Last week I attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions, a gathering at Salt Lake City of 10,000 people from around the world. My first impression was amazement at the variety of headgear on display as I wandered the halls of the gargantuan Salt Palace convention center, located just a block from the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at Temple Square. Visible were turbans of all colors, skullcaps, various forms of the fez, hijab scarves of many styles, feathered head-dresses, yak-fur-lined Tibetan caps, and baseball caps like the one I wore. One of the huge assembly rooms had been turned into a “langar” hall, where the Sikhs of Utah fed all comers a tasty Indian vegetarian meal, for free, at noontime. Everyone was asked to cover their heads with their hats or with scarves the Sikhs provided. At the langar, I met a former USC student who had been part of our Interfaith Council. In the years since she graduated, she’s practiced a blend of Sufi Islam, White Sikhism (3HO – Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization based in Espanola, NM), and a version of Japanese Buddhism. As we gazed around at all the hats and scarves, she explained to me that the head should be covered to protect the crown shakra, to keep the kundalini energy contained.
That conversation epitomized the blend of interfaith and innerfaith encounters that characterized the Parliament. It seemed to me that despite the abundance of head-coverings, kundalini energy was flying free. There were many in attendance who were committed practitioners of historic faith traditions. They came to engage in serious dialogue with others doing the same through other traditions. And there were plenty of folks at the Parliament who came to taste the nectar of many flowers in the course of their own eclectic spiritual journeys. Anybody could attend, and sure enough, everybody did, including the fellow who wandered the halls wearing a pointy felt elf hat on his head as with his hand he gripped a stick from which a disco mirror ball dangled by a string.
For me, the event primarily was a great opportunity to hang out with dozens of people with whom I’ve engaged in interfaith work for many years in the US and beyond, and to meet people with whom I might collaborate in the future. The annual meeting of religious affairs professionals from US colleges and universities happened in Salt Lake City the day before the Parliament began, so I had a chance to catch up with colleagues and learn about their best practices. One evening I convened a joyful dinner reunion of graduates of USC’s student Interfaith Council. Three of them were workshop presenters at the Parliament. It was so gratifying for me to see our graduates creatively growing the movement for interfaith understanding and cooperation.
I went to a workshop which presented an attenuated version of the Cosmic Mass. Matthew Fox, the Catholic-turned-Episcopal priest and writer/teacher, was there to host this Christian eucharist performed in the manner of a “rave” techno-music-media-dance concert. I watched the same Tibetan monks who created a sand mandala at our office at USC do their thing at the Parliament, surrounded by a constant swirl of passing attendees. I watched Tibetan dancers in traditional garb dancing and singing, and marveled at how similar they seemed in appearance to the Native Americans who were ceremonially smudging attendees with the smoke of burning bundles of sage before they entered the building. Taeko drums pounded, Navajo flutes wafted, the meditative drone of Sikh kirtan floated through the vast hallways.
The event was more salad than soup, more an occasion for palaver than a real parliament. The solidarity created there was not institutional, doctrinal, or political: it was community, not unity. It gathered people with very different identities and practices to share and learn what they could, celebrate their differences, and take home inspiration for creating and maintaining interfaith harmony in far-flung places. It was a place to wear your hat, not to hang it – and to marvel at all the other hats!
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California