In December 2009, I attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions (PWR) in Melbourne, Australia. This gathering has taken place in a major world city approximately every five years since 1993. Despite the global economic downturn, 5,500 people from all over the world attended this extraordinary occasion. There were religious leaders and seekers present from every imaginable religion, including many I had never heard of, such as the Mandaeans, a pacifist gnostic sect that was driven out of Iraq after the United States invasion. (Many of them have settled in Sydney, where they have close ties with Friends.) This was a unique opportunity to get to know sects I had read about but never experienced, such as the Zoroastrians, Jains, and Rastafarians. It was also an opportunity to hear and meet with some major religious leaders including the Dalai Lama, outspoken Catholic nun Joan Chittister, progressive Evangelical activist Jim Wallis (editor of Sojourners and several bestselling books), Jewish peace activist Rabbi Michael Lerner (editor of Tikkun magazine), Catholic theologian Hans Kung, Muslim intellectual/activist Tariq Ramadan, and others. The PWR is sort of the "Olympics" of the interfaith movement.
With the theme of this year’s gathering, "Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth," there was a major focus on the environment, with religious leaders from around the world affirming the need to take action against global warming. The timing of the Parliament gathering— just prior to the Copenhagen Climate Conference—helped to amplify these voices. It was significant that Muslims, Christians, Jews, and those of other faiths joined together on this historic occasion. There were not only panel discussions and plenary speeches, but also a Hindu "Declaration on Climate Change," which was read out and ratified by an august assembly of Hindu saints from India and around the world. The Parliament is not a legislative body, so it did not pass any resolutions, but petitions relating to the environment were circulated among attendees and sent to Copenhagen.
During the opening plenary on Thursday night, an aboriginal elder danced and played the didgeridoo while the Melbourne symphony orchestra played and performers from various traditions sang. There were benedictions by Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, and Buddhists, as well as speeches by various religious leaders and dignitaries. Other plenaries that focused on the concerns of indigenous peoples and youth were just as extraordinary.
The first Parliament of World Religions took place at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, which is considered the beginning of the modern interfaith movement. Thousands of people took part in this historic occasion—the first time that Christian and non-Christian religious leaders met and had religious dialogues on a more or less equal footing. (To learn more about this remarkable gathering, I recommend The Dawn of Religious Pluralism: Voices from the World’s Parliament of Religions, 1893, edited by Richard Seager, 1993.)
A significant number of Quakers took part in the first Parliament, and many reports about it appeared in Friends Intelligencer. There were, in fact, two Quaker delegations: one Hicksite and one Orthodox! The Hicksite group went on to form the Christian Interfaith Relations Committee (CIRC), which became part of Friends General Conference (FGC) when it was founded in 1900.
There are similarities between the PWR and FGC Gatherings. Like the FGC Gathering, the Parliament is an educational forum, not a deliberative body, with workshops, notable speakers, and opportunities for networking. There are also parallels between the Parliament and the World Council of Churches (WCC). However, unlike the WCC, the Parliament is bottomup, not top-down, in structure.
The goal of the PWR is to create a worldwide grassroots movement—to raise awareness and to transform the religious cultures of the world. That is an ambitious goal, but one being accomplished not only by its fiveyear gatherings, but by creating a network of "partner cities" that organize local events with a global perspective on interfaith work.
It is exciting to be part of a movement that seeks to transform the religious culture of the world, and thereby promote peace and justice.
For me, the interfaith movement and the Parliament have been deeply spiritual experiences, comparable to my becoming a Friend. When I joined Princeton Meeting in 1984, it was the beginning of a new life—a life based on spirituality and friendship such as I had never known before. Attending my first FGC Gathering in 1986 was a peak experience in this new life. Being surrounded by nearly 2,000 warm and enthusiastic Friends was like being in heaven! Since then, I have gone to the Gathering as often as I could—at least a dozen times—and have always felt uplifted.
Becoming involved with the interfaith movement after 9/11 was the next big step in my spiritual development. While Quakerism (thanks to FGC and Friends World Committee for Consultation) opened me up to a worldwide community of Friends, the interfaith movement opened me up to a much bigger world of people from diverse religious traditions—Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Baha’is, Sikhs, and more. Despite our differences in religious practices and beliefs, we all share a common purpose and vision—the hope of building a pluralistic world where people of different faiths cooperate for the common good. When I went to the Parliament for the first time, it was like going to the FGC Gathering, only on a much grander and more universal scale. It was as if everyone I met—no matter how strangely garbed—was a Friend!
Since returning from the Parliament, I have been working full-time as a volunteer interfaith peace activist, organizing events, workshops, vigils, and other activities. This summer, I have been giving presentations about the interfaith movement and the Parliament at various yearly meetings and also at the Gathering, where I am giving an interest group talk sponsored by Quaker Universalist Fellowship (QUF).
The interfaith movement is comparable to the ecumenical movement, which began in the 19th century and came to fruition with the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948. The WCC, which was supported by many (but not all) Friends—including FGC—dramatically transformed Christianity, especially after Vatican II, and helped to foster a spirit of cooperation and trust among Christians. The interfaith movement and the Parliament, I am confident, will bring about an even more historic transformation of religious cultures throughout the world in the 21st century. Hans Kung, who attended the first modern PWR in 1993, summed up the program of the interfaith movement with these memorable words: "There can be no peace among nations without peace among the religions. There can be no peace among religions without dialogue. And there can be no dialogue without a common ethic."
