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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions is now over. As you have heard both here and in other places, the event, which began on Thursday, Oct 15, ended this past Monday, Oct 19. The official numbers have been released. The Parliament was attended by 9,806 people representing 30 religions with 548 sub-traditions. The following article contains a series of news notes and links, ending with a short editorial, to help wrap-up and provide a taste of what exactly happened.

Opening Fire Ceremony at 2015 Parliament [Photo Credit: Greg Harder]

The early morning opening fire ceremony conducted by local Indigenous groups. The fires were tended and kept lit for the entire conference / 2015 Parliament. [Photo Credit: Greg Harder]

News

Following the 2015 Parliament, the Board of Trustees elects and names the next Board. This year, it was announced that the new Vice Chair-elect would be EarthSpirit’s co-founder, Andras Corban-Arthen. He said, “I’m very honored, of course, at being elected Vice-Chair, particularly because of the trust it implies on the part of my fellow trustees. I think we have an excellent new governance team, led by Chair-elect Dr. Robert Sellers, whom I greatly respect.” Sellars, as we previously reported, is a Baptist minister from Texas, who has shown great interfaith leadership and, specifically, positive support for Paganism and other minority religions.

Corban-Arthen, who has attended every Parliament since 1993, added, “There are some interfaith organizations that cater only to mainstream religions. The Parliament, from the beginning, has not only encouraged participation by members of minority religions, but also has included some of us in leadership positions — Angie Buchanan, Phyllis Curott, and I have all served as trustees and officers of the Parliament.”

For the 2015 Parliament, Curott took lead on producing the inaugural Woman’s Assembly held on Thursday, Oct 18. The all-day event included workshops and large panels focusing on global issues facing women today, from education and violence; to leadership and building support structures. Curott spoke during the first assembly session saying, “The world’s religions cannot continue to allow the denigration of half of humanity.”

The Women’s Assembly not only provided a full day of focus on women’s issues, but it also inadvertently caused what some would term a “teachable moment” for the Parliament as a whole. On Thursday evening, after the final assembly sessions were over, the Parliament opened in earnest with its very first plenary. After a stately and impressive processional and drumming session led by local Utah indigenous groups, the audience became quiet as eight men, all wearing dark suits, took the stage to open the event. It was reported that, at some point early on in the plenary, a number of audience members stood up and yelled, “Where are the women?”

Four of the eight male presenters at the opening ceremony. [Photo Credit: Greg Harder]

Four of the eight male presenters on stage at the opening ceremony / 2015 Parliament [Photo Credit: Greg Harder]

That message got through to the Board of Trustees and conference organizers. In fact, the Parliament posted and tweeted out the following Atlantic article titled, “The Odds That a Panel Would ‘Randomly’ Be All Men Are Astronomical.” In it, mathematician Greg Martin explains how it is “statistically impossible” for conferences to have a speaking panel of all men, and that the under-representation of women on such panels can only be accomplished through calculated choice.

In other news, the local Sikh community, who organized and served Langar each day, announced that they had donated a total of 3,800 pounds of uneaten food, equal to 3,166 meals. The logistics of this size donation were difficult, but the community was aided by the Utah Food Bank. The donation, together with the daily Langar meals, are two ways in which the Sikh community gives service.

Where does the Parliament go from here? Corban-Arthen is chair of the site selection committee and said, “Now that Salt Lake City is over, we have a lot of work immediately ahead of us to choose the host city for the next Parliament.” While he can’t offer anymore than that, the event will not be held in the United States. So Americans need to get their passports in order. Typically, the model has been to host the event every five years putting the next Parliament in 2020. However, there reportedly was an announcement that the Board is shifting to a new model that will allow the Parliament to be hosted every 2 years. However, no site or plans have been announced. Stay tuned and ready your passport.

Notes and Links

During the Pagans at the Parliament gathering, Angie Buchanan stood up to thank everyone for attending. Buchanan is former trustee and member of the site selection committee. Buchanan was instrumental is coordinating efforts for Pagans, Heathens and Polytheists, acting as both a welcoming face and advocate for their presence. In retrospective, she said, “The most important part in determining the success of an event resides in the seed planted in the hearts of those who participate, and in what they will nurture that seed to become. It may be too soon to tell but it feels as though the seeds of a forest have been planted by the Parliament in Salt Lake City.”

Pagans at Parliament reception / 2015 Parliament [Photo Credit: Greg Harder]

Pagans at Parliament reception / 2015 Parliament [Photo Credit: Greg Harder]

Since the Parliament ended, a number of videos, photographs and writings have surfaced, which suggest that Buchanan was correct. Seeds have been planted.

More highlights, photos, videos and discussions will emerge over the next month, including the video recording of The Goddesses Alive! performance that was featured in a previous article. To keep up with the growing number of reflections, readers can visit the Pagans at Parliament 2015 Facebook group, which has been made public.

Along with the opening plenary, as linked in the news section above, a number of other recordings have been posted either on the PWR website and in various social media locations. The official videography team recorded and has made available all the plenaries, which covered the following topics: WomenIndigenous Peoples; Climate ChangeWar Violence and Hate Speech; Income Inequality and Emerging Leaders. Please be aware that the links provided above may only be to the first half of the recorded plenary. Look through the list to ensure that there is not a second part available.

