Last month I packed my passport and warm clothes and traveled north, crossing the border into a kinder and gentler land. I met many people there who had traveled from near and far to form a community of many faiths and shared values. They warmed my heart, and it felt good, especially when I thought about the murders at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27th. During the first week of November, the city of Toronto hosted the seventh assembly of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. It was the third one that I had attended. Ethical Culture leaders and members have participated in every parliament since the first one was convened in Chicago in 1893.
The theme of this parliament was both inspiring and daunting: “The Promise of Inclusion, the Power of Love: Pursuing Global Understanding, Reconciliation, and Change.” Hundreds of programs were compiled on an app that we could easily access on our cellphones but it was obvious that we would only be able to attend a sample of what was offered. My daughter Emily Newman and I both gave presentations – hers on “Get Ready for a More Inclusive Generation;” mine with colleague Vanessa Gomez Brake, Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California, on “Navigating Secular Identities on University Campuses” – and staffed a table in the exhibit hall sponsored by the American Humanist Association.
Throughout the week, people stopped by to visit and thank us. “We need you here. We’re humanists, too. We hold different beliefs but share your values.” It was clear that humanism offered “the promise of inclusion” in the parliament’s theme. We also connected with members of the Oasis Network, which, like Sunday Assembly, offers “a place for the non-religious to come together to celebrate the human experience.” Whenever and wherever the next parliament meets, we agreed that we must collaborate, together with the American Ethical Union and other religious humanist organizations, on expanding our presence and programming.
Attendance exceeded 10,000 people from 80 nations and more than 200 unique spiritual backgrounds. Presenters included students, clergy, interfaith leaders, scholars, Nobel Laureates, best-selling authors, and more. These were the six ambitious program tracks:
- The Dignity of Women Across the World’s Wisdom Traditions
- Countering War, Hate & Violence with Peace and Love
- Climate Action: Care for Our Earth, Responsibility for Our Future
- Indigenous Peoples: The Spiritual Evolution of Humanity & Healing Our Mother Earth
- Next Generations: Interfaith Has No Age, Youth Voices for Change
- Justice: Advancing Concrete Change Toward a Just, Peaceful, and Sustainable World
If it sounds overwhelming, it was, but a spirit of generosity prevailed. Everyone shared their faith traditions and stories, hopes and dreams for the future, and creativity in the form of art, film, music, and dance. And throughout the week, the Sikhs fed us, as they had at past parliaments. Langar is a free communal vegetarian meal that is part of every gurdwara or Sikh place of worship and education. Funded entirely by donations and served by volunteers, langar provides an estimated seven million meals a day around the world. People often said, “Let’s meet up at langar.” It was a daily opportunity for food and friendship.
When the Parliament of the World’s Religions met in 1993, a century after the first historic gathering in Chicago, a document called “Towards a Global Ethic (An Initial Declaration)” was one of its most significant outcomes. During a two-year period, more than 200 theologians and scholars were consulted, and the declaration was signed by over a hundred religious and spiritual leaders. More commonly known as the Global Ethic, this declaration states that fundamental to all religious faiths are the requirement to treat all persons, without exception, humanely; the Golden Rule of reciprocity; and the demand for peace and justice. Since its ratification, it has inspired other documents such as the Earth Charter, the Charter of Compassion, and a Charter of Forgiveness.
As hectic as this week was, I found solace. Every morning I woke up to another onslaught of tragic news headlines and despaired. But I walked over to the conference center with anticipation, eager to learn and share. We created a temporary community of inclusion, love, and hope that changed us for the better and will live on in the work that we do. Until the next time we meet, the Parliament organization will keep us connected. For more information, visit https://www.parliamentofreligions.org/.