Celebrating the Life of Rev. Dr. William E Lesher, Chair Emeritus of the Parliament of the World’s Religions

January 26, 2018

The Parliament of the World’s Religions is deeply saddened to share news of the passing of our Chair Emeritus Rev. Dr. William E. Lesher, who led two of our five major modern Parliaments over the course of his illustrious 25-year commitment to the POWR.
He died on Tuesday, January 23, at his home in Claremont, California, and is survived by his dedicated wife and partner of 60 years, A. Jean Lesher, and their sons, David and Gregory, and three grandchildren.
Dr. Lesher was triumphant in his commitment to innovate, inspire, and advance the global interfaith movement. As a theologian, thinker and scholar, religious leader, organizer, and entrepreneur, he brought strength and conviction to persuading thousands of people from cultures around the world to listen and believe in the promise of building relationships across faiths to better understand and serve our human family and to live in harmony with our sacred planet.
With a contagious passion for the interfaith movement, he also helped build a robust community across Southern California, bringing together civic, religious, academic and interfaith organizations in the pursuit of creating a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world in any place he called home. In the Parliament, he saw reflections of Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “Beloved Community.”
In a 2009 interview with Kosmos Magazine, Lesher shared his view of why the interfaith movement was a force for change and good in modern times:
“I think of the inter-religious movement as the spiritual expression of the globalized world. The very existence of the interreligious movement is a massive change in the religious landscape of the world, brought about by the technological advances that have created this age of globalization. The movement itself is a necessary response to the “marbleization” of the religions (to use an expression coined by Diana Eck) in a world where the different religions are not neatly separated on different continents, but flow together like the colors in a polished piece of marble. The interreligious movement is providing the occasions for believers of various religious traditions to engage one another, to respect and better understand each other. Out of these encounters, friendships are being formed and common action is being undertaken to address local and global needs. The movement is an essential force for good that is helping humanity meet the challenges of the modern world.”

His life’s work will remain forever central to the history of the Parliament of the World’s Religions and the global interfaith movement at large.

We invite you share your memories of Dr. Lesher to help us in honoring him at the forthcoming 7th Parliament of the World’s Religions.
Email us at info@ParliamentofReligions.org with “Honoring Rev. Lesher” in the subject line.

Tributes to Bill Lesher from Parliament of the World’s Religions Colleagues, Friends, Family,
and Messages from the Interfaith World:
(Submit yours here)

Read Executive Director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions Dr. Larry Greenfield’s Tribute to His Friend and Colleague Bill Lesher
Ruth Broyde Sharon’s Tribute to Bill and Jean Lesher for the Interfaith Observer
Read Dr. Joseph Prahbu’s Tribute to Bill Lesher

Rev. Dr. Robert P. Sellers, Chair of the Board of Trustees, Parliament of the World’s Religions:
“I join with current and emeritus trustees in expressing our gratitude for the enormous contribution of Bill Lesher to the Parliament and the wider interfaith movement. We are greatly in his debt and continue to be inspired by his exemplary life.”

Dr. Mary Nelson, Executive Director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions between 2012 – 2015, Trustee Emeritus:
“Lesher’s gift to the Parliament as one “of vision, commitment, creativity and energy.”

Rev. Robert V Thompson, Chair Emeritus, Parliament of the World’s Religions:
There are some memories that appear “out of the blue”.  When I learned of Bill Lesher’s passing, an experience from many years ago came to mind. We were both on a trip to Barcelona 9 months prior to the 2004 Parliament.  We spent our days in extended conversations with our Barcelona partners and addressing the endless details that accompany every Parliament.  After a long day of conversations with the wonderful Barcelona partners, Bill and I were walking to a restaurant to enjoy a meal.  Turning to me he said, “Bob, this work inspires me to see the light, especially in dark times.  Dr. King’s vision of the Beloved Community keeps coming to mind.  I believe that interfaith work is the work of building the global beloved community.”  When he said this, I stopped and looked at him, only to see his shining eyes while the sun was setting.  Dr. William Lesher, (Bill to me) was the embodiment of that Global Beloved Community.  With inimitable gratitude I bow to Bill, and his legacy.

