The Parliament of the World’s Religions was held on October 15-19, 2015 in Salt Lake City, UT. Roughly 10,000 people attended this year’s event, representing hundreds of nations and over 50 faith traditions. Attendees included academics engaged in roundtable talks of peace, disarmament, conflict resolution and climate change; leaders of various faith communities (Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, pagan, indigenous, interspiritual and more) committed to spreading peace and compassion in the world; as well as spiritual seekers and activists dedicated to healing their own communities from within and using interfaith dialogue to bridge some of those divides.
Guest speakers and panelists included biologist Jane Goodall, author Karen Armstrong, activist Eboo Patel, New Thought minister Michael Bernard Beckwith, Sojourners founder Jim Wallis, and many more, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who fell ill at the last minute and had to return home.
Several impromptu groups and coalitions were formed during and after many of the lively discussions and plenaries in order to leverage the momentum created at this historic event. The halls of the Salt Palace Convention Center stayed active and alive all weekend long with talks of peace, interfaith harmony and global awakening.
The theme of this year’s Parliament was “recovering the heart of humanity.” With the overwhelming (and refreshing) presence of the Inaugural Women’s Assembly, the focus on indigenous peoples, and the continued conversation around climate change, much of the event was spent turning social issues and recently-identified problems into concrete actions or takeaways.
The Assembly kicked off the Parliament on Thursday with a rousing closing speech from author and recent congressional candidate, Marianne Williamson. Williamson addressed the majority of female leaders in the crowd (a notable shift from the last Parliament, held in 2009) by saying, “We are the mothers of the world. Those who are inspired by the religions of the world should not ignore the problems of the world. We know how to hold the suffering in the world. We know how to give birth to the radical joy in the world.” And referring to increased violence and corruption across the globe, she got the crowd on their feet when she implored, “We who are the mothers of the world — it’s up to us to say, ‘this will not be happening in my house.'”
The Red Tent Movement (based on the popular book by Anita Diamant), was the sponsor of the Women’s Sacred Space. Men were welcome to enter the gauzy, red room (a meeting room modified to resemble the inside of a darkened, Persian tent and lovingly referred to as the “womb of the Parliament”), but when the doors would occasionally burst open releasing huge crowds back into the flow of the bustling hallways, most everyone I saw was female — and they were beaming. It was like a charging station for the female soul.
Stories circulated about The Indigenous Grandmothers — a group of female elders from the various tribes present at the Parliament. If you were lucky enough to fall in with this group, you were treated to prayers, songs and dances from various faith traditions; entrusted into a circle of maternal power forged by language and culture; and part of a historic, once-in-a-lifetime gathering. As these languages and cultural practices shrink from the earth (some are simply gone forever), the Grandmothers seemed to plant what remaining seeds they had.
A traditional Langar (community meal that is shared regardless of faith or caste) was served every day to conference attendees by the Sikh community who donated all the food and volunteered their time each day to prepare, serve and clean up. The menu was a rotating blur of rice, lentils, curry, naan, yogurt, fruit, vegetables, coffee and chai tea. People lined up each day at noon (hair covered and shoes removed) to be seated on the floor in long rows and share a meal with strangers and newfound friends. Each day the line was longer, as word spread of the fragrant Basmati rice and spicy lentils. Truly one of the best meals I’ve had. After the event, nearly 1,000 lbs. of leftover food was donated to a local Catholic charity that served the homeless.
Alas, not everything at the Parliament came up roses and rainbows. On Friday, the Council on Foreign Relations sponsored a luncheon at the Marriott which featured Farah Pandith and Graeme Wood (the journalist who wrote the recently-gone-viral article for The Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants”). The session was moderated by Lee Cullum. By the time the Q&A began, the attendees (who had already been fed) were restless. Some in the crowd weren’t satisfied with the positions taken by Pandith and Wood and became combative. Cullum pulled the plug on the session, ending it early.
Former Catholic priest and iconoclastic author, the Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox, was on hand Friday to lead 300 or so lucky people in a Cosmic Mass. And those who had managed to squeeze into Ballroom H were treated to a transformative experience.
