In 1993, I took the train to Chicago to experience the World Parliament of Religions, a huge event drawing up to 10,000 people from about 50 flavors of religion.
As I strolled through the lobby of the host hotel, I was overwhelmed by the welter of humanity dressed in all manner of religious garb -- saffron-robed monks, nuns in all manner of habits, Sikhs in their turbans, a truckload of women in saris following who-knows-what faith, not to mention people wearing every conceivable color of clerical shirt, imams, dervishes, priests, pastors, Wiccans, priestesses, witches, serpent handlers and more that I'm sure that I’ve forgotten.
The Parliament has met in several international venues since 1993, but this year returned to the United States and is meeting this week in Salt Lake City, home base for a certain prominent religious group. As Religion News Service reported in a story picked up by the Salt Lake Tribune:
When the World's Parliament of Religions first met in Chicago in 1893, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even Spiritualists prayed together.
But Mormons were kept out.
What a difference 122 years makes. On Thursday, when the Parliament of the World's Religions -- a slight adjustment of the name was made a century after the first meeting -- convenes in Salt Lake City, it will not only feature a slate of Mormon voices, but will sit in the proverbial lap of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose global headquarters is only a five-minute walk away.
The selection of this city is no coincidence, organizers and participants say, but a clear sign that both the LDS Church and the parliament have evolved.
RNS later makes an interesting point that while atheists are represented as well, small “o” largely orthodox Christians will boycott the event.
I noticed the same thing in 1993. Is it because the Catholics, Pentecostals, evangelical Protestants and Eastern Orthodox consider it a waste of their time? Is this conference truly representative of world religions with these groups missing? Here's the key for journalists: How would leaders of these groups explain their decisions -- in their own words, theologically speaking -- to take a pass on this gathering? That is, if journalists asked them to?
I looked to see who else was covering this. The Deseret News ran a feature interviewing some of the participants but shedding little light about the history of the movement and what some of the underlying tensions could be. It did tell us there’s a legion of local volunteers who I assume are mostly Mormon. The LDS Church will have some top Mormon guns speaking at the event.
I looked elsewhere to see who was covering what the Salt Lake Tribune has called the “Olympics of religions.” Looking at the media list, I saw the Times of India, the web site OnIslam and IndiaTVNews had done walk-ups (the media term for articles before a major event) to the Parliament, which shows how interest for the world’s largest interfaith convention may be greater outside of U.S. borders. Here’s the Tribune’s 2014 announcement about the conference, which gives some historical background.
One of the biggest names in interfaith work is the Dalai Lama and here’s the story about why he’s a no-show in Utah this week. That was posted by the Deseret News, which is giving the Tribune a run for its money on which outlet will write the most about this event.
So do follow coverage of this conference, which will also include an event called the Inaugural Women’s Assembly, which may be the most interesting gathering there. Keep asking whether it’s possible to cover such an event with a critical eye. Can one portray a cacophony of voices proclaiming a host of competing truth claims in any cogent way? Is there a way to describe the variety of folk there without making sound like a tour through an ecclesiastical zoo?
This is a challenge. What are the unusual stories in a gathering that’s like a huge candy park for religion writers (so many stories, so little time)? Will any one group try to co-opt the conference like the Wiccans did in 1993? (Their full moon ritual in Grant Park was one giant photo op and their presence, along with that of other pagan groups, is what caused the Greek Orthodox to pull out.)
And is there anything original the speakers will say other than "Can't we all just get along?"
Climate change will be an issue but how about the rising toll of Christian deaths in the Middle East? There is a "faiths against hate" gathering that deals with events in the United States and I see the U. S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom will be present. But on the list of workshops and panel, I see nothing about religious persecution. In a year where Christians are literally being crucified for their faith by ISIS, I saw no panels on persecution at this gathering and only one on ISIS.
If this Parliament basically ignores the torture, enslavement and killing of Christians, Yezidis and other religious minorities in the Syrian wasteland, then hopefully someone will call it out for being a huge waste of time and energy. Hopefully, mainstream-media scribes will be able to push back the proverbial trees to describe what the forest -- that is this Parliament -- is all about.