As final preparations were being made for the opening ceremony of the Parliament of World Religions on Thursday afternoon, one of my classmates at the University of Chicago overheard me and another classmate talking about our impending trip to Toronto, and she asked what we would be doing there. When we mentioned the “Parliament of World Religions,” her eyes went wide, and she looked suspicious. “What do you MEAN, the PARLIAMENT of World Religions?” Visions of the Jedi Council immediately started forming in her mind, and my other classmate quickly offered a brief history lesson and explanation about the Parliament in order to calm her fears. We assured her that there is no governing body that oversees the practices of all religions and spiritual traditions in the world. But in response to her initial reaction, I want to offer an additional explanation of the Parliament based on my observations from day one.
My first day attending the Parliament of World Religions was completely focused on connection. Not only did I come to the Parliament to connect with other leaders and activists in the interfaith world, but the workshops and sessions I attended all focused on building bridges between different communities through intimate connections. Whether they were looking to break down barriers, educate, or heal, the presenters explained how connections had been the primary tool they used to accomplish their objectives.
Take the “Meet Your Neighbors” program in Spokane, Washington, for instance. Skyler Oberst, President of the Spokane Interfaith Council and fellow Next Generation Task Force member, spoke about his efforts to educate his community members about different faith traditions so neighbors could better understand one another and feel comfortable in each other’s houses of worship. In interviewing community members, he found that many wanted to engage with those of other faiths but were afraid they would offend in their quest to understand. “We’re
not afraid of interfaith encounters. We’re afraid of ourselves—that WE might make a mistake, that WE might offend someone.” Meet the Neighbors interviews people of different faith traditions, creates videos about their worship services, and hosts open houses where people can come visit houses of worship and learn directly from members of a specific faith tradition. Educating people about their neighbors facilitates connection between them and creates a space where they can learn and grow together.
I also learned about the work Sukhmeet Singh Sachal and Abhayjeet Singh Sachal are doing to connect students in different classrooms around the world. Abhayjeet took a trip to the Arctic and learned first hand how climate change is impacting communities in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Upon returning to Vancouver, he realized students in his hometown could learn a lot about the issues they studied in school, such as climate change or mental health issues, just by connecting with students whose realities were inextricably linked with the subjects they were learning about. Video conferences between the schools helped students learn context and develop empathy for one another.
The most unexpected connection I learned about was the connection between the son of one of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin shooting victims (2012) and a former leader of the white supremacist organization that inspired the shooter. Having been directly impacted by the tragedy at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Pardeep Kaleka wanted to understand the mindset of white supremacists. He reached out directly to Arno Michaelis, a co-founder of the largest white supremacist organizations. A conversation helped them realize how much
they had in common. The connection they experienced helped both to heal and then co-found Serve2Unite, an organization that works with students to value humanity and live an honest life as a peacemaker.
I’m not an expert on any of these organizations or the work that they do, but I believe in the potential of their efforts to bring people together. Today’s workshops reaffirmed what I already knew about connection—that it breaks down barriers, educates, and heals. We all crave connection, and we can all find common ground when we reach out in love. And while I can’t speak for the entire Parliament, I can say that I’m trying to do exactly what I learned about and observed today—connect in love.