Perspectives on vibrant discussions around the next Parliament of the World Religions

From left to right: Sara Rahim, Dr. Larry Greenfield, Dr. Mark G. Toulouse, Bhante Saranapala, Dr. Hamid Slimi, Dr. Robert Sellers, Andras Corban Arthen, Carole St. Laurent. Photo: Michael Weldon

WACC is among the organizers of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, taking place in Toronto, Canada, 1-7 November 2018. WACC Director Paul de Silva and WACC North America Vice-President Carole St Laurent attended the press launch.

I had a remarkable experience attending a press conference announcing that Toronto will host the next Parliament of the World’s Religions (POWR) in 2018. What made it remarkable were the conversations I had in one of the most religiously diverse groups I’ve ever been in. And this is just a foretaste of the parliament next year!

In his opening prayer, Chief Stacey LaForme of the Mississauga First Nation prayed for us to be of clear mind and pure heart. When I introduced myself to him later, explaining that I represented the World Association for Christian Communication, he seemed to embody that prayer. As he smiled and said that he wouldn’t hold that against me, I reflected on what he meant. Maybe he or his relatives were impacted by the Canadian residential school tragedy, in which First Nations children were forcibly stripped of their heritage in an attempt to reshape them into “Canadian” colonial and Christian culture. Deep atrocities were committed in the name of God. While this wasn’t on my mind when I approached the Chief, it may never be far from the minds of those who suffered it.

In another conversation at the reception, when one man described the Commonwealth as another international unifier, a woman responded that the Commonwealth meant colonial oppression to her. Curious to know whether this was born of personal experience, I discovered she was born in Belgrade, and doesn’t know what country to say she is from – Yugoslavia or Serbia.

We each bring different, and often opposite, perspectives on things. There are positive and negative aspects to all religions. The reception vividly reflected this, as I held interesting conversations with Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Scientologists. The room was vibrant with the best of our faiths.

However, recent events reveal deep distrust between religions. We desperately need not only a demonstration, but a transformation, of interfaith harmony. At the reception, I began asking people how we might use the Parliament, and the eighteen months leading up it, to nurture peace. Discussing this with a woman who earned her Master’s studying radicalisation and counter-terrorism, we felt promoting peace was stronger than fighting violence. Could the parliament amplify the news that most people love, rather than hate each other?

Particularly in Toronto, the most multicultural city in the world, most of us live as harmonious neighbours, colleagues, classmates and friends. Could we co-opt the term “99%” to mean the majority of people who live in peace, rather than hate? Could this counteract the rhetoric and edicts that recently caused a world power to close its borders to Muslim nations? Could her studies elucidate how we might reach even the 1%? The founder of an interfaith council told me about Millennium Kids – it sounds like a brilliant grassroots strategy for peace! A co-founder dreamt of starting an interfaith school. We exchanged numbers to discuss the possibilities.

Essential to bridging divides is coming humbly to the conversation. As a white, middle-class, Christian Canadian, I must listen humbly to my First Nations, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh friends to understand how Canada may not be as welcoming to them. I have to understand that for all of the blessings my faith has brought me, others have experienced Christianity negatively.

One hundred events are planned leading up to the parliament; I hope some of them permit the intimate discussions we enjoyed at the reception. When I proposed the idea of dinner and discussion parties, one woman shared how impactful it was for her to join a family’s celebration of Eid. I shared how meaningful it was to celebrate a Passover Seder with a friend. My church organises annual in-home luncheons, and they are one of our highlights for relationship building. Mayor Tory and Sara Rahim, POWR’s Youth Representative to the UN, shared their appreciation of Sikh langars – free meals for everyone without distinction. They offer another opportunity to learn from each other. Breaking bread breaks barriers. Whether POWR coordinates this formally, or you practice this personally, I encourage you to deepen your own interfaith relationships over a meal. Then celebrate your deepened connections at Toronto’s Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2018. Next year in Toronto!

Carole St. Laurent is a communications specialist who founded CryPeace to nurture empathy and peace around the world. Carole serves as the Vice President of the WACC North America Executive Committee.






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