The Cosmic Mass is typically held in Oakland, CA and resembles a Catholic mass but with a 21st century twist. It includes electronic music, video projection, and ecstatic dance as well as prayer, communion, and a grieving ritual which asks attendees to get on all fours and moan until they are emptied of their suffering.
I had run into Fox’s assistant and director of The Cosmic Mass, Skylar Wilson, on Friday morning. I had offered my services, and was promptly given the job of puppeteering the Green Man during the Cosmic Mass event. The Green Man was a huge disembodied papier-mâché head on a pole, draped in green gauze and flanked by two large hands, also on poles. The figure required three people to operate. The Green Man was accompanied by a second puppet — the female figure, Gaia (Mother Earth). These two gigantic puppets (created by Mary Plaster) in their full splendor on the dance floor, represented the union of the sacred masculine and the divine feminine.
Fox began the ceremony by providing a brief introduction to his Creation Spirituality movement. This teaching includes a belief in a spiritual connection to the earth, a replacement of the concept of “original sin” with “original blessing” and the four paths of the via positiva, via negativa, via creativa and via transformativa, which align with the cardinal directions of north, south, west and east.
There was an invocation, a calling-in of the directions, music and drumming (including a standout vocal performance by Michelle Jordan), the grieving ritual, a reading of Neil Douglas-Klotz’s Prayer of the Cosmos, and the “passing of the peace” (in which attendees wandered the room, touched hands, and greeted each other with “namaste”).
Then it was time for the dance. The Green Man and Gaia, powered by their six volunteers, took to the dance floor and swayed and pumped to the pulsating electronic rhythm until the event was over.
As a leader of spiritual community, The Cosmic Mass was a revelation. It was a religious experience like none other — connecting everyone in attendance directly to each other and to the Source of all. It held the elements of masculine and feminine power in exquisite balance and oriented us to the cycles of the season (not only in the world, but in our own hearts). It was joyous, heart-breaking, contemplative and awe-inspiring. It also is ceremony and ritual that proudly wears the clothing of 2015 (video, technology, social media). For those who are seeking a post-modern worship experience, one that as Fox likes to say is rooted not is “text” but in “context,” then the Cosmic Mass is that experience. It will keep me fed for the upcoming year (or until I can experience it again).
That evening, I had the honor of being invited to dinner with the association of Creation Spirituality Communities and learned more about how Fox’s teachings were being implemented in churches and religious communities in Pittsburgh, Asheville, Austin, Toronto and beyond.
On Saturday, I met with Angela Thurston. Angie is a student at Harvard Divinity School, and president of the student group, the HDS Religious Nones (or religiously unaffiliated). She was raised in Boulder, CO to a family of Urantia Book “readers” and left home to spend time in New York City, India and now Boston.
Angie and her group gather for weekly meetings to explore personal spiritual practices, sing, and share from the heart. Participants are encouraged to sit in a circle, and people are welcome from any – or no – faith tradition.
The “nones” meeting follows an arc of personal narrative, opening with a check-in (a look back on the week), testimony about how spiritual practice is being applied to daily life (a focus on the present), and closes with a personal intention as well as intentions for the group and the broader community (a look forward). They also sing from the Unitarian Universalist Hymnal.
With her colleague Casper ter Kuile, Angie has completed a study of secular organizations that are bringing people into community for personal and social transformation, which is work often attributed to organized religion. The report is called How We Gather, and is available for download here. It has been described by the New York Times as “an early effort to understand the landscape of new institutions that millennials are creating to meet their needs for community, purpose and, in some cases, spiritual experience.”
She and Casper are at work on a second study on innovative spiritual communities within or in response to organized religion. They are seeking the involvement of emerging spiritual communities from all over the country.
When Sunday came, I was ready for some local flavor. The Langar was amazing, but I needed to get off the beaten path a bit and find some good Mexican food and see some sights. I decided to hoof it many blocks north of the convention center to a restaurant called the Red Iguana, which came highly recommended from a friend in Albuquerque.
I was joined by Tammy Monroe from Wisdom Circle Ministries.
As we headed out on foot, we decided to stop off at Temple Square, the world headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS Church), and Mecca for all Mormons. Even non-Mormons should make a point to visit the site — a 10-acre beautifully-landscaped complex, considered to be holy ground. It is a veritable Garden of Eden that truly only lacks a restaurant.
