Experiencing the Parliament of the World’s Religions

By Katy Koontz
Experiencing Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto 2018

The oldest and largest interfaith event on the planet, the Parliament of the World’s Religions has attracted 10,000 participants from more than 80 nations and 200 unique spiritual backgrounds to its 2018 event in Toronto. Partaking in the cosmic kaleidoscope of this event, with its more than 500 total programs, is an electrifying experience.

People from around the world are coming together to stand for a more just, peaceful, inclusive, and sustainable world—that’s the Parliament of the World’s Religions in a nutshell.

Here are a few highlights of my week so far:

Lighting the Sacred Fire

On Thursday, I watched Perry McLeod (whose spirit name is Anzoked, or Storyteller), of the indigenous Anishinabek Nation, light a sacred fire and call in the energy of the Fire Spirit during a sunrise ceremony in Olympic Park outside the convention center.

Once the fire got going, we were then invited to honor it with offerings of tobacco, considered a sacred herb by the Native Americans. Later that afternoon, Native American elders held the Indegenous Opening Ceremony for the Parliament here. The fire stayed lit all week, tended 24/7 by several firekeepers, including a man named John (Little Red Wolf) who told a handful of us a bit of his life story while we were waiting for McLeod to arrive.

John told us he’d lost his way when he was younger, but he found it again thanks to a return to his Native traditions. I’ve been stopping by the fire from time to time over the week, and I find both the sacred fire and John’s devotion to tending it day and night, through several rainstorms, incredibly inspiring.

“It was an amazing and humbling experience. The energy [at the Parliament of World’s Religions] is positively electric. Being part of so many likeminded people devoted to coming together is a deeply moving experience—and incredibly energizing!”—Katy Koontz

Let Go and Become “One Spiritual People”

Ojibway-Anishinabe Jim Dumont (whose spirit name is Walks Above the Ground), an Anishinabe Midewiwin elder, spoke proudly in the opening ceremonies Thursday evening of his people’s heritage and creation mythology. Then he made the surprising declaration that it is time for all human beings to let go of all our various religions and to come together truly as one spiritual people .  To that end, he proposed the formation of what he called the Institute for the Study of the Spirit, which would serve to develop and promote a global spirituality suitable for all citizens of Planet Earth.

Charter for Compassion

Friday morning, as I left my room on the way to the convention center, I was delightfully surprised when the elevator doors opened to reveal none other than Karen Armstrong, founder of the Charter for Compassion. Armstrong was also on her way to the hotel lobby. I’ve had the honor of interviewing Armstrong for the upcoming January/February 2019 Unity Magazine® cover story.

Karen Armstrong at Parliament of the World’s Religions 2018

I had seen Armstrong speak at the 2015 Parliament in Salt Lake City and am looking forward to hearing her speak again here this week. There’s nothing like unexpectedly being able to greet one of your cover subjects—especially one who lives on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean—in a random elevator ride.

“Free Community Kitchen”—a Hallmark of the Sikh Faith

On Friday I indulged the Sikh community offering of langar—a spiritual tradition of serving a free vegetarian meal to all visitors, regardless of their religion, gender, economic status, or ethnicity.

Langar, or Community Kitchen, a Sikh tradition served by the Sikh delegation at Parliament of the World’s Religions 2018

You’re asked to respect the Sikhs’ customs by removing your shoes and allowing the Sikh women to cover your head (whether you’re a man or a woman) with a clean orange head scarf expertly tied so it won’t fall off.

You then partake in an incredibly tasty meal that includes dhal (a lentil dish), chick peas, another spicy bean dish I wasn’t familiar with, rice, and naan (a traditional round Indian flat bread). Everyone sits together on the floor to eat, and when you leave, you’re given a scrumptious sweet for dessert.

“It’s Time to Clean House”

Walden honoree Bishop Dr. Barbara Lewis King electrified the room when she spoke on a panel during the 2015 Inaugural Women’s Assembly Major Speakers Legacy Session on Saturday. All the women on the panel had spoken at the previous Parliament in Salt Lake City, and they regrouped here to discuss where things stand for women now.

“What we hold in our minds affects our consciousness,” King told the overflowing crowd. “And it’s time to clean house.”

To move forward, she explained, we have to be willing to let go of whatever no longer serves us, whether it’s a negative mindset, a toxic relationship, or even general clutter in our homes (since the exterior is often a reflection of our interior state).

Sharing a Sacred Pipe

Chief Arvol Looking Horse, the 19th-generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe for the Lakota Nation, was the most prominent of a group of elders leading the Ancestor Spirit Feast Ceremony on Saturday morning.

Looking Horse shared the sacred pipe with about 100 of us gathered in the Lodge of Nations, built to resemble a traditional long house.

During the ceremony, he told us the time has arrived for sharing spiritual traditions previously kept private in an effort to do all we can to save this beautiful planet we live on.

Acknowledging the Divine in All

Spiritual theologian (and July/August 2016 Unity Magazine cover subject) Matthew Fox held a Cosmic Mass at sunrise on Sunday. The exhilarating experience included (among other elements) connecting directly with as many people as possible to acknowledge the divine in all.

The mass ended with our letting go in a wild techno-trance dance so we could receive the energy necessary to become spiritual warriors, taking what we received out into the world in order to transform it.

Matthew Fox and Diane Ray

Later that day, Fox signed copies of Stations of the Cosmic Christ, recently published in paperback by Unity Books, at the Unity booth in the Exhibition Hall and spoke with Unity Online Radio’s Diane Ray.

Transforming Enemies

On Monday, January/February 2017 Unity Magazine cover subject Arun Gandhi gave a talk about the lessons on nonviolence he learned from his grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi.

The many teachings the elder Gandhi passed on included this standout about how to be the change we wish to see in the world:

“We must remember that we are not fighting an enemy; we are transforming a friend.”

A Further Note on Unity at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

Katy Koontz, Unity Magazine editor, attended Parliament of the World’s Religions 2018, along with other members of the Unity delegation:

CEO Jim Blake, director of Outreach Rev. Mark Fuss, multimedia manager Rev. Jacquie Fernandez, Unity Online Radio director Diane Ray, and Unity Books Acquisitions Editor Jill Angelo. Rev. Kelly Isola and Cheri Jamison were also in attendance, along with dozens of Unity ministers from around the world.

To see photos and videos of the event, visit our Facebook page.