Phyllis Curott, Former Vice-Chair, Founding Chair of the Women’s Task Force, Parliament of the World’s Religions:
This is very sad news.  Bill was a remarkable guy and a joy to know, of great, good spirit and a deep trust in the value of the Interfaith movement and those with whom he worked to advance it.

Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, Chair of the Board, 2010 – 2015, Parliament of the World’s Religions:
Thank you Bill “the Great” Lesher.
It was another cold Chicago evening when the board of trustees of the Parliament was forced to think about the Parliament’s financial blues.
Being associated with the Parliament for a while as a trustee and vice chair, it was not news. What was new, however, was that we were facing bankruptcy. The meeting went on and on, as the shadow of the evening darkened. Trustee after trustee voicing their concerns and frustrations — pessimist outlooks about the parliament seems to dominate the discussion.
This is when a tall man with a slight hump stood up. In a clear, determined, and somewhat loud voice, he told the trustees:
if you don’t believe in the Parliament and don’t believe that it will survive, leave it.
That was Bill Lesher, the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. That was leadership. I was impressed. And the Parliament went on to organize yet another Parliament.
This incident was the first thing I thought of as I heard about Bill Lesher leaving this world. I had started trusting his leadership and his unwavering commitment to the interfaith movement. He remained a mentor to me as I chaired the board. At times he advised me to take a stronger stand, which I was reluctant to take being the first elected Muslim chair of the Parliament. I invited him to the board meeting and proposed to get him elected as the Chair Emeritus.
Financial instability in the Parliament kept haunting us as we faced the prospects of bankruptcy again in 2012. While making some difficult but necessary tough decisions, I kept thinking of Bill’s bold leadership and his struggle to keep the Parliament financially viable.
Thank God those tough decisions worked out for the Parliament, as we built up a two years budget surplus and created an endowment fund for the first time in the Parliament’s history.
Bill was not pleased with some of those decisions, but he cared for the Parliament enough to show up for the historic 2015 Parliament.
As we gathered in some restaurant in Melbourne, Australia after the 2009 Parliament to celebrate, tired but happy, I, as the new chair, thanked him, saying, “Bill, we need you, you are going nowhere.”
He laughed saying, “yes, I am going nowhere.”
But now he is gone. Somewhere. Thank you, Bill.

Hirotsugu Terasaki, Director General, Peace and Global Issues Soka Gakkai International (SGI)
It was with profound sadness that we learned of the passing of Reverend Dr. William E. Lesher. I offer this expression of our sincere condolences to all the members of his bereaved family, friends and colleagues.
I wish to pay my heartfelt tribute to the late Reverend for the extraordinary work that he achieved at the Parliament of the World’s Religions and for the vision, generosity and inspiration he rendered in expanding a global network for interfaith dialogue in partnership with the SGI.
In this time of sadness and loss, I hope that Rev. Dr. Lesher’s family and friends will draw some comfort in the knowledge that his many remarkable contributions to our world will endure and flourish, to be celebrated into the far future.

Mohammad A. Siddiqi, Trustee Emeritus of the Parliament of the World’s Religions:
I am very sad to learn the passing away of my dear friend and mentor Rev. Dr. Bill Lesher. We worked together to develop the Muslim Chaplaincy program that the American Islamic College and the Lutheran Seminary developed during the 80s.  Bill was kind and generous in mentoring new trustees of the POWR.  He was the one who interviewed me for the trusteeship and subsequently we worked together in the international interfaith movement.   He was an intellectual and thinker of the interfaith movement. My best wishes and condolences to Bill’s wife and children!

