Parliament of the World’s Religions (2009)

The world is shrinking. International videoconferences, YouTube, email, Facebook, nonstop international flights, Skype and so forth are indicators of modern globalization. People from all parts of the world are interacting with unprecedented speed, frequency, and ease, yet all of these modern amenities come at a great cost to our planet. As a result, religious people and faith communities are attempting to grapple with the many challenges and opportunities that arise out of this new interconnected global reality.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions is the largest interreligious gathering in the world. It convenes leaders from the religious, academic, and civic spheres of society with the aim of developing a more peaceful and sustainable planet. The Parliament began in 1893 in Chicago as part of the Columbian Exposition; some understand this as the catalyst for the worldwide interreligious movement. 100 years later in 1993, eight thousand people gathered for a centennial Parliament celebration in Chicago. Ever since, the Parliament has been meeting every five years in major cities around the world: Cape Town, South Africa, in 1999; Barcelona, Spain, in 2004; and Melbourne, Australia, in 2009, where more than 8,000 people gathered.

The major theme at the 2009 Parliament was “Make a World of Difference: Hearing each other, Healing the earth.” The theme as “reflects the urgent need for religious and spiritual communities and all people of goodwill to act on their concerns for the environment, peace and for overcoming poverty.” Other subthemes focused around indigenous people (especially the Aboriginal people of Australia), overcoming poverty in an unequal world, securing food and water for all people, building peace in the pursuit of justice, creating social cohesion in village and city, and sharing wisdom in the search for inner peace.

Workshops and Plenary Sessions

Building on the above major theme and subthemes, the conference consisted of seven plenary sessions and hundreds of workshops. Each day began at 8:00 a.m. with morning observances ranging from “Calling out to Allah: the Role of Du’a in Islam and Its Benefits for Inner Peace” to “Catholic Mass, Roman Rite—Friday” to “A Celebration of the Cosmos and its Processes from a Mystical, Inclusive Perspective.” The morning observance on “How a Jain Starts the Day: The Rituals” presented the ways in which the major sects of Jainism begin each day—with meditation, seeking forgiveness for past sins, meditative music and theoretical exposition.

From 9:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre bustled with workshops on diverse topics such as “Towards a Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World’s Religions;” “The Digital Revolution and the Age of Religious Pluralism;” “Hearing the Voices of the Indigeonous Elders;” “Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding: The Case of Israel-West Bank-Gaza;” and “Educating Religious Leaders for a Multireligious World.” Another workshop was “Life of Jesus: non-Christian Perspective,” wherein a Buddhist, Hindu, and Shi’a Muslim presented their perspectives on the founder of Christianity. During a one-and-a-half hour lunch break, attendees relaxed in restaurants and shops along the Yarra river before returning to the convention centre for another marathon of workshops from 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.

From 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. each evening more than 8,000 people gathered for the plenary sessions that featured major religious and political leaders from around the world. Some notable names are His Holiness XIV the Dalai Lama; Canon Gideon Byamugisha, a priest from Uganda who is said to be the first African religious leader to openly declare his HIV-status and who has devoted his life to an AIDS ministry; and Rabbi David Saperstein, who was named the most influential rabbi in the United States by Newsweek. Each session showcased song and dance from a broad scope of religious traditions—from the Gyuto Monks of Tibet to Divya Jain, an Indian classical dancer and choreographer, to the The Naqshbandi Sufi Order of Australia. Video of the closing session on December 9, 2009, where His Holiness XIV the Dalai Lama spoke, and a slideshow of Parliament events are available via Vimeo.

Student Initiative – Educating Religious Leaders for a Multireligious World

While the Parliament hosted people from all over the world, one cohort was a group of faculty and roughly 100 students from seminaries, rabbinical schools and emerging Muslim educational institutions from across the United States. The Henry Luce Foundation provided 15 schools in the U.S. with a generous grant that supported a semester-long course that focused on “Educating Religious Leaders for a Multireligious World” at each respective institution, and which culminated with a large-group workshop that met during the Parliament in Melbourne, Australia. One class called “Toward an Abrahamic Family Reunion” was held at Boston College, and was taught by Rabbi Sanford Seltzer, Imam Abdel-Rahman Mohamed, Reverend Rodney Petersen, and Father Ray Helmick, S.J. The students came from Harvard Divinity School, Boston University, and Boston College. Before traveling to Melbourne for the Parliament, each of the 15 institutions drafted a statement in response to the following questions:

1. Why is multi-religious education needed in seminaries and divinity schools (theologically, pastorally, politically, civically, etc.)?

2. What are some of the resources for multi-faith education in your own tradition and school? What are some of the obstacles to multi-faith education in your tradition and school?

3. What are the virtues and skills one needs to be an effective multi-faith leader (broadly conceived)? What are the practices by which these virtues and skills can be developed (inside and outside the classroom)?

4. What kinds of multi-religious initiatives do you hope to engage in together with the communities you will serve (with children, youth, and adults)? Why?

5. What are some key insights you have learned from these sessions and from your participation in the Parliament? How might we carry this work forward together as a group and in each of our schools?

Video from the student initiative session is available online via YouTube.