Volunteering at the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions

Volunteering at the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions

In 1893, the city of Chicago hosted the six month World Columbian Exposition, a festival celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival to the “New World” in 1492. The festival featured a number of attractions: the first Ferris Wheel, life-size reproductions of Columbus’ three ships, the first commercial movie theater, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, a log cabin, wigwams, horticulture exhibits, viking ships, mammoths, belly dancers, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. It was truly the place to be, and anyone who was anyone would have likely attended the fair, including Helen Keller, Alexander Graham Bell, and John Philip Sousa.

The six month fair drew people from all around the world. It’s estimated that over 27 million people came to Chicago during that period.

Amongst all the excitement and commotion and ground-breaking displays, another notable exhibition was taking place. From September 11th to September 27th, the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religion hosted representatives from many Eastern and Western spiritual traditions around the world. This Parliament became the first formal gathering of the world’s religions.

the 1893 World's Parliament of Religion
The 1893 World’s Parliament of Religion

As you might imagine, the 1893 Parliament was considered pretty radical for its time because it allowed non-Christian faiths to speak on their own behalf. It’s true that the first Parliament may not have been taken seriously by scholars until the 1960’s, but it set the foundation for the future of a global ethic. 

Today, largely due to the valor of those first non-Christian representatives, members from various faith groups may find commonality in their sisters and brothers from differing spiritual backgrounds. The numerous World Parliaments since this time have gone on to encourage this attitude of interfaith relationship.

The Parliament of the World's Religions Today

Bob Goulais from Nipissing First Nation speaking at the Parliament of the World's Religions
Bob Guolais of the Nipissing First Nation
Tia Peters of the Shiwi Nation speaking at the parliament of the world's religions
Tia Peters of the Shiwi Nation

Fast forward 125 years and you’ve got members from various indigenous communities hosting the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions. Ironic, isn’t it? The first Parliament was held during a festival to commemorate Columbus, a ruthless European who pillaged the lands and took almost everything from the indigenous people, and yet, now there is a growing push to give power back to those who fell under European tyranny.

Try to imagine what the world might look like today if the Americas were never invaded and colonized. Even if you know very little of indigenous practices, imagine one half of the world with civilizations built out of a connectedness to the Earth, rich lore in reverence of the sacred powers of life, and plant medicines for almost every ailment. How would a civilization built on these customs influence the rest of the world today?

Kim Wheatley of the Anishinaabe people and Margaret Lokawua of the Karamojong people
Kim Wheatley of the Anishinaabe people and Margaret Lokawua of the Karamojong people

It seems to me that every culture from around the world can learn something from indigenous people. Yes, the European’s restlessness and desire to conquer has torn asunder so many years of cultural heritage from the people of the land. Oppression is something that culture and religion has never been without. But in many cases, the indigenous have pulled through. Although scarred from years of despotism, the indigenous have held strong to fight to preserve their languages, their songs, their ceremonies, their medicines, and their rights. 

Toronto: Land of Ethnic Diversity

A morning's view from my walk to the Parliament

The timing for the World Religions Parliament to be held in Toronto could not have been more apt. I would say that it was actually the main factor for my initiative to attend, as it was only a five hour drive from where I was currently living in Michigan. Volunteering also gave me the opportunity to purchase a ticket at a reduced rate in exchange for a few hours of my time.

A gentle sunrise over Toronto
A gentle sunrise over Toronto

The Parliament, which took place from November 1st until the 7th, was also in an ideal location for a much broader reason. Toronto is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. In fact, over 50 percent of the population belongs to some form of an ethnic minority group. 

With individuals from all over the world flying in to attend the Parliament, it’s no doubt that they would have been able to find a little piece of home in some restaurant or region of Toronto. The conference hosted people from India, Australia, China, South and Central America, regions of Africa, and more. I was able to listen to a Peruvian shaman talk about Ayahuasca, a Buddhist monk speak about social inequality, a Hindu swami advising steps against climate change, and a Wicca practitioner guide a meditation.

If there ever was a better city to host the Parliament, I’ve yet to visit it. In the few days that I was in Toronto, I saw everything from Dutch to Tibetan restaurants, and heard a wide variety of different dialects. Although after the very first Parliament there was a hundred year hiatus, in recent years, the Parliament has additionally been held in Cape Town, Barcelona, Melbourne, and Salt Lake City.