M. Blouke Carus, Friend and Trustee Emeritus of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Founder of the Paul Carus Award,
and Marianne Carus:
We all miss Bill Lesher, always focusing on the permanent things.  Bill was a great leader of the Council for aParliament of the World Religions during its renaissance in Chicago in 1993 and again in 1999 in Cape Town, South Africa, with all he did to lead the organization through the early turbulent years.  Bill was indeed one of our Modern Founding Fathers. Marianne and I always enjoyed talking to Bill and Jean at the parliaments including the recent one in Salt Lake City.  Thank you, Bill for keeping us together!

Marcus Braybrooke:
It is with great sadness that Mary and I have heard of the death of Willaim Lesher and send our condolences to Jean and all the family. I write also on behalf of the World Congress of Faiths.
Working with Bill as members of the International Interfaith Organisations Coordinating Committee in our meetings in Oxford and in India was always a delight.  He had a kindly interest in everybody and everything, a clear vision and a gentleness that won the hearts of those who worked for him. His leadership of the CPWR was remarkable and he embodied in himself the longing for interfaith cooperation, peace, justice and concern for all who suffer and for the environment, that, at its best,  is the hallmark of the interfaith movement.
Let me quote as a tribute to Bill from one of the prayers in Jean Lesher’s beautiful Prayers for the Common Good:
We thank you, O God …
for the great souls who saw visions of
larger truth and dared to declare it;
for the multitude of quiet and gracious souls
whose presence has purified and sanctified the world;
and for those known and loved by us,
who have passed from this earthly fellowship
into the fuller light of life with you.’

Rustom Ghadiali
Sad to read about the demise of Dr. William E. Lesher, a stalwart of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.. May his SOUL REST in PEACE.

Gerald T. Farley:
Our Thoughts and Prayers are with you all.

Bob Donius, St. Bonaventure University:
When I was on a sabbatical in Chicago in the autumn of 2011, I met Bill at a gathering and shared a wonderful 15 minute conversation.  I did not know of his vast accomplishments,  but I knew instantly that he was a deeply compassionate and wise and holy man.  I have since quoted him to my students every semester, ” In interfaith relationships we don’t begin with the question, ‘what do you think and what do you believe?’ We begin with ‘what do you see and how do you see?’  Our experiences are not subject to debate and offer a place of connection.
Thank you, Bill.  I trust that you now see the fullness of the beatific vision. Your brother, Bob Donius

Aurie Pennick, Esq.:
I first met Rev. Lesher and Jean when they joined Bethel Lutheran Church in Englewood where I was a longtime member. At that time Pastor Dr.A Sherwood Nelson a progressive community driven minister was heading the African American congregation in one of Chicago’s most politicized communities-Englewood: home of the city’s first Black female Alderman and one the city’s most powerful gangs The Disciples. Given Rev. Lesher was the President of Lutheran School of Theology when he and Jean joined Bethel it brought a greater respect to Pastor Nelson and his community impactful work. Later, I was honored to serve on the Board of Trustees of the Council of the Parliament of the World’s Religions when Rev. Lesher was the chair.
As such, I was blessed to attend the 2004 “Pathways to Peace” Parliament of the World’s Religions conference held in Barcelona where Reverend Lesher’s leadership was inspirational. Reverend Lesher has left a legacy of working for and on behalf marginalized individuals and communities across the world. He will be deeply missed.

Dr. Chandra Bandara:
Please accept my deepest sympathies on passing away of Rev. Bill Lesher. As a person committed to inter-religious understanding I really feel sad about his departure.

