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Leaping from Our Spheres
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Parliament of the World’s Religions

By Rev. Tracy Sprowls

By Rev. Tracy Sprowls

In 1893, several thousand people gathered together on the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago for the first World’s Parliament of Religions. On the first day of this first Parliament, 4000 people watched as twelve representatives from different religious traditions walked into the great hall holding hands and, simultaneously, a bell tolled for each of the world’s great religions. While neither Unitarianism nor Universalism was represented in this parade, among the planners was Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a Unitarian and a supporter of the Iowa Sisterhood. At that Parliament so long ago, the major speakers included nineteen women, one of whom was the Unitarian, Julia Ward Howe; an unprecedented number for that day and age.

From Oct 15 through 19 the sixth Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Salt Lake City, Utah. This time some 10,000 people were in attendance with as many as sixty percent of the registrants being women. A first-ever Women’s Assembly was held on October 14, a day before the Parliament officially started, to highlight the responsibility of the world’s religions to affirm women’s dignity and human rights as well as to offer religious and spiritual inspiration for women’s empowerment. This theme would also run throughout the entire four days of the Parliament.

During the women’s assembly, each of the women who stood to speak invoked the name of their mothers and grandmothers, honoring all the women who came before. Terry Tempest Williams spoke of being a radical environmentalist and Mormon. Dr. Vandana Shiva spoke of the seed bank she started and the need for ecological preservation. Marianne Williamson inspired us to make our voices heard in the face of those who would silence them. Bishop Barbara King, Grandmother Mary Lyons, and Dr. Rangimarie Turuki Rose Pere were inspiring in that they spoke of oneness and unity and were still going strong as elders of the sisterhood. Some of these women I had never heard of before and yet such was their presence and their truth and their mission that I found myself standing, applauding, crying, and longing to connect with them and all the women around me.

While this Parliament was historic on many levels, there were breakdowns that arose, reminding us that there is much work to do. For instance, at the opening ceremony after the inaugural women’s assembly, all the speakers for the evening were men. How did that happen? The Chairman of the Parliament, Abdul Malik Mujahid, later apologized for this oversight.

Another example: the opening ceremony began with the original people of Utah, the Ute Nation, processing in full ceremonial dress to the sound of native drum music. And yet the governor of Utah, Gov. Herbert, seemed to be unaware of this when he talked of the Mormons settling the state so long ago. We take a step forward and sometimes a few back, but hopefully we still keep moving forward.

New to this Parliament was an answer to a challenge by the Dalai Lama. The 14th Dalai Lama was unable to attend but he challenged organizers and participants to turn their words and nice dialogue into action. A commitment book was printed and declarations created and signed by participants to take what they learned back into the world with them. Each declaration has four components: personal commitments, organizational commitments, work on policy change, and the media. The Declaration for the Dignity and Human Rights of Women is one of six such declarations.

Amongst the ten thousand or so participants from many faiths were the fifty or so Unitarian Universalists who attended, including Eric Cherry and Jessica York, who staffed a booth on Unitarian Universalism International. The sole UU voice who spoke at the closing plenary was Patty Willis, whose song the whole plenary sang. Her words were few but her song, Earth is Calling, was the theme song for the whole Parliament. I encourage Unitarian Universalists to be more involved at the next Parliament, to be held in 2017.

Two powerful moments have stayed with me from my experiences in Utah although, truly, the whole five days were incredible. First was that each day the Sikh community fed the entire assembly — 10,000 people — with a free vegetarian Langar (community meal). The food and hospitality were quite impressive, but more so the humility and gratitude offered us by the Sikh. “We are of service,” they would say to a thank you. Or, “Without you, we would not be able to be of service.”

The second powerful moment that stays with me was during the short promotional film for One Billion Rising, a movement to end violence and abuse towards women. As the short clip ended, some in the crowd held up one finger and then — with gaining speed — the whole entire assembly stood with one finger in the air.

We are one they were saying as they stood in silence and in tears, each with their finger held high in the dim convention hall. One person who can make a difference. One community who stands in solidarity with all who seek justice. One world ready to turn it upside down to turn it around. One.

Rev Tracy Sprowls has been the minister of the UU congregation in Plainfield, NJ since 2009. She is a member of the New Prophetic Sisterhood advisory circle, a new project of UUWF whose mission is to energize, engage, and empower UU female-identified ministers in the service of gender justice and liberation.

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