In December 2009, I participated in the Parliament of World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia, where I attended programs on “Faith as It Relates to the Millennium Development Goals,” “Women in Leadership,” and “Educating Religious Leaders for a Multi-Religious World.”
I attended the Parliament as part of a student delegation from Hartford Seminary, where I am pursuing a certificate program in Interfaith Dialogue. The Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, with the support of the Henry Luce Foundation, coordinated with fifteen theological institutions to explore ways to increase education for interfaith leadership in North America. To prepare for the Parliament, over ninety students from the fifteen seminaries met in their home institutions over the fall for coursework, and then joined together daily at the Parliament under the leadership of twenty distinguished professors, including Paul Knitter from Union Theological Seminary, Heidi Hadsell from Hartford Seminary, and Donald Swearer from Harvard Divinity School. During the ten days of the Parliament, I attended over twelve seminars on issues relating to global health and the mapping and analytical tools needed to properly meet the targets of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals. These sessions have inspired and enabled me to pursue an independent study this spring/summer on Using Evaluation and Mapping Tools to Identify Leadership Opportunities for Reducing Prison Recidivism by Faith-Based Programs.
Morning observances were a highlight of the Parliament. I was able to observe Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Christian, and Sikh religious practices in a unique and educational way. First, aspects of each liturgy with elements of traditional music and prayer were presented as they would be in an authentic service. Then, utilizing power points and handouts, a senior faith leader explained the various components. I found my own spirituality deepened through this exposure, and my hope is that one day this profound educational and spiritual experience can be recreated in local communities and theological institutions around the world.
There was also some time for visiting Australia’s breathtaking coastline and countryside. After my twenty-two hour flight to Melbourne, I slept for a few hours in the local youth hostel and then spent a full day taking in the spectacular sights of the Great Ocean Road. In this picture you see the rock formations called the Twelve Apostles, named by the early Western settlers. We had multiple sighting of koalas in the wild and rare birds, saw hundreds of varieties of eucalyptus trees that dotted the coast and countryside, paid a visit to a 150-million-year-old rainforest, and experienced an overwhelming feeling of peace as we drove back through miles of picturesque cattle and sheep ranches. Fun fact: in Australia there are no cowboys and cowgirls; they are called jackaroos and jillaroos!
Being part of a wildly diverse international community in a country far from home also gave me a new perspective on the USA. In talking with the janitor in our youth hostel, I learned that he had been a journalist in his native Sudan. After being severely wounded in the Civil War, he was relocated with assistance from the United Nations, and traveled to Canada, the USA, and Australia. Having visited all three countries he chose Australia as his new home. I asked him why he did not choose the USA. He said he was saddened by the fact that the people in the USA were isolated and did not understand the real issues facing the world. Simply but prophetically, he said that their hearts and doors seemed closed to global problems. This was a humbling moment for me and one I continue to hold close to my heart back home in the USA as I share my experiences.
Being at this Parliament was a powerful experience on many levels, and has been a catalyst for working my own personal ethical ideas into a larger, global social justice framework. It has prepared me to understand and to take a leadership role to mobilize the vast resources in religious communities to serve such vital moral imperatives as the alleviation of poverty, global warming, and HIV/AIDS; and the promotion of peace building and universal primary education (to name just a few). Especially thrilling was the opportunity to interact daily with over five thousand people from six continents who, like me, have been inspired by their faith to take action to make the world a better place.
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