First part of the exclusive coverage of the mega interfaith event in Chicago for Lotus web magazine.
For Lotus, Parliament of the World’s Religions 2023 in Chicago is like manna from heaven. A large part of the content of the 5-day convening in Chicago coheres with us. The 6,500 people assembled here from 95 countries and over 200 religious-spiritual groups from Baha’is to Zoroastrians, and the bonhomie seen among them is a microcosm of what the world can be, ideally, but is not.
‘Call to conscience: Defending Freedom & Human Rights’ is the title theme of the Parliament of the World’s Religions (PoWR) that opened on August 14. So, besides the usual suspects like religious freedom, inclusivity and diversity, topics to be addressed at the plenary sessions and numerous workshops and panels include climate change, human rights, food security, social justice and women’s rights. Which seems to be an effort by PoWR to give a call to action to faith groups and associates to come out of their silos. The urgency to save the earth, and, in turn humanity, from the feared cataclysmic events to come is evident in the programming. Can you believe that one plenary session had over a dozen faith and spiritual leaders deliver their messages at the ‘Climate Repentance Ceremony’ on August 15.
This shift of focus from creating understanding and harmony between different religions may also be because this non-political Parliament has emerged as the biggest interfaith movement in the world and it can be harnessed for the good of all, believers or non-believers. PoWR was revived in 1993, a century after its first convening also in Chicago, made famous by the historical speech by Swami Vivekananda.
Attending the massive event at the enormous McCormick Place convention center in the Windy City has been a lifetime opportunity for me. I have been accompanied and guided by Arvind Vora, founder of Shanti Fund from New York. A Jain, he is a veteran of PoWRs in Salt Lake City (2015), Toronto (2018), and 2021 (Virtual). He told me that he finds the 2023 convening “the most inclusive with over 600 panels and workshops spread over three floors making it hard to choose which ones to attend.”
My eleventh hour attendance was made possible by Nitin Ajmera, Chairman of the Chicago iteration of PoWR. In his address at the opening session, he related his experience as a young boy during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in India that molded his understanding of the importance of interfaith amity. An accounting whiz based in Long Island, he also shared elsewhere that he is part of 30 families of different faiths which meet regularly at one of their homes for devotional singing, etc.
The convention was opened by the Mayor of Chicago, Brandon Johnson. In his keynote speech, he told the audience: “Your spiritual traditions have the power to guide people to a path of peace, and nurture a spirit of mutual respect and collaboration.” He went on to add, “The urgency in this moment requires us to not just simply rely upon the recitation of scriptures and our sacred books, but it requires us to demonstrate the most incredible act and power known to humankind and that is the act of love.”
Rashad Husain, US ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, said America, built by people fleeing religious persecution, is committed to protecting religious freedom for all everywhere in the world. Dignitaries whose video messages were screened included UN Secretary General António Guterres, and US Senator Dick Durbin. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is also listed among participating luminaries.
The pre-convention Parade of Faiths on August 13 was another colorful affair with hundreds of people from different Chicago faith groups marching in a procession near the convention venue. The Sikh group was the largest. Sikh community is also organizing the langar lunch for all convention attendees over five days.
At the parade I spotted spiritual guru Amma Sri Karunamayi ensconced in a ceremonial horse-driven carriage. I requested and scored an interview with her. Also not to be missed was Jain guru Acharya Lokesh Muni, who is becoming a face of Jainism in the world because he has no compunction to travel by air. Jain monks including their sect leaders are enjoined to travel on foot.
I found that browsing at the 150 booths in the exhibition hall is going to take a few hours. Then there are documentaries telling faith and interfaith stories from around the world. Meanwhile I gawk at the art exhibits including a labyrinth installed on the east side terrace of McCormick Place. From this terrace a view of the ocean-like Michigan Lake is the best exhibit, I would add.