During the Parliament gathering, I gave a workshop on "Listening with a Heart of Mercy," which I felt was well received. The room was packed with over 60 people. I showed the documentary video Compassionate Listening, talked about my trip to Israel/Palestine with the Compassionate Listening project, and led the group in a compassionate listening exercise. My co-leaders were Noor Malika, a Sufi Muslim, and Ruth Broyde-Sharone, a Jewish filmmaker. Both work with me on the local chapter of the Parliament. We discussed how to overcome obstacles to deep listening through a process very similar to our Quaker clearness committee.
There were so many outstanding workshops (a total of 650, with over 1,000 presenters) that it was difficult to choose which to attend. I took a workshop with Michael Lerner and had a chance to talk with him later about compassionate listening. I attended a session in which Jim Wallis, Joan Chittister, Rabbi David Saperstein, and others discussed what the religious communities needed to do to help end poverty, and I attended a session on spiritual healing led by aboriginal people that I found fascinating.
Over the course of a week, I was impressed by the surprising diversity of programs and how they met the needs of a wide range of people of different ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. This Parliament will no doubt have a far-reaching effect on future religious leaders in the United States, and perhaps the world. Over 100 seminarians from the U.S.—future ministers, imams, and rabbis— attended, thanks to a generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation for a program entitled "Prepare Religious Leaders for a Multi-Religious World." Each of 15 seminaries and schools of theology sent four to ten students and one or two faculty members.
We had the opportunity not only to hear panel discussions with major scholars like Hans Kung; Tariq Ramadan; and Evelyn Tucker, professor and co-director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University; but also to take part in workshops by charismatic religious figures who are not well known but had much to teach, like the Rastafarian musician and author Yasus Afari, with whom I felt an unexpectedly deep heart connection. There was singing, dancing, and meditation, as well as art from all over the world.
On the last day of the Parliament, I felt a leading to go to a session in which Tariq Ramadan was speaking. I have read one of his books and was deeply impressed. During the George W. Bush administration, he was denied a visa and not allowed to enter the U.S. to teach at Notre Dame University because of alleged ties to terrorists; he currently teaches at Oxford University. He was giving a reflection on Islam and justice, and during the question period, I felt led to speak about his not being allowed to come to the U.S.; I apologized "on behalf of Americans who care about justice."
I was also impressed with a session given by Australian Quakers, which was attended by more than 60 people. The four presenters—Catherine Heywood, Susan Ennis, Beverly Polzin, and Sieneke Martin—each discussed a different aspect of Quakerism: history, worship, decision-making, and service, followed by small-group discussions, questions, and finally, a short (20-minute) meeting for worship. Brochures, pamphlets, and books were available for people to take home with them.
The closing plenary included not only blessings by various religious leaders, but also a statement by Indigenous leaders from around the world who met to discuss their common issues. They provided a seven-point program for addressing the concerns of Indigenous peoples, including taking care of the Earth, respecting Indigenous peoples and their traditions, adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and returning the bones and relics of their ancestors.
The other highlight of the closing plenary was an address by the Dalai Lama. His appearance generated excitement as hundreds of people rose, applauded, and took pictures and videos. As one of the best known, beloved, and respected religious leaders of the world, he offered encouragement—but also some "eldering." He concurred with our concern for the environment and for the rights of Indigenous people, but he also warned us that we need action, not simply words. "You need to put our faith and principles into action and make a difference in the world. Otherwise you will become sleepy," he said, smiling. I hope we take his admonition to heart. I know that I feel very much awake and energized after this gathering, and I look forward to sharing this energy with my religious community.
After the gathering, I traveled for a month to visit Australian Friends in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide, where I found them keenly interested and involved in interfaith work. This is not surprising since Australia, like the United States, is a pluralistic society. Many Australians are immigrants, and some have experienced mistrust and discrimination because of their religious beliefs. Quakers are needed to help create understanding and trust among these diverse groups, who sometimes feel alienated and need support.
Friends are also drawn to interfaith work because, as I see it, we are a universalist religion. We honor "that of God" in everyone and are open to learning from others, as well as sharing our own experiences of the Inward Light. This attitude is indispensable to those engaged in interfaith work.
A Canberra Friend gave me a booklet containing Australia Yearly Meeting’s advices and queries, which were adapted from those of Britain Yearly Meeting. I was favorably impressed by how the booklet’s Advice No. 6 characterizes interfaith outreach:
Do your work gladly with other religious groups in the pursuit of common goals. While remaining faithful to Quaker insights, try to enter imaginatively into the life and witness of other communities of faith, creating together bonds of friendship.
The words that speak to my condition are "gladly," "imaginatively," and "friendship." These words beautifully describe how I experience and understand interfaith work.
It is my hope and prayer that Friends everywhere will open their minds and hearts to the interfaith movement and discover what it means to be part of what early Friends called "the kingdom of God," and what Martin Luther King Jr. felicitously called "the blessed community." This, I believe, is where the Spirit is leading us in the 21st century.
The website of PWR is http://www.parliamentofreligions.org.