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Tarina Kaur Ahuja Addresses the Conscience Plenary

Tarina Kaur Ahuja addressed the Conscience Plenary at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

This is not normal, seeing our brothers and sisters and siblings struggling at the hands of the Maui wildfires. This should not be normal. Seeing transgender kids all across the country being targeted by their governments and schools. This cannot be normal.

Seeing Venezuelan migrants in this city struggling to find access to food and housing. This cannot be normal. I was having a conversation with my little cousin the other day and we were on the phone and she was playing and she stops and says, “Tarina Divi, the word for sister, why are people mean?” That stung. But I responded instinctively and said, “My love, that’s just the way the world works.” And immediately I regretted it. 

Because often when we’re confronted with the terrors and cruelty of the world, we tend to think that’s just how it goes. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can choose love and kindness and action instead of choosing hate, contempt and complacency. 

In fact, I am positive that every single person in this auditorium, in fact every person in this entire McCormick Center has made that choice before. But for some reason, we have been sold this narrative that this cannot be the norm of our global community, that this cannot be the norm of human nature and I am here to tell you that that just isn’t true.

Now when I think about our ability as human beings to choose goodness, I think about an experience I had about a year ago when I was at the March for Our Lives in D.C.

In the middle of the speeches, we hear a boom and immediately we panic because we thought we were under attack. Thankfully, it was a false alarm, but I remember seeing kindness and care in those moments that will always be ingrained on my soul. I saw people take the hands of complete strangers and guide them through the crowd.

I saw others stay back and put themselves in harm’s way to try to help somebody that had been injured while trying to run. I saw other people embrace others that they had never met because they were left crying in shock after everything occurred.

We chose goodness. We looked out for one another, and this is what’s encapsulated by the Sikh ideal of Sarabhatapala, which translates to prosperity for all or blessings to everyone. Every single day, twice a day, Sikhs pray to Vaheguru, God, in a prayer called Ardhas, for the entire world to have Sarabhatapala. For everyone in every corner of this planet to be treated with dignity, to be safe, to be well. 

My friends, our world is in crisis, a crisis of conscience. We are at a once-in-a-generation crossroads where we’re seeing problems of health, of housing, of inequality, of injustice converge to create lived experiences of pain and suffering for our fellow human beings. And we cannot accept this as spiritual leaders or as human beings.

And so it’s up to us to move, to take action. Now every single one of us, we are here today in the McCormick Center because we believe in the power of change and action and progress, but the difficulty lies in the question of trying to understand how do we take the energy that we’ve created here and move it beyond us. How do we take our resolve to act and move it beyond us? How do we get others to listen to their own conscience and move it beyond us? 

In my organizing work, I found three ways to do this. Number one make people feel seen. Now oftentimes in our lives when we choose malice we do it because we feel alone or misunderstood. But I promise you when you show somebody your light you inspire them to act upon their own. Sophomore year of college was difficult for me. I was adjusting to being on campus in person for the first time. I was dealing with anxiety and I had just lost my grandfather and at every turn I was questioning myself.

I have this vivid memory of walking to class one day and being the clutch that I am I dropped everything in my bag and a kind stranger comes up to me with the warmest smile and helps me get everything together and before I could even refuse she puts a breakfast bar in my hand and tells me that she hopes I have a day full of joy and this was a small gesture but it meant the worlds to me because it reminded me of the goodness that surrounded me and it reminded me that I can choose goodness every single day of my life in my work in my life in my relationships. 

Number two and this might be the most important one: make action accessible. Now oftentimes we see so much happening and as a youth organizer I have tried every single day to engage other young people and what I have found is that more often than not people want to act but don’t know how and this is where entry points come into play.

We have to make action accessible, we have to give people links to action steps, we have to give people meetings to go to to learn how to get involved. We have to call them on the phone and meet them in the streets and tell them our stories and why they should get involved and how they can get involved. Never assume that somebody doesn’t care but instead give them the chance to care and more than that give them the tools to act upon that care.

Now the final step that I want to talk about in this idea of making conscience realized is the idea of looking into our neighbors and being vulnerable, making the abstract personal. When we look around us sometimes it’s easy to get numb. We hear broad sweeping statements and statistics and as jarring as they may be sometimes we still find it hard to act and so this my family is where we have to talk to people, share our stories, share our experiences, share our feelings, share our pain as hard as that might be to do because experiences are different between all of us but emotions are universal and feelings are where we discover our own conscience.

Now if you would join me in taking a second to close your eyes and I’m looking at all of you so please take me up on this and close your eyes and imagine what the world can look like five years from now, 50 years from now, 500 years from now. You can open. Those worlds that we’re imagining, they’re radically different between us. But we all have a part in building that future because let me tell you something, we deserve a future where our planet is protected.

We deserve a future where everybody has access to healthcare and to dignity. We deserve a future where every single one of us, no matter the color of our skin or the God we pray to, is treated with dignity and kindness and compassion and empathy. We deserve that world. And so if you would repeat after me, I vow to myself, I vow to my community. The future we imagine will be our reality.

Now I’d like to end with a Sikh prayer, with God’s name comes eternal optimism. And with your blessing comes prosperity for all. Thank you so much.

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