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Parliament of the World's Religions: New Developments and the Goldin Institute

By Paul Chaffee

Parliament of the World's Religions Reaches Out

In 1893 the first Parliament of the World's Religions offered Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Jews, and Hindus a shared public forum for the first time in history. Part of a World Exposition, the Parliament commenced a week of interfaith dialogue on September 11. Twelve thousand and more came each day to the building that would become the Chicago Art Institute. Swami Vivakananda, a Hindu who arrived initially without invitation, and then was embraced, particularly electrified the public forums. His charisma, intellect, and generous heart repeatedly challenged the assumption (held by most of the Parliament's planners) that Christianity has a lock on the love of God and could "perfect" whatever goodness and wisdom other religions brought to the table.

The crowd rose to its feet to greet this monk in bright saffron robes as soon as he began with the words, "Sisters and brothers of America" After the opening speeches, Swamiji was scheduled by the organizers to conclude each day's sessions, a strategy for keeping everyone in attendance. One can note from his first words that Vivakananda (like the movement he helped inspire) is not a syncretist. "The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth," he said in Chicago. He compared the love of God flowing through different religions to rivers all headed towards the sea. He quarreled with the notion that any religion can claim exclusive franchise on the divine, and he sought friendship and common cause among people from all traditions.

A centennial celebration of that first event made its own history in 1993 when 8,000 people from dozens of different religious traditions again came to Chicago. Subsequently a momentous decision was made to sponsor similarly ambitious gatherings every five years or so, at sites all around the world.

The Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions (CPWR) made good on that commitment in 1999 in Cape Town, South Africa. As in Chicago, the experience of attending a Parliament was of homecoming, of meeting members in "our family" we never knew about. In this setting new friends very quickly become dear and important to each other. The "love of God" shines through, regardless of tradition, inviting your own to shine back. Nelson Mandela in great detail told the 7,000 assembled in 1999 how the struggle against Apartheid have failed without various kinds of help that Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim communities each offered to those who suffered the most in those years of terror. From the bottom of his heart to ours, he let us share the ownership of their victory and South Africa's freedom today. For a moment you could see the whole human family in one room, safe with each other.

You can already register (and save a pretty penny by being early) for the Parliament being held July 7-13, 2004 in Barcelona, Spain (http://www.cpwr.org). As plans go forward, the 1993 hundred-year-old birthday party for interfaith dialogue is morphing into an interfaith movement, engaging activists in every country in the world. Some few have had the opportunity to attend one of the Parliaments. But millions of people in countries everywhere, in villages as in cities, are becoming engaged in a similar, emerging grassroots interfaith community.

New developments

Anyone disappointed by the failure of the 21st century to quickly usher in a new era of peace can at least take comfort and a ray of hope from recent developments in the nascent interfaith movement. The Parliament is alive and well and developing its relationship with another international grassroots effort, the United Religions Initiative (URI). URI, which in two years has established nearly 200 Cooperation Circles in 36 countries, in August held its first post-Charter-signing Global Assembly in Rio de Janeiro (Cf. "United Religions Initiative Comes of Age in Rio," InterfaithNews.net, September 2002, page 1). URI's Charter had been signed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2000, and those who came to Rio were finally able to turn to the multitude of issues they care about, their Charter a foundation now rather than a work-in-progress.

Back in Chicago, a similarly significant development is opening a new chapter in the Parliament's life. This past October the curtain went up on what CPWR has been doing in its own backyard for the last 15 years. From the start, Parliament planners have been "local grown," leaders from Chicago's multitudinous faith communities, clergy and laity who cooperatively opened the door to all people of faith and practice. The joy in their work comes from flourishing local relationships.

So when the decision was made to continue the massive gatherings, it was grounded with a parallel commitment to stay involved in grassroots interfaith organizing in Chicago. Since the late eighties the Council for the Parliament, its decision-making body, has been active in the city and its suburbs, involving itself with dozens of religious organizations, universities and seminaries, private and civic organizations, in addition to various interfaith groups. Special attention over the years has been invested in a neighborhood called Rogers Park, a quick drive from downtown Chicago. Simply reading the signs over the storefronts when you walk down Rogers Park's main business corridor makes Chicago's ethnic, racial, religious diversity astonishingly clear — the globe in a single neighborhood.

