The Light Shining on My Mountaintop, Part 1

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What on earth is the Parliament of the World’s Religions? And what could it possibly mean that this conference of 10,000 people from 50 faiths and 80 countries is taking place in Salt Lake City, the home of the Mormon Church? What would all these people even talk about for 5 days? Would they all be trying to convert each other in some Olympics of Belief? I had to find out, so I hopped a plane to SLC last Thursday.

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It was a shock to the system to be in a room with so much difference, highlighting for me both how suburban my life is right now and how mostly we tend to spend our time within our own tribes, not seeking out the other. This place, however, was a chop salad of humanity: turbaned Sikhs all in white, North American tribe members in beaded tunics, Hindus in saris, Tibetan monks in burgundy and saffron, African evangelicals in regional cotton prints, and lots of Americans in flowing, scarfy outfits that so often accompany progressive gatherings.

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The opening ceremony, where the local Ute, Paiute, and Shoshone elders and tribe members led a procession and invocation, was quite moving. Their prominence in many of the Parliament’s events signals a renewed appreciation for Native Americans wisdom traditions and perhaps a move toward atonement, whatever that might look like in the future.

Then seven suits sat down on stage, and the Governor of Utah spoke of how the early Mormon pioneers came to this valley with handcarts and “made it what it is today.”

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It hasn’t been the only major disconnect that has happened here, but for the most part, this has been an extremely constructive gathering, focusing on shared values, collaborative projects, and success stories.

I got over my Diversity Freak Out pretty quickly and became enchanted by the energy, the vibe — the spirit — in the place.  The general feeling seems to be that there’s enough bad news out there already, and that the way out of this mess is through hopeful, open-hearted action. Most folks here are theists of some stripe, but the God language is really broad and inclusive and has only rubbed me the wrong way once or twice. There are even workshops for us non-theists that are trying to find new language that moved beyond “interfaith dialogue”. Amen.

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Langar, the free vegetarian meal that the Sikh community provides every day as part of their religious practice, is totally awesome, and a great time to meet new people. Yesterday I talked with Eliechu, an Orthodox Jew from Jerusalem who is doing interfaith work to bring together an “Abrahamic Reunion.” He says it’s hard, “the koan of the modern world,” but that does not stop him.

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These women are learning the One Billion Rising flash mob dance, a response to violence against women. With one billion women subject to physical abuse or rape in their lifetime, this campaign — and women’s rights in general — was a focal point of the first day of the conference. Due to the advocacy of women Parliament organizers and advisers, more than half of the presenters here are women, and the passion around women’s issues outstripped every other category: climate change, anti-war, racism. If there has been a winner in this Olympics of Belief, it is the women who are standing up for political, civil, and religious equality.

The very idea of interfaith dialogue is an interesting one, given many (though not all) religions’ missionary missions, at least historically. The conversion string has vibrated from time to time as an undercurrent: people are so excited about their club, that they want you to join it. (More thoughts on that later.) But the greater goal and tone of the event is one of dialogue, deep listening, open-minded acceptance of difference, and at the heart of it all, the universal religious command to love.

I liked this summary of the basic premise of interfaith dialogue: “The light shining on my mountaintop does not diminish the light shining on your mountaintop.” That makes many conversations possible that might not otherwise be.

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These women regularly processed around the conference halls, offering blessings all the way from Australia. Shine on, ladies, shine on.

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