Within several of these plenaries, readers may notice familiar faces. Notably, in the emerging leaders category, EarthSpirit’s Donovan Arthen addressed the crowd. Around minute mark 39:45, Arthen takes the stage. He describes how he grew up attending Parliaments with his parents, and how that experience planted the seeds for his own understanding about interfaith work. After a brief talk, Arthen then leads the entire room in ritual sound experience.

Donovan Arthen [Screen Shot from Video]

Donovan Arthen [Screen Shot from Video]

The Pagan and Heathen presence at the Parliament was very notable. One anonymous attendee said, “Pagans rocked the Parliament.” Another attendee, Audrey Galex, who is content director for Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasting, said “I am so happy to see such a large Pagan representation in both attendance and presentations.” And, Circle Sanctuary member Casey Burke Pope reported that the teachers of the Religions 101: Islam class mentioned Paganism multiple times. In one instance, a speaker said, “Pagans need to be heard,” adding “we may not agree with them, but they need to be heard.” Pope recalled, “It was surprising and nice to be recognized.”

Pagans and Heathens participated in a number of activities and presentations, including the first ever Parliament chorus. The group sang “Songs for the Earth: A Cantata in Praise of this Earth.” Look closely in the sea of faces for friends.

This list of contributions and interactions is endless. The takeaways for Pagans and Heathens, and from Pagans and Heathens, are seeds as Buchanan suggested. In retrospect, Corban-Arthen said:

I am delighted that the Parliament was such a great success, and that so many more pagans attended than ever before. When we come right down to it, what the Parliament does – by bringing together so many people from such diverse backgrounds and perspectives – is to provide the opportunity for meaningful, important experiences, be they spiritual, cultural, artistic, political, or just plain social. Those experiences, in turn, can induce profound changes in people, and motivate us to work together for the common good, despite whatever differences we may have. That, above all, is what I hope those pagans who attended will take home.

And, Buchanan added, “I look forward to seeing the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions prosper and grow the interfaith movement into something that changes the world for the better. If ever there was more important work for Pagans to be involved in, I don’t know what it would be.”

Editorial, from Wild Hunt editor Heather Greene

I could not conclude any write-up about the Parliament without sharing a little bit of my own experience. Walking around the Salt Palace, I was passed by so many people representing so many different backgrounds; speaking so many different languages and having so many different beliefs. The doors of opportunity to learn were blown wide-open and the interior spaces were thoroughly inviting. While I have never lived in a fully closeted way, I did note the feeling of freedom to be openly Pagan without any reservation in speaking authentically to anyone, including my own community members.

The five days were filled with both learning, listening, hearing and teaching. Outside of reporting for The Wild Hunt, I also participated in the Goddesses Alive! performance; sat on an excellent panel about the Pope’s encyclical with John Halstead, Sylvia Linton and Andras Corban-Arthen; assisted Circle Sanctuary with a beautiful healing ritual, and attended a delightful dinner bringing together Evangelical Christians and Pagans. The days were busy, to say the least. Other personal highlights included visiting the United Religions Initiative space; listening to the entirety of the Women’s Assembly; seeing the famous Mormon Tabernacle buildings; meeting a host of amazing new people and talking to old friends; sitting quietly in the Hindu religious space and Sunday night’s rousing spontaneous sacred singing session.

Circle Sanctuary’s healing altar. [Photo Credit: H. Greene]

When I returned home, I reflected on all that had happened over those five days. At times the tears fell and, at other times, I couldn’t help but smile. Then, I realized what was so unique about the Parliament; what had touched me in such a profound way. I had felt very comfortable in the extreme diversity of human experience and belief. I not only felt safe, but I also felt invigorated. And, it reminded me of my childhood, growing up in the urban outskirts of New York City. The building in which I lived contained the same level of extreme cultural diversity. We even held a yearly party, which could have been mistaken for a purposeful multicultural celebration. So, at the Parliament, I felt at home.

What The Parliament of the World’s Religions offers us directly is education by providing the safe space to share, discuss, debate and learn. At the same time, the Parliament offers something indirectly that is just as valuable, if not more; something that I received growing up in that building and something that Donovon Arthen mentioned in his plenary talk. It is exposure. Through the Parliament we are exposed to the basic humanity that lies beneath all of the differences holding us apart. And, simultaneously, our own humanity is exposed. We eat together; we laugh; we walk; we clap, smile and sing. And, then, we all go to sleep and start again the next day. Through participating in this level of true human interaction, we find a way to stop thinking of our differences as obstacles, and start seeing them as a beautiful, curious details inviting us to the dance.

This is how the Parliament of the World’s Religions can save the world. Like the Olympics, the Parliament is a global stage. However unlike the Olympics, which is centered around competition, commerce and plagued by political controversy, the Parliament just aims to be a safe space of interaction and exposure. Whether you sit and simply watch people come and go, or attend a full day worth of sessions, you are exposed to a world of color. And, that alone is worth the price of admission.

The only unfortunate part is that the Parliament speakers are, to coin a phrase, “preaching to the choir” in many instances. The attendees aren’t necessarily the ones that need to hear the messages spoken and witness that humanity. However, the experience is still invaluable, inspiring and life changing. And, going back to Buchanan’s quote, perhaps the seeds that we all took away, and those that we planted, will germinate, grow and expand outward into our extended communities. And, with each passing Parliament, the messages will thrive and eventually cover the world over.

“May the roots grow deep and the branches spread wide. May it provide shelter and strength, wisdom and sustenance. May it remain a peaceful sanctuary, a cathedral of healing, an institution of learning, and the voice that encourages and reminds us to do better, to be better, every single day.” – Angie Buchanan

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