The Parliament of the World’s Religions


I just returned from The Parliament of the World‘s Religions and I’m still processing the whole experience. It was my third time to go, and I think this was the best time yet, because I had six Gettysburg College students with me. I was so proud of them: they engaged the whole experience with enthusiasm, openness, and lots of energy. They introduced themselves to lots of people and had great conversations, and went to a diverse range of presentations and programs every day. (We also ate great food, and got in a little bit of shopping! I certainly didn’t begrudge them that–Toronto is a beautiful, diverse, exciting city, with lots to do!)

I was at the Parliament in Melbourne in 2009, and in Salt Lake City in 2015, and each time I have come away feeling hopeful and optimistic about the power of religion in general, and especially the power of committed religious people, to change the world for the better. I spoke on two panels, and renewed some friendships, which was really fun.   Seeing Margaret Atwood and Vandana Shiva speak this year were highlights, as well as seeing an amazing documentary film called “i am rohingya: a genocide in four acts,” which described the Burmese genocide against the Rohingya people.  It was moving and tragic.  I’m hoping maybe we can show it here in the spring [Find out more about it here: i am rohingya].

But again, it was the time with the students that was most meaningful to me. I went to the Sikh langar with one, a Hindu puja with another, a Lutheran service in German with yet another, and what I can only describe as a Woodstock Shabbat service with a fourth.  Each time, we had great conversations, and their reflections and insights were really interesting.

There are a lot of older people who attend the Parliament, but for me, hope is in the younger attendees, who now, because of what they have seen and heard, have the tools and opportunity to change the global narrative about religion.  At a time when many people believe that religions hinder world peace and international cooperation, it is inspiring to see so many lived experiences and concrete examples of cooperation and change that challenge that notion. [It was especially moving to come to the Parliament so soon after the tragic shooting at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh; that was on everyone’s mind.  It gave the work we were doing more urgency, I think.]

My only lingering concern is the absence of more conservative religious voices. As you might imagine, this is a liberal crowd. The students and I talked a bit about how to bring more conservative voices into the conversation, and into partnership.  We need everyone at the table to address the critical issues of climate change, the exploitation of women, and violence against different religious and ethnic groups–among other things.

To me, the Parliament is a priceless educational and relational experience; to have been able to share that this time with students was more meaningful than I had anticipated.  I’m already looking forward to next time; we’ll see where we end up in 2021!

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