Things to Do, See, and Hear

The bridge connecting the two buildings of the conference centre

The Parliament was held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, right in the middle of the downtown area and within a short walking distance of Lake Ontario. The Convention Centre is just next to the CN Tower and is actually divided into two main buildings. There are over a hundred rooms between both buildings, which hosted activities such as panel discussions, workshop sessions, performances, documentary films, and periods of worship.

In total, there were eight floors providing opportunities for conversation and exploration. As the seventh World Parliament of Religion, the overall theme read: 

The Promise of Inclusion, the Power of Love:
Pursuing Global Understanding, Reconciliation, and Change

Over course of those seven days, each morning started with religious observances, prayers and meditations respective to each religious group. At nine a.m. each day, a plenary assembly was held in the main exhibition hall focusing on one of the six tracks. Over this three hour period, multiple speakers representing prominent and unique perspectives offered their address on the particular matter of the day.

According to the website of the Parliament, the total attendance was around 10 thousand people from 80 nations and more than 200 unique spiritual backgrounds. The Parliament presenters included students, clergy members, interfaith leaders, scholars, Nobel Laureates, city mayors, spiritual luminaries, best-selling authors, globally-recognized entertainers, thought leaders, and state actors. 

The Quilt of Belonging

One of the most notable exhibits at the Parliament was the Quilt of Belonging, a 120 foot collaborative textile art project. There are 263 tiles featured on the quilt which represent the rich cultural legacies of every nation at the dawn of the new Millennium and all of the First Nation indigenous people of Canada.

The United States textile block
The United States textile block

The Quilt of Belonging was begun in 1998 by artist Esther Bryan as a way of portraying the background of values and experiences contingent within every nation. The mosaic is meant to show that each person not only has a place within their own cultural heritage, but also within the larger framework of the human story.

The quilt was created through collaborative efforts of people all across Canada and the range of materials is even more astonishing. Some of the materials used to create the different textile blocks include sealskin, African mud-cloth, embroidered silk, and the gossamer wings of butterflies. 

Although each of the textiles were primarily created in Canada, Esther Bryan’s team found that as of January 1st, 2000, immigration records indicated that at least one individual from every country in the world lived in Canada. It took over six years to reach a representative from each of the 263 cultural groups on the quilt.

If you’d like to discover more about the Quilt of Belonging, you can reach their website here.

A Lavishly Langar Lunch

The entrance to the hall where the Langar was held

Langar is a Punjabi word which technically translates to “kitchen” but is used to more generally mean the the free meals that are offered every day at Sikh temples around the world. The meals are completely vegetarian so that everyone can eat together, regardless of dietary restrictions or religious observances. 

My first time wearing a head scarf
My first time wearing a head scarf

Those who are able sit on the ground, covering their hair with a head scarf and removing their shoes to go barefoot. It is a basic tenet of the Sikh religion to sustain others regardless of race or religion, and the act of sitting on the ground and eating together is meant to demonstrate equality.

These Langars are generally held at Sikh temples, known as Gurdwaras. The majority of the Langar Gurdwaras are located in India, but there are also plenty spread throughout the world, ranging from Alaska to Albania. These meals are regularly meant to feed the homeless. The Gurdwara and Langar is run on donations.

There is also an international non-profit aid and relief organization founded on these same Sikh principles of selfless service and universal love. Khalsa Aid, as this group is named, has helped those in need during times of extreme disasters, such as earthquake and flood relief, refugee crises, and other catastrophes. 

Water, rice, lentils, curried chickpeas and bread...yum!
Water, rice, lentils, curried chickpeas and bread…yum!

My favorite part of the Langar was to see how humbled everyone was to be receiving a free lunch. People truly smiled from their eyes. Everyone said thank you to the Sikh community members as they served out ladles full of curried chickpeas, lentils, and rice.

I saw plenty of people having conversations with people that they did not already know, and even I was drawn out of my introverted shell to meet a few new individuals and hold an engaging discussion. 

Psychic Readings at the Nithyananda Advaita Vedanta Hindu Temple

A very blurry picture of the Nithyananda Hindu temple at the Parliament

Swami Nithyananda is recognized as an avatar of a deity amongst his followers. Nithyananda has suggested that he and his inducted disciples have spiritual powers, including kundalini awakening and third-eye awakening. In the lowest level of the convention center, there were booths representing various traditions, centers for healing, a stage for music, full scale wigwams, and this assembled Hindu temple.

