgeon men wield to force women to conform. “Theocracy is authoritarianism dressed in religious robes,” declared Rev. Phyllis Curott, Program Director of this Parliament, as well as an author, attorney, and one of America’s first public Wiccan priestesses, in her address at the Women’s Assembly. In the United States, fundamentalist Christian groups in collaboration with lawmakers have denied women their right to abortion. In Afghanistan the Taliban has forbidden women to work or go to school after sixth grade. Several speakers during the Parliament cited the courage of the Iranian schoolgirls who have been tearing off their veils and brandishing them in the air as a way of taking control of their own lives.
Youth around the world look anxiously at these daunting problems they are inheriting— and many of them refuse to wait until they reach adulthood to act. In a program called Youth Making Change, Mariam Azeez described how, as a Connecticut schoolgirl, she was bullied because she wore the hijab. “I used it to lift myself up,” said this sixteen-year-old, who has since started a Muslim Student Association in her high school, not just for Muslims but so other students can learn about Islam. She also successfully petitioned for the school to recognize Eid Al Fitr as an official holiday, on a par with Hanukkah and Easter. At the Climate Assembly, Danica Sun, a high-school senior and the co-director of Climate Youth Coalition, assured the audience that, although she is scared, she is not immobilized. “Youth are essential in the climate movement,” she said. “We must be given a role in the discussions that determine the livability of our future.”
“We must never give up our love for the world,” urged Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California, at the Climate Action Assembly. Faith leaders need to learn new skills to meet emergencies; take inspiration from the great spiritual leaders of the past, from bodhisattvas to Rev. Martin Luther King; and join together to celebrate the world’s beauty and lament its decline. Attendees at the Parliament took a direct part in the co-creation of several programs, helping to bring sacred attention to profane problems. At a Climate Repentance Ceremony presented by representatives of the interfaith Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders, audience members sang a chorus of “Hoshana” after each verse of a Jewish prayer based on the words of the young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. When people arrived at my Earth Hospice program, they were dismayed to discover that our assigned meeting place was a terrace jutting over a roaring Chicago expressway. We rallied by accepting the macadam reality of our circumstances and inviting the traffic into the ceremony, along with the glittering lake, the seagulls soaring overhead, and the jaunty scarlet impatiens in pots on the terrace. At his popular Cosmic Mass, Matthew Fox asked the estimated five hundred attendees to get down on what he called “all sevens” (feet, knees, arms, and forehead) and grieve aloud through their intonations until, miraculously, moans and cries evolved into sounds of harmony. After taking communion together, everyone joined in ecstatic dance. Another participatory project was Guns into Plowshares, led by the group Red Letter Christians. Their colorful, commanding display on the South Terrace greeted visitors with large wooden letters proclaiming “ENOUGH.” Strips of red and orange fabric defined the boundaries of the space, each one bearing the name of a child who had been killed by gun violence. Participants could contribute to the forging of peace by bending over an anvil and hammering a gun part into a garden tool.
Despite the attention paid at this gathering to so many worldly problems, the ineffable, transcendent aspects of spiritual tradition were not absent. The sacred arts have always connected us mortals with the divine through painting, theater, poetry, and music, and these arts graced every plenary, many workshops, and the Kids of PoWR stage. In the exhibition hall, meandering people were suddenly magnetized to the performance space where, for example, young performers in sunflower-yellow costumes, accompanied by a long and rippling dragon, dashed in and began to dance. On Thursday night there was an evening of sacred music, including a whirling Sufi dancer, Rumi’s poetry, ballet, Gospel, and the incantatory song, tapping sticks, and stomping feet of an aboriginal Ngarrindjeri elder.
At any major event like the Parliament, taking place in an enormous space with thousands of people, the entire enterprise run by an incongruously small—and unflaggingly good-humored—staff and volunteers, there are bound to be inconveniences. A very long registration line, meeting rooms unmarked with the names of upcoming sessions, and apps that were difficult to negotiate all caused frustration. However, the overweening mood was so open and anticipatory that even the annoyances were muted; people just used their time in line to get to know one another.
Of more serious concern was a noticeable lack of attention in general, a problem that had not been part of the previous three in-person Parliaments I had attended around the world (the 2021 convening was on line during COVID). Most of the plenaries were sparsely attended, and the gazes of many who were present were turned not to the stage but to the glimmer of their cell phones. What accounted for this lack of attention and what does it bode? Was it because the space was so immense that it would have shrunk even a much larger audience? Was it because some of the plenaries took place at times when parallel events were in session? Or, more personally, are we willing to lean forward and listen attentively to those speakers who, though they’re communicating in English instead of their own language, may be hard to understand? Will we resist escaping into our phones during speeches that aren’t dramatically orated or of special interest to us? Are we willing, in other words, to step closer to the light and the danger shining through the crack in the door and ask ourselves if there is something there that we must do?
I asked myself these questions on the morning of Day 3, when it dawned on me that I would have to answer “no” to some of them. How disrespectful, I thought, ashamed. From that moment, I kept the phone off and gave my attention to the speakers. It seemed the least I could do in a gathering filled with pleas to activate conscience.
It would be unreasonable to expect that five days at the Parliament of the World’s Religions can mend so many crises, said program chair Phyllis Curott, adding, “But small sparks can illuminate the world and carry the experience out of the Parliament and into the world. That’s how change can be made.”
One of those small sparks was ignited at a panel discussion called “Women in the News and Media: Reclaiming the Narrative.” The first of the six speakers was Frozan Rahmani, an Afghan journalist and filmmaker who was forced to flee Kabul after she dared to investigate allegations of corruption in the Western-backed government and who has recently been remotely documenting the erasure of women’s rights under the Taliban. Admitting that she was self-conscious about her English, she read painstakingly and lengthily from a printed document, letting each page slip onto the floor as she finished with it. Fifth to speak was Dr. Marty K. Casey, founder of the global commemoration Black SON-Day and creator of UnGUN Institute, a St. Louis-based organization that helps people heal from traumatic events like gun violence, which plague so many Black communities. Before talking about her own work, Casey admitted that, while Rahmani was telling her story, she had been getting a little anxious about whether the other women on the panel would have time to share. “I had to UnGUN myself,” Casey admitted. Then she leaned forward and told Frozan Rahmani that she would like to offer her a free UnGUN session to help her heal from the trauma she’s experienced as a result of her work exposing injustice in her country. Clearly moved, Rahmani accepted. ◆
1 Art Institute of Chicago, “Swami Vivekananda and His 1893 Speech,” https://www.artic.edu/about-us/mission-and-history/swami-vivekananda-and-his-1893-speech.
2 For my articles about previous Parliaments, see: “World Religions Get Down to Earth,” Parabola, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Summer 2010); “How Do We Reclaim the Heart of Humanity?” Parabola, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Spring 2016); “Spiritual Activists Confront the Woes of the Planet,” Parabola, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Spring 2019); and “Stones in the Sacred Household,” Parabola, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Winter 2022).
This piece is excerpted from the Winter 2023 issue of Parabola, COMFORT & JOY. You can find the full issue on our online store.