In 1893, approximately eight thousand people came together from many religions and spiritual traditions in Chicago, hoping to create a global forum for religious dialogue among many diverse faiths. In 1993, on the centenary of that meeting, another gathering was held, billed as the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Since that time, gatherings have been held at irregular intervals in Chicago (1993), Cape Town, South Africa (1999), Barcelona, Spain (2004), Melbourne, Australia (2009), and again this year in Salt Lake City, Utah. I was invited to speak there on a panel about reconstructing Pagan religions.
The journey started with a train trip down to Mestre to get to the airport on the day before my flight. I was in a particularly reflective mood and felt very open to the land around me as I traveled, thinking about issues of relocation, of inhabitation, of touching something larger than myself. I was feeling in need of connection while in the midst of a sense of rootlessness, and finding similarities to other places.
the train, Trieste to Mestre, October
give me time
to know this fallow earth of autumn
mist rising from the waters
or still and watching
the complex, fractal augury
curling across the sky
there should be time
for this slow decay
gone from trees
gone from vines
melting into loam
melting into wine
melting slowly into winter rain
The long flight was difficult and I was running on three days with about five hours sleep in total, but I was met by friends I hadn’t seen in about three years, and I was happy to have that opportunity. We drove into Salt Lake City and got to the hotel, then registered at the conference. The venue is large, with lots of glass, though I was a bit disturbed to see signs acknowledging the open carry laws. I am not someone comfortable around guns. I didn’t think of it as a particularly auspicious start, but most of the conference was better than this.
According to the Parliament materials, 50 religions were represented at the conference, and there were about 10,000 people registered to attend. Many of the sessions were Livestreamed, and you can view them here. I saw one lone protester outside the venue, with a garbled message about how there had to be One True Truth, and if it wasn’t Jesus then it wasn’t anyone. I’m not sure his signs quite said what he thought they were saying, though. As a polytheist, I found it kind of amusing – I’m perfectly comfortable with there not being One True Truth. It is, in fact, a foundation of my worldview that such a thing doesn’t actually exist.
On the first evening, I attended the Pagan meet and greet, getting together with a few old friends and acquaintances and just catching up with my body, trying to adjust to a new time zone again. Out in the main hall of the conference center, Tibetan Buddhists were working on a sand mandala, to be constructed during the course of the long weekend, and destroyed at its end, a symbol of the world’s impermanence. I visited every day, watching the progress, and the infinite patience of the monks.
Very close by, the Jains had set up a small temple for people to visit. The Sikhs provided a free lunch every day for the attendees, called Langar. Each day, they sang in a group to bless the meal before people entered the hall to sit together and have vegetarian food. In the exhibition hall, the Sikhs had a booth where they would turban anybody who came and wanted one, explaining the origins of the practice. Apparently, back in the day, long hair and beards, and the right to wear a turban, were only afforded to the very wealthy. When the Sihks embraced the turban, it was a radical act of equality and a protest against the inequity of the society of the time. It was a fascinating process to watch, and the smiles everywhere were wonderful.
There was a room where shrines for many religions had been set up, and some of the Pure Land Buddhists had a chanting ceremony several times a day on the hour, where you could go to sit and participate with them.
In the exhibition hall, there was a stage with music, dance, and storytelling performances from many different cultures. There were spiritual art displays throughout the venue, and conversations going on in every corner.
Because of the sheer size of the Parliament, it was impossible to attend everything. In fact, I went to very few things simply because I was tired and had to pace myself. I went to a session on protecting women’s rights – the session was supposed to consist of two speakers, though only one was able to attend. I very much wish more of the Parliament could have been streamed, as there is so much I would have loved to see. At least I can watch some of what I missed, and I’m grateful for the opportunity!
As a part of the Parliament, films were also screened, and I attended two of them, dealing with Native American issues and with veterans. The first was a documentary about the Doctrine of Discovery, which is the result of a Papal bull granting European Christians the authority to own anything they landed on, despite it already being occupied by Native peoples. This profoundly racist document is still cited by the US Supreme Court and other governments all over the globe. Its existence as a driving force of colonialism effects nations all over North and South America, Africa, Australia, and an incredible number of other places.
The other was a documentary called Healing the Warrior’s Heart, on Native sweat lodges at the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, and their effect on veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As a vet with PTSD, this was right up my alley, and I talked briefly with the producer afterwards about some things that my own spiritual community does to deal with these issues.
The panel I was on was not a part of the officially filmed sessions. We do, however, have a rather shaky youtube recording of most of the panel discussion in three parts. Probably best just to go with audio and not bother watching the video, as it was filmed on Rob’s iPad. The title of our session was Rebuilding the Altars: Reconstructing Indigenous Pagan Faiths for Today. I will note that I have some serious issues with the use of “indigenous” here, but that I was asked to speak on the panel before we had a title or a panel description. That said, I think some important things were shared, and we did have a good turnout for the small room we were using.
Despite the focus on women’s issues, racism, indigenous issues, and religiously based violence at this Parliament, we still had sessions on the program that were profoundly homophobic, transphobic, and problematic regarding women’s rights. One session on the “gender war” brought about by “gender feminists” was quite insistent that it was okay for women to vote but we shouldn’t want, you know, bodily autonomy, and that people loving people of the same gender was destroying families. We are making progress, but there is still so very much work to be done. It can be hard to remain optimistic in the face of things like this, but it is necessary to continue. Change does not come unless we insist on it. Nobody ever won their rights by sitting there accepting the status quo.
After the Parliament, I was in town for one more day, as I didn’t want to fly home on the last day of the conference itself. The day of my flight, my friend Lorrie and I went out to the Great Salt Lake to have a look. Having been raised and living most of my life by various oceans, I recognized the scent of salt water, but this was very very different than any of those larger bodies of water. The scent of it was very “chemical” to my nose, and just smelled off to me for reasons I could not quite put my finger on. The lake is far saltier than any ocean, but less so than the Dead Sea. The only life in the water is brine shrimp, but that does support a large population of water birds, and it is a major stop on the migratory flyways of many bird populations. The mountains are beautiful and the light on them was really glorious. There was some rain, and occasional bits of rainbow made themselves known.
After such an intensive trip, emotionally and spiritually, it was really good to get back home to Trieste. I’m looking forward to next month’s Irish music seisiún at Taverna ai Mastri d’Arme. I’ve been to two so far; I’ve heard that Trieste has one of only three traditional concertinas player in Italy at the seisùn, and he goes to Ireland annually to study with players there. My friend Anna keeps insisting that I sing, but I don’t know enough lyrics to participate. I did, however, promise to memorize a couple of Gaelic songs again and sing next month. Did I mention I was in a Scots Gaelic language choir in Seattle for several years? About a dozen years ago now, anyway. It’s been a long time, but perhaps I ought to get back on that horse.