Reverend Robert Lesher Junior:
For me Bill was Uncle Bill, he knew me before I was born. I went to Seminary and his article that he wrote in the 70’s about the Exodus was something that informed me throughout my Ministry. And has a lot to do with the development of my theology is being a lifetime journey that is always potentially new and exciting.
Most of my time with Bill was gathering as a family: when we gathered with Bill and Jean it was always a good time. Usually loud and rowdy because his brother and step brother were there, Jack and my father Bob. They did things like build pyramids in the living room, had a bread fight at a restaurant that almost got his kicked out and had my grandmother at wit’s end. It was just always fun to be at their house. Their joy for for life and for trying new things like Thanksgiving dinner where they flew in a salmon, from fresh caught from the Atlantic that day and we had it for our Thanksgiving dinner. That was another incident where Grandma was beside herself because you didn’t have salmon on Thanksgiving you had turkey and dressing.
When you were with Bill and Jean, even turkey and dressing could be well let’s say a novel experience because they would put things in it like fruit and chestnuts and for Grandma that was something you just didn’t do. I remember them is just being a fun to be around.
On the more serious side, their standing up for civil rights and justice, both Bill and Jean were an inspiration to me and have also informed my Ministry throughout. I’m sure that their efforts contributed to my doing a Street Ministry and working for justice throughout my time in Ministry and I’m continuing to do that.
I experienced Bill and as a true follower of Christ, but that message led him to the world religions and the belief that Christ was one way that we spoke about the God that saves us all and is renewing and revitalizing the world.

Victor Garupalee, Ambassador, Parliament of the World’s Religions:
It is sad news to heard that Rev. Dr. William Lesher has left the universe after long years of committing himself through the service called to humanity.
The Parliament of the World’s Religions in Liberia deeply regret the departure of our Father Rev. Lesher, and we are pleased to extend our deepest sympathy to the family and the world. May his soul rest in perfect peace and the light of perpetual peace shine on him. Glory be to the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.

Chaplain Prof. Jared Akama Onyari:
This message brings to my dearest colleagues of  Parliament of Religions my sympathy  condolences for the death of  Bill Lesher our colleague and mentor.. I pray to the Lord to give us the courage and strength to pass through this difficult time.
Dear colleagues, I send my condolences to you and the  family of Bill Lesher through this messages and pray to the Lord to bless the departed soul with peace and give them  strength to cope up with the loss.”
To my all colleagues, I extend my sympathy wishes for the loss of  our friend. I pray to the Lord to bless you and us with strength to sail through this difficult time “
My deepest sympathies to his wife Jean and  children Joshua and Josephine Johnson on the sudden loss of beloved husband and father. I pray to the Lord to give them  family with strength in this difficult time.” I will personally miss him and my prayer is may God give the family and us the peace that surpassed all understanding as we mourn and grieve.
Kind regards. Chaplain Prof. Jared Akama Onyari

Muhammad Tahir Tabassum, President / CEO, Institute of Peace and Development INSPAD Pakistan & Belgium – Islamabad:
Rev Bill Lesher was a legendary personality to devoted his services for world peace and harmony. He spent his life to promote and protect interfaith harmony and did great effective efforts and get much achievements. We never forget his long lifetime struggle towards global peace and appreciated his very strong efforts. May Allah give his soul in peace.

Rev. Leland Stewart, Founder/President, Unity-and-Diversity World Council:
I had the honor of meeting and talking with Bill in Pomona at a couple of the interfaith meeting there. I will long remember him for his commitment to interfaith and his modesty in his manner. It was a pleasure to know him and to be aware of his former work with the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Blessings,

Jitendra Singh:
It’s not just his contribution towards equality of human beings but it’s all about the space that is created by his untimely departure to a new place of his dreams and wishes.

Land Acknowledgment

The Parliament of the World's Religions acknowledges it is situated on the traditional homelands of the Bodéwadmik (Potawatomi), Hoocąk (Winnebago/Ho’Chunk), Jiwere (Otoe), Nutachi (Missouria), and Baxoje (Iowas); Kiash Matchitiwuk (Menominee); Meshkwahkîha (Meskwaki); Asâkîwaki (Sauk); Myaamiaki (Miami), Waayaahtanwaki (Wea), and Peeyankihšiaki (Piankashaw); Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo); Inoka (Illini Confederacy); Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe), and Odawak (Odawa).

PoWR recognizes the region we now call Chicago remains home to a diversity of Indigenous peoples today and this land upon which we walk, live, and play continues to be Indigenous land.

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