Temple Square consists of two large Visitor Centers (museums), the egg-shaped Tabernacle (where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs), the Assembly Hall (a very large church built from the stones left over after the Temple was finished) and the Temple itself — which is not open to non-Mormons. The Temple interior is visible in a scale model on display in the Visitor Center and some sections of the richly furnished and ornately carved decor resemble a cross between the Galactic Senate from Star Wars and Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Truly an architectural marvel and a wonder of the 19th Century.
Temple Square is also home to the Sea Gull Monument. According to legend, “The Mormon pioneers planted crops in the spring of 1848, after suffering great hunger during their first winter in the Salt Lake Valley. As the crops ripened, hordes of devouring crickets descended upon them from the foothills east of the valley. The Saints fought them with clubs, fire, and water. As they despaired of saving the next winter’s food, their prayers for deliverance from almost sure starvation were answered when thousands of sea gulls came to feed on the crickets. The Sea Gull Monument commemorates this modern-day miracle. The sea gull is now the Utah State bird.”
Red Iguana ended up being well worth the half hour hike (and the half hour wait once we arrived), and Tammy and I had plenty of time to discuss what we both agreed to be a huge gap in a newly-emerging market – the development and training of interfaith ministers as well as establishing resources and social networks to support them in their work of community building, leadership training, fundraising and ongoing religious literacy.
The struggle for this new breed of ministers is real. Some membership-based associations and networks exist, but they primarily support Christian pastors and newly-planted churches. They offer regular e-newsletters, conference calls and shared resources (videos, slides, sermon ideas, music, tools and games for youth programs, etc.). But none of the interfaith seminaries or associations we talked to at the Parliament offered this level of content and support.
MONDAY / PRESENTATION
Bright and early Monday morning, I had the honor of presenting the story of Integral Church to a capacity crowd in one of the conference rooms at the convention center. The majority of attendees were leaders of faith communities seeking to nurture interfaith dialogue in their neighborhoods and cities and/or implement interspiritual conversations among their own congregations. A handful of attendees were fledgling leaders looking to build communities of their own.
We covered the nuts and bolts of starting a church from the ground up with no parent denomination, the concept of Spiral Dynamics as applied to values and leadership, language and marketing to the religiously unaffiliated, spiritual expression in an interspiritual setting, and the stigma and challenges of meeting in a circle.
You can watch the entire 45-minute presentation, including Q&A, here.
There weren’t a hundred things I missed during my time at the Parliament, there were thousands. There was no way to see, hear or feel them all. The Parliament was a richly-textured, colorful and visceral five days. It was an immersive experience that put 10,000 people in one place and simply asked them to respect and deeply listen to one another.
Some attendees said they had a “felt-sense of connection and experience — of truly walking the path.” Some felt that their own faith and their own relationship to mystery had deepened. They expressed a feeling of having been pushed slightly outside their comfort zone, of “casting the net beyond their own faith groups” to the realms of community, work, parenting and politics. Some even discovered new tools for accountability and growth.
Ultimately, by the time Monday rolled around, the consensus was, “enough is enough.” People were homesick, exhausted and “saturated” with enough love and positivity to last them all year. So, as people made last minute connections and rushed the Business Center in the Salt Palace to ship boxes of books and literature back home to study and share, I waved goodbye to Salt Lake City and hopped in a cab to the airport.
The Parliament will reconvene in 2017, and I will be ready. Thank you to the board of directors and planning committee for the 2015 Parliament, as well as to the thousands of volunteers who constantly pointed us in the right direction and kept the vibrations high. To all those that did the heavy lifting, I hope you are taking a long and well-deserved nap. To all my newfound friends, and to those that I just don’t see often enough, the honor and pleasure was all mine.
We are co-creators of this world, and we have been given the gift of sight. A vision of the world working together toward peace and harmony. We now carry that vision home with us, and bear the burden of allowing this ripple to continue — outward, from us, to our families, to our communities and the world beyond. This wave of compassion will eventually wash over all beings. The “heart of humanity” rests in all of us. And this love for one another feels like a poison when we hold it inside. We must push love out of our hearts if we want to live.
Joran Slane Oppelt
To watch archived video of the Plenary Sessions, visit the Parliament Ustream channel here.