Reflections from the World's Largest Interfaith Gathering

Click above to see additional photos from Parliament.

Click above to see additional photos from Parliament.

Rebecca Mays is Executive Director at the Dialogue Institute, and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Religion at Temple University. She and DI Founder/President Leonard Swidler led a workshop at Parliament on "Writing a Global Ethic from the Grassroots."

A dozen persons dressed in white and wearing wings moved in deliberate, slow steps through the halls of the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. Some played lyre music as the majority simply smiled at those they passed, creating a sense of peace and care befitting the angels. Nearby, the Sikh community generated a moving sense of generosity and hospitality as they served thousands a delicious and free lunch.

Over the five days of the Parliament of the World’s Religions—the world’s largest interfaith gathering—some 10,000 people from around the world attended workshops, joined in plenaries, shared in rituals and music, and presented their organizations and wares in the exhibit hall. Workshops and plenaries focused on serious concerns to promote religious understanding and world peace. In one plenary, Tariq Ramadan chastised the large crowd for too much self-indulgent cheering and not enough focus on the issues themselves; plenary issues included climate change, indigenous rights to land, women’s place among religious leadership, economic justice and religious prejudice. 

The Dialogue Institute and Journal of Ecumenical Studies served in booth 824 where Leonard Swidler, Tim Emmett-Rardin and I met hundreds of people interested in our work. We were clearly among the “choir”—those people who were convinced of the importance of dialogue, mutual collaboration and service to the poor and uneducated around the globe. KAICIID, the newly formed center for interreligious dialogue in Vienna, Austria, has researched over four hundred organizations who espouse missions similar to the Dialogue Institute's. Len now enjoys the rare experience of knowing his vision of interreligious dialogue formed in the 1950s and 1960s has come of age. We cultivated our relationships with those like-minded folks as we know how critical cooperation will become in the next wave of this movement.

A major gathering on each day of the event pointed to the need for this cooperation and the challenges faced. Each day hundreds gathered with the people who had traveled from the Middle East as members of the Abrahamic Reunion, all working in villages and cities where religious violence threatens daily activities. I found myself again pondering one of the questions that most often comes up with our SUSI (Study of the U.S. Institutes on Religious Pluralism) students from that region and southeast Asia when we explore together the dialogue skill of “agreeing to disagree.” 

So what happens after we agree to disagree? In our short five-week study together through SUSI, we strive to maintain respect in building friendships among like-minded young adults. This network of solidarity and support is crucial with this next generation of leaders. But as one Egyptian woman wrote me recently: “I still disagree with (and she named one with whom she had had intense moments of conflict); how can I respect someone with whom I disagree so strongly?” In this reflection I share a partial response to her, and express my gratitude for all those at the Parliament who are working on a response to that fundamental question, on what we do next after we agree to disagree. 

My first suggestion is that we create a space, a pause in conversation, time apart, personal reflection—any choice that will allow the mind and heart some room to consider exactly what the disagreement is about. Can we let go of a need to blame or even to hide blame in strident analyses of cause and effect? Instead, in the space we make for reflection where no one is to blame, can we name with compassion those influences that are shaping the disagreement? 

In one Parliament workshop, I observed as two passionate parties entangled their perspectives. As sparks began to fly, a third participant simply jumped in to pile on another perspective, everyone hoping the sparks would not derail the workshop. What was needed was this more apophatic space in which a deeper listening to self and to other could happen. Such space is unconventional in a set of assumptions about leadership that emphasizes assertive action, cheers bravado as courage, and values speech over silence. Pregnant pauses of silence can actually birth more real leadership: a new insight, an unforeseen ally, a deeper peace in the belly to precede the next action. 

In our dialogue work with young adults, two skills—sides of the same coin—foster understanding that allows for differing opinions to stand side by side. The power of reflective listening is a skill to be practiced over and over again in the space created by silence or reflection. Here is an example of that power.

We were discussing the difficult issue of lesbian and gay rights in a majority culture that disagrees with the practice; I noticed the resistance of our conservative community members. Afterwards I created a space for them to reflect on all they had heard. I had each of them take turns to reflect exactly what they heard the others saying. They shared of their confusion in liking the people; yet, knowing they could not condone the practice of gay and lesbian relationship. I encouraged them to write down more of their own thinking, in their own language, and to keep reflecting each other’s opinions to one another. A few days later a young woman from Turkey came to me to say she was surprised by a connection that had come to her. She had fought for the right to wear her headscarf as her choice; could the fight of gays and lesbians be comparable as a right of choice? She thought so and said she felt humbled by her original views; she still, though, had to think more on an opinion, but she felt she had come to understand “the other” a bit better. Now she wanted to reflect on whether all rights were equal, but she was clear individual choice mattered. She acknowledged how grateful she was for “friends” with whom she had this chance for reflecting and thinking freshly and safely. 

In the process, however, the other skill is needed. I observed the resistance in the students in the story above and tried to create a safe space for them. Individuals in a community, especially future leaders, need to recognize in themselves what we have called “red flags” or “boundaries.” To speak up for one’s self without defense or rancor requires trusting that one’s resistances to something someone else is doing or saying are OK. Only then can the fear and/or conviction beneath a resistance be slowly revealed, and allowed to teach. Again, space of place and time are essential components to allow for the permission to raise a “red flag” or name “a boundary;” then with the reflection described above, people can allow fresh perceptions to grow and to flourish.

At Parliament I did at times wonder whether it wouldn’t be more productive for peace and justice to flourish were all the 10,000 people present to remain in their neighborhoods pursuing the work on the ground, where it will make the most difference. And yet, as I observed so much learning, hospitality, cooperation and plans for pending action, I felt uplifted and happy to be with so many I know will return home refreshed and ready to re-engage where needed. 

Now back in Philadelphia, I am one of them.