The main attraction of the temple fell on three young Indian girls. According to their overseers, each of the girls had extrasensory powers because their third eyes had been opened. Each girl offered one of three powers in their interactions with the public: a full body scan for ailments, healing of the psychic body, or the answer to a question about the past, present or future. 

Nithyananda has claimed that there are over 400 extraordinary spiritual powers which can be attained and he has allegedly been about to initiate his disciples into 60 such powers. His followers have suggested that they are able to perform additional powers such as extrasensory perception, remote viewing, materialization, and the ability to find lost object.

I was only met with the opportunity to ask for a psychic healing from one of the girls. Plus, I did not want to receive a specific answer if I had questioned the girls about either of the other two questions. It was not my place to judge. I gave my plea to one of the girls sitting in lotus position to heal my fatigued spirit. She nodded, said a few prayers, my heart raced a little, and then nodded that I could go on my way.

A Mazework of Baby Booties at the Gendercide Awareness Project

More than you can imagine...

What do all of these baby booties stand for?

Imagine this, for every pair of booties, 10 thousand women were represented who have perished due to social causes. These social causes range from sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, preventable maternal death, neglect of young girls and elderly women, to the more general socially sanctioned violence against women.

There were 12 thousand six hundred little shoes in this exhibit.

This adds up to a total of 126 million women who have been selectively extinguished.

Puppy dog eyes
Puppy dog eyes

The baby booties were made from women all around the world. Each set of shoes were hung on a string of about ten booties, all within a maze that was so dense that you could not see the other side from where you first entered.

The Gendercide Awareness Project was founded by Beverly Hill. She got together with a larger group of women who went out and contacted thousands of women to help in this project of creating a visual representation of just how many women 126 million adds up to. The exhibit had me speechless.

The Project focuses on two main facets to solving this problem of gendercide. First, bringing awareness of the problem to the public, and second, educating women around the world. After all, knowledge is power, and a woman who is educated surely has a hand in improving the standard of living for entire communities within the developing world. 

If you’d like to find out more, you can reach their website here.

...and so much more!

The main level of the Parliament

I wanted to try to encapsulate some of the bigger projects happening at the Parliament over the seven day period. I also don’t wish to mislead though. There were literally hundreds of things to see and do at every hour of each day up until the three hour closing plenary at 8:30 p.m.

Aside from the hundreds of talks happening in the various rooms, there was also sacred art, pop-up musicians playing in random areas, miniature sculptures of sacred sites, informational posters about the world’s religions, a candle vigil in support of world peace, a tent dedicated to the divine feminine adorned with soft pillows and places to converse, and plenty of hugging between individuals, occasionally between members of different faiths.

Climate Chaos

Another project featured on one of the floors was a small makeshift structure to hang a prayers on ribbons. One of the big discussion points during the Parliament was the effects of climate change and how we might potential prevent this growing problem. Anyone could simply walk up to a table next to this exhibit and find a permanent marker and a ribbon. They would then tie their to the wood and pvc piping along with all the other prayer ribbons. The effectiveness of this project was truly demonstrated in reading some of the other ribbons, as it took a global problem and revealed how it would become a personal tragedy.

Dances of Universal Peace

It was not uncommon to hear drums, guitars, flutes, mandolins, and plenty of other instruments played in rejoice throughout the multiple floors. Perhaps this sort of thing could seem like some kind of hippie love fest to the casual onlooker, but I couldn’t say it any other way, you had to be there to feel the kind of love circulating in the buildings. It may be hard to imagine having unconditional love for those you don’t know, but among anything else, that will save us.

A picture of the Cao Dai temple in Vietnam

I also had the unique opportunity of sitting in on a presentation of the new religions currently surfacing in East Asia. The three religions presented were: Cao Dai, Weixin Shengjiao, and Daesoon Jinrihoe. They each emerged in Vietnam, Taiwan, and Korea, respectively. All three of these new religious movements (NRMs) focus on a blend of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism at their heart, but each has a unique cosmology and method of approaching the divine. The concept of a NRM is fascinating because it challenges the traditional notion that a religion has to be hundreds of years old. Not to mention, East Asian cultures are relatively more reserved than the west. So to challenge the status quo with a new religion, and to amass thousands of followers in turn is a rather valiant action.