For years the Council's leadership has ruminated on how its extensive Chicago activities should relate to the international gatherings it sponsors twice a decade. Instead of forcing the issue, they lived with it, continuing to nurture both local and global ventures. A strategy has emerged now, suggesting a local-global axis for the interfaith movement capable of empowering interreligious work everywhere. The Golden Institute for International Partnership & Peace was founded to give expression to the strategy. On October 26, at a quiet Dominican priory just west of Chicago, 67 interfaith activists invited from around the world gathered to hear a new dream of partnering between the global Parliament gatherings and grassroots interfaith activities everywhere.

The Goldin Institute for International Partnership & Peace

Though born in Los Angeles, Diane Goldin brought her theatrical talents to Chicago where a 17-year career as a producer garnered her high reputation for multicultural approaches to the classical repertory. A life-long passion for peace and justice led to her involvement with CPRW. Early in 2002 she made a substantial donation to the Parliament for a five-year project called the Goldin Institute. The Institute is dedicated to building "partnerships" with grassroots interfaith communities everywhere who would like to have a formal relationship with the group organizing the massive gatherings so many enjoyed in Cape Town and will enjoy in Barcelona in the summer of 2004.

The weeklong Institute agenda was packed, leavened with long breaks and leisurely meals. In short order, people had a chance to meet each other one-on-one for an hour, and introduced each other in groups of eight. Then we went to work.

  • Professor Patrice Brodeur of Connecticut College set the pace in a challenging keynote about interfaith activities moving from the periphery to the center of the religious community-at-large and the need to study "applied religion."
  • A day was spent on the increasingly important role of intrafaith relations (activities connecting different segments of a single tradition) if interfaith work is to have a significant influence in the world.
  • he Parliament's many Chicago projects were surveyed. Through the week a dozen different religious and cultural sites in and near Chicago were visited, with dozens of stories about interfaith activities from people at each site. Gurdwara, church, synagogue, and mosque were all visited.
  • Participants from South Africa, the Middle East, Taiwan, and Brazil were given time to survey the considerable efforts going on in their organizations back home. At table and on buses the conversation never ceased, and the shear size of global grassroots activities started sinking in.
  • In one case, participants had to choose a day examining relations between Chicago's Muslims and the rest of the community or interfaith activities on campus. Afterwards participants gave high marks to both options.
  • Visiting the spot where Vivekananda addressed the Parliament 109 years ago particularly moved long-timers in the interfaith vineyard. At the Chicago Art Institute we also visited the large room where "Towards a Global Ethic — An Initial Declaration" was debated and signed by 200 religious leaders at the 1993 Parliament.

As Goldin Institute went into its fourth day, the Parliament's dreams for formal partnerships built around specific proposals and agreements were detailed. Partnerships will mostly be with interfaith coalitions in cities around the world, though smaller communities will also be welcomed in creating partnerships. Time was scheduled for people to work in small groups and begin considering what could be done in their own backyards that would benefit from a relationship with CPWR. When time ran out, cards and email addresses were exchanged along with promises to stay in touch.

The Possibilities Ahead

Grounding the dialogue at URI's Global Assembly and the Parliament's Goldin Institute were some shared assumptions. Above all, collaboration is the watchword today. Working together, relating across traditional turf boundaries, sharing resources, cooperating rather than competing, integrated financial strategies to fund a plenitude of grassroots efforts — these themes came up over and again, in Chicago as in Rio. Such sentiments are easy to mouth, but the events themselves make the case. Dozens of those in Rio were Parliament alums from 1993 and 1999, and two of the Parliament's executive staff were full participants at URI's 2002 Assembly.

Similarly, nearly a third of the Goldin Institutes participants have been active in URI activities, including four past and current URI Global Council trustees. Growing out of collaboration, the phrase "capacity building" could be heard over and over in both CPWR and URI settings. Some have wondered out loud why we need more than one major grassroots international interfaith organization. Those who feel that ending religiously motivated violence and creating cultures of peace is actually critical to the human family's survival quickly see the efficacy in not two or three major interfaith organizations but many. On the global stage, the interfaith movement is still working through day one or two, and multiplying our aggregate capacity for generating mutual respect, peace, and justice tops the collective agenda.

In a world darkened by conflict and turmoil, Goldin Institute participants headed home with hope. The world we each live in had been enlarged with new friends and the promise of creative partnerships for healing the world.

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