#GenInterfaith: Parliament of the World’s Religions

Quilt of Belonging, Parliament of the World’s Religions, 2018.   Photo, Susan Katz Miller

I love seeing people from #GenInterfaith, those from interfaith families, or with complex religious affinities, taking their places as leaders in both interfaith activism and interfaith scholarship. It’s happening in organizations devoted to interfaith understanding, and in academia. So this year, I decided to create a space to celebrate our coming of age, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto.

The Parliament is, very simply, the biggest and liveliest interfaith tent of all. And I love that guarding of the tent flaps by dominant religious institutions is minimal. This was my second Parliament experience, and of all the interfaith events I have attended through the years, the Parliament is the best at decentering white Christian norms, and including a huge indigenous presence from the Americas and around the world. Where else would I get to hear a Yanomami elder from Roraima, Brazil, take white people to task for global warming, in his own language, before an audience of thousands?

In the Red Tent, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, 2018.  Photo, Susan Katz Miller

I also love the Parliament because outside of the formal presentations, there are so many spaces to interact and get to know each other, from the daily langar meal provided by Sikhs, to the Red Tent space for women of all religions or none to recline on pillows together, to the stages filled with music and dance throughout the day.  To my academic friends who skip the Parliament because it is not serious enough–you are missing the point! Especially for those who are struggling to elevate voices of women, indigenous people, and people of the African diaspora in academia, I highly recommend the Parliament.

So, in my second experience speaking at a Parliament, I knew what to do: hand over the mic, and listen. I used my speaking slot titled #GenInterfaith to encourage a roomful of people with complex religious bonds to talk about their own experiences and declare their own multiple religious affiliations or influences or ties. Having created a safe space for these stories, we heard from people with connections to African diaspora religions, atheism, Buddhism, traditional Chinese religions, Christianity, Hinduism, humanism, Islam, Judaism, Native American religions, Paganism, and Unitarianism. Many were speaking up about their complex religious lives for the first time in public. And they told me that this hour together was incandescent, empowering, and deeply moving.

While my first book, very frankly, drew primarily from the Jewish and Christian worlds of my childhood, my forthcoming book is designed to work for people from any and all religions (or none). The timing feels right. After five years of speaking to and about Jewish and Christian interfaith families, from coast to coast, I am ready to dwell in a larger tent. I will continue to commit my life to making space for interfaith families and people with complex religious practices. But whenever I can, wherever I can, I am determined to share my platform, and hand over the mic. So if you are inspired to tell your interfaith family story, or your story of complex religious practice, I invite you to write for this blog. Or better yet, let’s plan an event, and tell our stories together, in conversation.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Seeking Interfaith Families…at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

99 Names Project
99 Names Project. Artist, Andrew Kosorok. Parliament art exhibit.

What if I told you that almost 10,000 people converged on Salt Lake City for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, to engage in interfaith activism, interfaith education and interfaith bridge-building? And what if I reminded you that more than a third of all Americans who are married or living with a partner are in interfaith or mixed-denomination relationships according to Pew Research? Given these two pieces of information, you might expect robust discussion at this Parliament on the role of interfaith families as interfaith educators and peacemakers. Am I right?

Registration Hall, Salt Palace Convention Center, Parliament of the World's Religions
Registration Hall, Salt Palace Convention Center, Parliament of the World’s Religions

The Parliament can be overwhelming: it helps to have a thread, a focus, to organize your days. I approached the Parliament through my own lens, that of an adult interfaith child who claims a complex religious identity. So on my first day in the Salt Palace Convention Center, I went looking for the stories of people from interfaith families inspired to become interfaith peacemakers. And of course, I found them, everywhere.

But not in the official program. The official program included some 1800 presenters, and there was exactly one presenter on interfaith families. That would be me. Why only one? Like so many other old-school interfaith organizations, the Parliament has traditionally been dominated by older men–I witnessed a panel composed entirely of men in dark suits at the opening plenary–and by religious institutions interested in keeping everyone in a “Box A or Box B or Box C” model of religious affiliation.

Those of us who blur boundaries, who claim Buddhism and Christianity, or Judaism and Paganism, or create families that transgress the invisible religious borders–we make religious leaders nervous. We are disruptors, even at a conference as radically inclusive as the Parliament. We are seen as marginal, even while we are now the majority in some religious communities, even while millennials are fleeing from “either/or” identities, and from religious litmus tests, and dogma, and membership criteria.

Labyrinth, Parliament of the World's Religions
Labyrinth, Salt Palace Convention Center, at the Parliament

So, I woke up early on my first full day at the Parliament (thanks to East Coast jet lag) and set out to find my interfaith family people. And in the very first session into which I wandered, Buyondo Micheal was explaining The Peace Drum Initiative, a project in which he teaches Muslim, Christian, and Hindu schoolchildren in Uganda to drum together, under the auspices of his Faiths Together Uganda program. As he began explaining how he ended up creating this program, he described his own interfaith education as part of an interfaith family, in which he shifted back and forth from Christian to Muslim schools throughout his childhood. Lo and behold, the very first presenter I heard at the Parliament turned out to be someone from an interfaith family, inspired by this background to do interfaith peacemaking.

Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala, Registration Hall, Salt Palace Convention Center
Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala, Registration Hall, Salt Palace Convention Center

Next, I lined up for langar, the lunch served by the Sikh community each day, and ended up sitting on the floor eating with a local woman who was volunteering at the Parliament, from a Mormon and Catholic interfaith family. (In the langar line on another day, I ran into a friend from my online interfaith activism world, from a Hindu and Sikh interfaith family). Each day while waiting in the langar line, I watched the sand mandala made by the Tibetan Buddhist monks slowly taking shape. The intricate patterns seemed to reflect the complexity of the interfaith world, and my own interfaith identity.

After curried potatoes, spicy cauliflower and chai tea at langar, I went to give my talk on interfaith families as interfaith peacemakers. During the discussion, the young woman who was randomly assigned as a volunteer to our session, who was there to make sure the projector worked, raised her hand tentatively. She said, “I didn’t even know what this session was going to be about. But I’m an interfaith child. My parents are Mormon and Baha’i. And I’ve never heard anyone talk about it in this way before. I thought I was the only one. So I just wanted to thank you.” That moment, right there, made the trip to Salt Lake City worthwhile.

Each of these Parliament participants born into an interfaith family was motivated to walk through the doors of the Salt Palace because of, not in spite of, their experiences as interfaith bridge-builders in their own families. But I only got a glimpse of these inspiring stories in the liminal spaces—in the lunch line conversations, and as tangents. At the next Parliament, we need to hear about the rich complexity of interfaith family life in multiple panels, and in the plenary sessions.

Assembly Hall, Temple Square, Salt Lake City
Assembly Hall, Temple Square, Salt Lake City

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

My Parliament of the World’s Religions

Tibetan Buddhist monks make a sand mandala
Tibetan Buddhist monks make a sand mandala

Indigenous people getting ready for the opening procession
Indigenous people getting ready for the opening procession

For four days last week, I was immersed in an extraordinary community created by the Parliament of the World’s Religions: almost 10,000 people converged on Salt Lake City from around the world to learn about each other, pray for peace, and talk about saving the planet. The week was rich and dense with intercultural experiences. At dawn, I stood in a sacred circle with Ute people around a fire of wood and sage, gazing up at the Wasatch mountains beyond the highrises. I reclined on pillows with women in a conference room transformed into a red tent. And I learned a traditional Maori greeting from Grandmother Rose (Dr. Rangimarie Turuki Arikirangi Rose Pere), who came all the way from New Zealand to speak truth to power about corporate greed and climate change.

I heard inspiring speakers including Jane Goodall, Maryanne Williamson, Madea Benjamin, Joan Brown Campbell, Tariq Ramadan, Chief Arvol Lookinghorse, and Allan Boesak. And, I delighted in the inscrutable pop-up happenings that make the Parliament so much more lively and radically inclusive than an academic conference: the folks dressed in light-up angel wings, the young men in clown costumes dancing under a disco ball suspended on a long stick. The Parliament includes the sublime, and the ridiculous. Christian writer G. K. Chesterton gave it the snarky epithet: “a pantheon for pantheists.” But more accurately, it is an encounter of pantheists, monotheists, atheists, and everyone else.

Langar
Langar with friends

One of the highlights of the Parliament for me occurred each day, when I took off my shoes, covered my head with my scarf, and enjoyed a free vegetarian meal served by the Sikh community in an extraordinary act of community service called langar, designed to uphold the principle of equality of all people. Whether sitting cross-legged on the floor at langar, or standing and watching the Tibetan Buddhist monks make a sand mandala, I got to meet people I never would have met otherwise, because at Parliament, everyone talks to everyone else in a spirit of openness. I also got to hang out with longtime friends who converged from my interfaith word (including emma’s revolution, Melody Fox Ahmed, Jackie Fuller, Katie Gordon, Victor Grezes, Katherine Rand, Sean Rose). And I finally met interfaith twitter buddies I had never met in person, including Vickie Garlock, Tahil Sharma, Simran Jeet Singh, Ellie Anders).

IMG_1289
Mormon Temple, Salt Lake City

Each Parliament is different, marked by time and place. Because we were in the Great Basin, this Parliament provided a strong opportunity to engage with indigenous American religious traditions from throughout the West and Canada. It also, of course, provided an opportunity to experience the center of the Mormon world. On my last day, suffering conference burnout, I stumbled out of the Salt Palace and walked up to Temple Square. There, I entered the 19th-century Assembly Hall and chatted with a young woman on her mission with the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (the LDS Church) as she explained her faith. Then, I headed into the spectacular Mormon Tabernacle to witness music and dance from a dozen different religious traditions on Sacred Music night. Judaism, my primary religion, was represented by a group of rabbis positioned all through the Tabernacle who blew long shofars together at the invocation, and by a multi-faith choir of local children who led thousands of people in singing a Shlomo Carlebach nigun (a mystical wordless tune).

IMG_1317
Multi-faith children’s choir in the Mormon Tabernacle

You never really know when or where you will have a Parliament experience again. So far, only a handful have been held (Chicago 1893, Chicago 1993, Cape Town 1999, Barcelona 2004, and Melbourne 2009). Parliament organizers announced their intention to hold the next one in two years, although we don’t yet know where. Wherever it is, whenever it is, I don’t intend to miss it.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.