Faith Matters: Parliament of World's Religions a challenge to move from prayer to action

(Editor's note: The following is a submission to The Recorder's weekly column titled “Faith Matters.” Each Saturday, a different faith leader in Franklin County offers a personal religious perspective in this space. An accompanying sidebar offers a brief description of his or her place of worship. For information on becoming part of this series, email or call 413-772-0261, ext. 265.)GREENFIELD — Have you ever had one of those moments where you were struck by a scene of great beauty? Maybe it was a radiant autumn sunset or the sight of laughing children at the playground. For whatever reason, the experience catches you by surprise. This wellspring of joy bubbles up deep inside you and if any word can be uttered at all, it is “wow” or “amazing” or “beautiful.”

That is how it all began for me. When I entered the Salt Lake City convention center to register for the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions (Salt Lake City, Oct. 15-19), I was unprepared for what I saw. Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Drepung Loseling monastery were painstakingly creating a sand mandala. Two Catholic priests spoke with a Muslim man in a white cap. A few Sikh men in turbans passed in front of me while a group of fully clad Native Americans passed me on their way outside. Two Indian women in sarees strolled past the large-scale replica Jain Temple as a group of teens with matching T-shirts listened excitedly to their youth group leader.

For five days, 10,000 people from 80 countries — representing 50 religious traditions — gathered to work together on common issues that affect all of humanity. As the oldest, largest, and most inclusive interfaith and intercultural gathering in the world, the Parliament was an opportunity to listen and learn from global leaders, to share and grow across boundaries and borders, and to join together on important global work.

Sometimes, it seems like all we hear is the bad news of the harmful and destructive words and actions that get associated with religion — clergy scandals and militant violence, systemic corruption and damaging dogmas. It is easy to forget that religions are neutral systems. While they can be distorted and manipulated to aid in perpetrating all sorts of hatreds, prejudices and violence, religions have the drive to create peace, work for justice and promote compassion towards people and the planet.

The local Salt Lake City newspaper called the Parliament a “Lovefest.” While everyone was peaceful and open-minded, compassionate and supportive, such a description undercuts the serious and challenging work being done. Interfaith action is courageous and creative, it requires that people deal with complexity, and that they understand facts and the reasons behind the facts. Interfaith relationships require people to move beyond feelings and emotion, which is always the first step of any meaningful spiritual growth. Interfaith collaboration requires that we drop the shallow binary assumptions of right and wrong, us and them, good and bad, which keep the “conflict” metaphor front and center.

The Parliament, which generally meets every five years, was a chance to work together on pressing topics: upholding women’s dignity and human rights, addressing income inequality, supporting emerging leaders, resisting war, violence and hate speech, combatting the climate crisis, and supporting indigenous peoples. Today, we live in an age of the gesture, where actions speak louder than words. (Isn’t this why the world is so drawn to Pope Francis?) The age of pious words is long past. The great challenges of our world need collaborative action.

While the Parliament theme was “Reclaiming the Heart of Our Humanity,” the general overall shift was “from prayer to action.” People from all faiths shared the distinctiveness of their religious and cultural traditions, but always in light of how that helps them work in the world.

Tackling the challenges of our time takes great courage and discipline. If we seek justice, freedom, dignity and peace, then there is much work that we each have to do first. Learn to be spiritually and rationally driven rather than emotionally led by pundits and populism. Resist simplistic answers and don’t try to essentialize trends, religions, peoples or problems.

While waiting for my plane, I bumped into Mairead Maguire and Betty Williams, who had won the Noble Peace Prize in 1976 for their work in Northern Ireland. After talking about the session we had attended and lessons learned, I asked Mrs. Maguire, “What are you taking home from the Parliament that can be of help in your work?” She said, “Humility. It all starts with humility.”


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