This article was originally published in October 1993 in the The EarthSpirit Newsletter.
We have just returned from attending the second Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, an event which originated a century ago as the first major interfaith conference in recorded history.
Relatively speaking, of course. The great majority of the religious delegates attending the 1893 Parliament were white men from Judeo-Christian traditions. Very few women were represented (Annie Besant, the noted Theosophist leader, was one of only a handful of female speakers). Religious leaders from the African traditions were conspicuously absent. Native Americans were marginally present, but only as a sideshow curiosity among the exhibits of the Chicago World’s Fair, which took place concurrent to the Parliament.
Still, the first Parliament made important strides toward interfaith understanding: for the first time, the Eastern religious traditions were given their due in the West. Buddhist and Hindu leaders, such as Swami Vivekananda, created a strong and lasting presence which, over the course of the past century, helped to offset the previous dominance of the “religions of the book” and foster an atmosphere of much greater understanding and pluralism. Indirectly, the first Parliament helped to make the resurgence of the Pagan traditions easier than it might have been otherwise.
The second Parliament showed how drastically things have changed in the relatively brief span of a century. Christianity, though well represented, was obviously in the minority. Starting with the exultingly colorful opening ceremony, the presence of Hindus, Buddhists, Native Americans, Sikhs, Jains, Moslems, Rastafarians, Baha’is, Yorubans, and Zoroastrians – women participating on a par with men – created an overwhelming feeling of truly global diversity. And this sense of diversity was much enhanced and affirmed by the very active participation of Pagans and Witches.
EarthSpirit, Covenant of the Goddess, and Circle Sanctuary – three of the largest Pagan organizations in the country – were numbered among the Parliament’s 125 co-sponsoring groups. We all attended for the same reason: to seek greater understanding, respect, and acceptance of our spiritual traditions from people of other faiths, not so much through the dissemination of pamphlets, books and magazines (though we did that, too) but by showing them who we are – by talking with them, by listening and answering questions, by rubbing elbows with them (literally) in stiflingly crowded elevators, by singing and dancing with them, by helping out, by sharing food with them, and religious ceremonies, and jokes, and all the various meaningful personal interactions through which human beings really learn to know each other.
I am happy to report that we accomplished far more than we had expected. EarthSpirit, with more than thirty representatives, was clearly among the largest delegations overall. Our brightly-decorated table – bedecked with hanging leaves and flowers and the strikingly beautiful green and white EarthSpirit banner made by Kyriel, and tended by colorfully robed Pagans – became one of the main attractions in the exhibition hall, and a focal point for dozens of conversations about who and what Pagans and Witches are. Our nine presentations – from workshops, to rituals, to the musical performances – were extremely well attended and enthusiastically received. We were able to reach thousands of representatives of the world’s religions with an extremely positive message about our traditions.
Our presence at the Parliament was not altogether without conflict. We understood from the start that there were people there – including some of the Parliament’s board of trustees – who were wary and skeptical of our participation in this event. Early in the week, an Eastern Orthodox Christian delegation publicly withdrew from the Parliament due to their dismay at the inclusion of unnamed groups that, in their view, were “quasi-religious organizations”. Privately, they made it clear to the press that they were referring to us.
On a different tack, Pagans ran into a problem with Chicago Parks Dept. regarding the denial of a permit for the COG full moon ritual. EarthSpirit was actively involved in the process of finding the right legal channels and applying pressure through the press so that the permit was eventually issued, though a day late for the actual full moon.(The ritual was a great success and included the participation of many EarthSpirit members including Deirdre Pulgram Arthen, who wrote most of the ritual itself, Sue Curewitz Arthen, who had a major role and helped with the writing and members of MotherTongue, among others.) These conflicts, however difficult and time-consuming they were to resolve, only provided us with more opportunities to publicly address issues of religious prejudice and discrimination, particularly as they apply to Pagans and Witches.
One of the most rewarding aspects of EarthSpirit’s presence at the Parliament was our interaction with the other Pagans who attended. There was a great degree of cooperation among the three co-sponsoring organizations, whether participating in and publicizing each other’s events, or rallying together in times of crisis. We heard many flattering comments from other attending Pagans about their appreciation of the representation they were getting from us.
The results and effects of the Parliament on the world are yet to be determined. The fact that the spiritual leaders of millions of people from around the world were there sharing ideas is bound to create changes, in our perceptions of one another, if nothing else. One major focus for the Parliament, The Declaration of a Global Ethic, which appears elsewhere in this issue, was originally a document in two parts: the first part, which we signed at the Leadership Assembly, is a general statement of ethics. The second part, which addressed in more detail various issues such as the equality of men and women, sexual ethics including child abuse, the misuse of religion for political goals, and the dangers of fanaticism, was not agreed upon, even though it conspicuously left out some of the more charged issues like religious attitudes toward gays and lesbians and abortion. Clearly there remains a long way to go; still, the powerful statements in what was approved concerning prejudice, diversity and the environmental crisis, are important.
Another indication that more changes are needed was the fact that there were still many more male representatives on the platform during the opening and closing Plenary sessions than there were women, and the persistent use of the masculine in referring to “god” was difficult for those of us with a different perspective – such as Pagans, Native Americans and Buddhists – to swallow. Fortunately, at the opening Plenary, this was addressed directly by one of the Native American representatives, who spoke eloquently about the Mother Earth and her importance to his people of the Hopi nation.
The impact of our attendance at the Parliament was best summarized by a Canadian film producer with whom I spoke toward the end of the week. He said that in his mind, and he felt other media and independent observers he’d spoken to shared his view, the Parliament had been the coming out party for Pagans and Witches in the community of the world’s religions.
These interfaith events are generally attended by the most and liberal elements of the various traditions. For real changes to occur, these attitudes must filter down to the average churchgoer. The fact that we reached so many people, though, is likely to mean changes in how we are perceived by the mainstream population, and allow respect and acceptance to grow. This can only can affect the lives of Pagans for the better, as we are faced with less misunderstanding and prejudice about our choice of spirituality.
EarthSpirit’s participation at the Parliament is in keeping with the ongoing redefinition of our aims for the organization. Three years ago I initiated talks here about the aims and direction of EarthSpirit, now that the original goals of creating a Pagan community in New England have long been met. We are now one of largest Pagan organizations in country, and are making changes to better serve our growing national membership and redefine who we are.
Some of the things we are doing are a reflection of being clearer about what shape and direction we want to take. Participation at the Parliament and other interfaith events; the revamping of Fireheart and the changes that you can see in our Newsletter; the outreach work of MotherTongue and the growing number of workshops and presentations we’ve been giving throughout the country are some of the shifts we’ve been making, with more to come. We will be discussing these in more depth in upcoming issues of the newsletter. In the meantime, I want to close by thanking all the EarthSpirit members who helped us make inroads for Paganism at the Parliament whether by attending, by helping with the preparations, publicity, and fundraising, or by holding down the fort here at home.
Published with the author’s permission.
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