by Selena Fox
The 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions was extraordinary. Never before had so many people from so many spiritual traditions and so many places on the planet gathered together for international interfaith dialogue and sharing. More than 7000 people from around the world took part in this historic conference, which was held August 28 through September 5 in Chicago, Illinois. The scope and size of this Parliament far exceeded the first Parliament of the World's Religions, held in Chicago a hundred years previously.
The principal setting of the Parliament was the Palmer House Hilton in downtown Chicago near Lake Michigan. This renowned elegant hotel was filled to overflowing with Parliament participants and media throughout the week. The lobbies, restaurants, exhibit halls, elevators, escalators, and rooms were teeming with a kaleidoscopic array of delegates whose skin hues, modes and colors of dress, and other aspects of appearance reflected the wide range of cultures, nationalities, and religions represented at the Parliament. There were so many participants that even the enormous grand ballroom could not hold them all, and thus, for all the Parliament-wide sessions, proceedings were also simultaneously videocast to participants in the other ballrooms of the hotel.
In addition to the Palmer House, the Parliament also extended to other places in the city. Some Parliament events were held in Grant Park, at the Art Institute, and other places nearby and in some of the religious centers in and around Chicago. Delegates lodged at a variety of hotels and private residences in addition to the Palmer House.
The program of the Parliament was extensive and multifaceted. There were plenaries, lectures, workshops, panels, worship services, discussions, art performances, meditations, symposia, and other activities. The Parliament program book, which listed a short description of each activity, was 152 pages long.
The Parliament officially began on Saturday, August 28 with an interfaith procession and an opening plenary session, with addresses, invocations, and blessings. Plenaries, typically two to three hours in length, were open to all Parliament participants and were held at least once each day. The first three days were mainly comprised of plenary sessions, each with a particular focus, such as Interfaith Understanding, What Shall We Do?, Visions of Paradise and Possibility, Voices of the Dispossessed, Voices of Spirit and Tradition, and From Vision to Action. From Tuesday through Friday, a wide variety of seminars, workshops, major presentations, and symposia occurred. During the last three days, a special subgrouping of delegates, the Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, met to dialogue and share visions of hope for the world.
Throughout the whole Parliament, there was a large display of spiritual art, plus an exhibit hall filled with information booths from a variety of organizations. Early each morning, meditation/prayer services reflecting particular traditions were held, and at the beginning of each evening, there was a Parliament-wide interfaith worship service. On Saturday, September 4, the Parliament culminated in an afternoon of music and a closing plenary in Grant Park. These events were open to the general public as well as delegates. The final plenary included an address by the Dalai Lama, invocations and remarks, and sacred music and dance from diverse traditions. Post-Parliament tours at area religious centers were held the next day.
The Pagan presence at the Parliament was historic. The fact that this Parliament included Pagan group sponsors, speakers, and delegates in the first place was noteworthy, since Nature religions were excluded from the first Parliament. At this Parliament, however, there was inclusion, respect, and support. In addition to Wiccans and other Pagans, there were those from a variety of traditional Nature wisdom paths, including Winnebago, Navajo, Hopi, Yoruba, Maya, Santeria, Lakota, Cheyenne, and others. Pagan and Native American participation received widespread positive media attention. Some reporters commented that just as the first Parliament served to introduce Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Eastern religions to the realm of religions in the West, this Parliament served to bring Pagan and Native American spiritualities more fully into the community of the world's religions.
However, not everyone at the Parliament was glad that Witches, Goddess worshippers, and other Pagans were part of the Parliament. The Greek Orthodox delegation publicly pulled out of the Parliament shortly after it began to protest of the inclusion of the "godless" Pagans. Also, throughout the week, a small group of right wing political extremists protested outside of the hotel with literature which attacked Paganism and environmentalism, plus criticized the world cooperation endeavors of the Parliament and the United Nations. In addition, public Pagan ritual at the Parliament proved to be a stretch for Chicago's administration. Wiccans had to get help from the American Civil Liberties Union in negotiations with city officials before a permit to hold a full moon ritual in Grant Park was granted.
All this controversy actually proved to be helpful for Paganism. It not only made the Pagan presence more visible, but highlighted some of our religious freedom concerns. The increased visibility gave us more opportunities to dispel misconceptions about Paganism among delegates and the media. Our person-to-person conversations as well as the positive coverage in the media built more bridges of interfaith understanding.
Another reason the Parliament was important for Paganism was because it marked the beginning of a new era in inter-Pagan cooperation in interfaith networking. Five major Pagan organizations, all with international membership, were among the sponsors of the Parliament. This was the first international interfaith conference with such a wide scope of Pagan support. And, because there was multiple Pagan group sponsorship, Paganism had its own section in the opening procession and had good representation in the Parliament's program. In addition, because of dialogue and cooperation among the five groups, we were successful in getting a Wiccan representative added to the Parliament's Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders.