My Time Spent as a Volunteer at the 2018 Parliament of the Worlds Religions

Homes in the Greater Toronto area

I’d like to conclude this post by acknowledging how grateful and humbled I am to have been able to attend this global conference. As a graduate of the religious studies program from my university, I’ve been in a bit of a slump lately recognizing that nothing would come of that achievement. Perhaps as time goes on I’ll see the fruits of my scholarly studies, but I must also acknowledge that I may have simply been a bit naive to study such a subject.

Trying to snap a picture of a monk without seeming creepy
Trying to snap a picture of a monk without seeming creepy

At least, in its own respect, the Parliament gave my degree a sense of worth. I knew how to look. I had a method of interpretation while observing so many discussions about rites and rituals and holy texts. I felt a sense of wide-eyed wonder during my time here. I felt as though I could thoroughly process and discuss my experiences in a scholarly way.

Do all paths up the mountain lead to the same place? Or are we climbing different mountains, encroaching upon wholly different holy experiences, relative to each particular religion? Depending on which scholar you ask, there are variations suggesting that either could be true. And what is truth? When you are surrounded by individuals from so many different walks of life, you start to ask yourself this question more and more.

I cannot say whether there is a universal awakening experience meant for each one of us to experience, but I do know what the Parliament suggested as Truth: 

The Promise of Inclusion and the Power of Love

One of many pieces of sacred art
One of many pieces of sacred art

This is certainly a difficult period of transition in human history. I know that you feel it too. But let me say this: I recognize you in your effort to exist. I respect you in your choices of how you live, how you create, and how you love. I encourage you to look past your boundaries and accept someone that may go against your understanding. I prompt you to realize that not all of what you believe is an absolute reality.

My time as a volunteer was mainly spent at the admissions desk, answering questions at the information desk, and helping to take down the baby booties at the Gendercide Awareness Project. I was able to be fully involved in all that the Parliament had to offer, and at a reduced rate for my ticket. I was fortunate enough to have had a professor with friends in the Toronto area, in which a colleague and I were lucky enough to room with for the week (thank you, Linor and Ayal). 

When the Parliament was winding down in its last few hours on the last day, I was ready to go home. I had put in my time as a helpful volunteer. I had been inspired by many of the speakers that there was plenty of a force for good in the world. But overall, I was exhausted. I simply wanted to lay in bed and process all that I had observed.

The Declaration Toward a Global Ethic

A global vision for a greater future

I’ll leave you with a few lines from this declaration towards a better world, drafted by nearly 200 men and women of different religious traditions. The Global Ethic was first drafted by Swiss theologian Hans Kung, and was later presented at the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions after consulting with hundreds of individuals from around the world.

In the declaration, three main topics are featured: 

The importance of human life. The Golden Rule of reciprocity. And a commitment to peace and justice.

Each of these three topics span across any perceivable difference and apply to every human being, regardless of religion, race, gender, generation, caste or creed. There is a call for the inner change of consciousness, but this is something you must be willing to take up for yourself. After all, the task of changing yourself is the best initiative for changing the whole. The image of a better world is not something so out of reach.

By committing to a global ethic, a desire to work together, and an initiative to constantly improve upon one’s own morals, a more peaceful, loving, and sustainable world can be had, not just for you or I, but for all of us.

Without further ado, a selection from the Declaration Towards a Global Ethic:

The world is in agony. The agony is so pervasive and urgent that we are compelled to name its manifestations so that the depth of this pain may be made clear.

Peace eludes us – the planet is being destroyed – neighbors live in fear – women and men are estranged from each other – children die! This is abhorrent.

We condemn the abuses of Earth’s ecosystems.

We condemn the poverty that stifles life’s potential; the hunger that weakens the human bod, the economic disparities that threaten so many families with ruin.

We condemn the social disarray of the nations; the disregard for justice which pushes citizens to the margin; the anarchy overtaking our communities; and the insane death of children from violence. In particular we condemn aggression and hatred in the name of religion.

But this agony need not be.

It need not be because the basis for an ethic already exists. This ethic offers the possibility of a better individual and global order, and leads individuals away from despair and societies away from chaos.

If you’d like to read the entire Declaration, you can access it here.

If you’d like to add your name to a list of signatures endorsing the Global Ethic, click here.


As always, thank you for reading.


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