At a time when specters loom large of religious extremism, state-sanctioned in some cases, the tableau of prominent faith leaders holding hands at the Chicago PoWR challenged that sad reality.
The message of Parliament of World Religions (PoWR) in Chicago last month resonated with clarity and conviction: We must join hands, unite, and safeguard the religious rights of all faiths. PoWR has traversed a remarkable journey since 1893 when the first Parliament brought together 400 religious leaders representing 40 diverse traditions. It was during this momentous gathering that Catholicism and Judaism gained recognition as significant American religions in addition to the predominant Protestant Christianity and the luminous traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism were unveiled to the Western world.
In the contemporary landscape, where the specters loom large of religious fanaticism, state-sanctioned in some cases, the tableau on massive dais in PoWR’s opening session challenged that sad reality. The holding of hands by prominent religious and spiritual leaders from countries including USA, Mexico, China, and India extended a warm invitation to stakeholders of all faiths, beckoning them to a realm of peace, harmony, and genuine discourse on pressing matters facing the world. Attended by over 6,500 people, the atmosphere in Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center was electric. City Mayor Brandon Johnson astutely proclaimed, “In this moment, seeking refuge solely within scriptures and holy texts falls short; it is essential to exhibit the most magnificent creation and power of humanity – the act of love.”
PoWR 2023 resounded as a summons to conscience. The central theme was the need to defend freedom and human rights. Walking the exhibition hall choc-a-block with over 200 stalls became a journey into one’s moral compass. Here, spiritual traditions, religious collectives, faith-based seminaries, modern mantras for bonding, ancient sutras for equilibrium, poignant reflections on religious animosity, organizations dedicated to social progress, and revitalizing yoga meditations converged. One stall summoned interfaith harmonies through melodious songs while another presented sobering data on minorities targeted by right-wing regimes. Tokens of memory took the form of pens, badges, shirts, chocolates, pins, and meticulously annotated leaflets and brochures. The Boston School of Theology promoted courses to fathom the nuances of various religions, while the Divine Life Society suggested understanding through the prism of yoga. It was a tapestry woven with the threads of diversity.
The PoWR embodies a noble idea. The plenaries in the main hall had broad mandates and marquee names. Well-orchestrated, they struck deep chords and started conversations that will resonate for long. Alongside, over 250 breakout sessions grappled with diverse subjects. The topics and issues spanning deconstructing religious patriarchy to serendipitous revelations in anti-nuclear activism enticed discerning minds. The Women’s Assembly held profound significance, addressing the very core of female participation within faith-infused societies. Amidst this resplendence, the assembly advocating climate action, the council amplifying indigenous voices, and the solemn rite of climate repentance shone a luminous light on faith’s role. Indian delegation of interfaith leaders participated with fervor. But there was a problem of plenty. Simultaneous sessions made flowing with the current akin to chasing ephemeral wisps.
Amid so many causes and aspirations, religious extremism had the earnest ear of many. Rev. Jen Butler, the visionary founder of Faith in Public Life, lamented, “Religion, once the sanctuary of moral teachings, now stands manipulated, its moral fabric corroded by heinous acts of violence. Autocratic forces wield religion as an instrument for amassing power and maintaining control, from the prism of Russian Orthodox nationalism to the fervor of Catholic nationalism in Hungary and Poland, from India’s Hindutva to Israel’s nascent ruling coalition’s Jewish nationalism, and further to the evangelical and Pentecostal strains of religious nationalism in the U.S. and Brazil.”
The International Religious Freedom Roundtable beckoned distinguished faith leaders who deliberated in private, reminiscent of the hallowed halls of Washington DC.
Elsewhere, a poignant tribute unfolded for the 30,000 children lost to gun violence. Scraps of orange fabric coalesced into labyrinthine patterns or transformed into raw tools by the skilled hands of Shane Claiborne’s blacksmith forge. His declaration reverberated, “When we mold that metal, it resounds with the proclamation that the world can be reshaped.”
The Langar lunch, a regular feature of PoWR gatherings, enchanted thousands. Orchestrated by the Birmingham UK-based Nishkam Seva Jatha, this Sikh tradition has come to PoWR since 2004 under the guidance of Bhai Saheb Mohinder Singh. He joyously proclaimed adherence to teachings of 10 gurus of his faith through service to the world transcending all biases. Heads covered with white scarves, people sat in orderly lines savoring Indian delicacies with hearts full of contentment and gratitude. Under the tent pitched outside the venue, a grand theater of interfaith harmony and service unfolded.
The Parliament of World Religions 2023 harkened to all that is required for reimagining our perceptions of faith. The quest for a better world necessitates the exchange of ideas. PoWR has evolved into a powerful platform for intricate discussions where faith assumes a fresh and actionable agenda.
Photographs by Bhavya Srivastava