The five Pagan sponsoring organizations were Circle Sanctuary (Circle), Covenant of the Goddess (COG), EarthSpirit Community, Fellowship of Isis, and Lyceum of Venus of Healing. Although some networking had already been occurring among some of those affiliated with these organizations (all five have listings in the current edition of the Circle Guide to Pagan Groups), our shared participation in the Parliament deepened and expanded our connections with each other.
In addition to the Pagan organizations that were official Parliament sponsors, other Pagan groups were also represented as well as a variety of solitaries and seekers. Pagans from the many traditions and organizations present at the Parliament supported the various Pagan events on the program as well as socialized with each other. New friendships were formed, old acquaintances were energized, and some past rifts were healed. The Parliament was a positively transforming experience for the Pagans that took part and for Paganism as a whole.
The Pagan presence brought color, joy, and beauty to the Parliament from start to finish. As the Parliament began, Paganism's splendid diversity was manifest in the colorful garb of those in the opening procession, and two priestesses, Lady Olivia Robertson and Baroness Cara-Marguerite Drusilla, brought a glowing Goddess presence to the stage of dignitaries in the first plenary. Friendly Pagan faces and Goddess images at the Circle booth greeted delegates entering the exhibit hall. As the full moon rose over Grant Park on Wednesday night, Covenant of the Goddess put on a fabulous public Wiccan ritual. Fellowship of Isis and Lyceum of Venus of Healing brought the ancient Pagan mysteries to life with a majestic Egyptian new year ritual drama. EarthSpirit Community's Pagan chorus, MotherTongue, wove their musical magic throughout the week with a variety of performances, including a concert, and brought Paganism center stage in the closing session as they joined Kenny Loggins and his band in a song honoring Nature. The combined contributions of participating Pagan organizations, speakers, and delegates not only added creative sparkles, but also brought about greater understanding and acceptance of Paganism and its diversity among those attending the Parliament and within the greater public realm.
Circle at the Parliament
The Circle delegation consisted of: Alice Cascorbi and Nicholas Sea, Circle's Summer staff members who coordinated the Circle exhibit booth and room; Deborah Ann Light, a Circle Advisory Board member and Circle's representative to the Parliament's Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders; Joy Hartje, a Circle guardian who represented Circle in the Parliament's Peoples Congress and in the Peace ribbon procession at the closing; Don Goodrich, Ira, and Ginny, Circle Sanctuary Community members who helped staff the Circle booth; and me, who headed the delegation, coordinated arrangements, and was a speaker at the Parliament.
Circle's main contribution to the Parliament was its Pagan information and networking booth in the exhibit hall. The spot we were assigned was well placed. Not only was it along the first aisle which connected with the main entranceway into the hall, it also was close to the Parliament's own booths of books and tapes. On our table, we had a display of a variety of Pagan books, tapes, sacred art, and other spiritual resources. Next to it was a literature rack filled with flyers, brochures, and booklets, plus information about Pagan program activities at the Parliament. In addition to distributing literature about Circle, we also istributed literature for COG and several other groups. Several thousand delegates visited the Circle booth during the course of the Parliament. It was an excellent place to do face-to-face networking about Circle and about Paganism in general. Media also stopped by the booth for information and interviews.
Another important aspect of Circle's participation in the Parliament involved networking with traditional Native American elders and other Native Americans present. Following a Native American workshop I attended on Tuesday afternoon, one of the speakers appreciative of the support I expressed during the discussion invited me to come to the Native American hospitality suite that evening to participate in a special meeting on Native American religious freedom issues. I attended with Nicholas, who has Shoshone ancestry and has been involved in Native American spirituality since childhood. Most of those gathered for the meeting were Native Americans, who were from many tribes and places. Sharing perspectives, we talked into the night. Coming out of that and subsequent meetings was a resolution that was presented to the Parliament's Assembly on Saturday and which is presently circulating among tribes across the Americas. This resolution speaks of the need to respect Native American spiritual traditions, rituals, medicine objects, sacred places, and peoples. In addition to giving input on the resolution, throughout the Parliament Nicholas and I networked with Native American delegates from more than two dozen tribes and nations. Through our networking we helped dispel misconceptions about Paganism and helped lay groundwork for more cooperation and understanding among Native Americans and Pagans in the future.
I had the privilege of representing Paganism at the Parliament in a special interfaith dialogue program on comparative liturgy on Friday morning. The session began with introductions by Earnestine Berkey, a Baha'i woman and African American civil rights activist. Then, Father Julian von Duerbeck, a Benedictine Roman Catholic monk and one of the Parliament's organizers, spoke about the Easter vigil. His presentation was followed by that of Robert Woblenza of the Dakota nation who spoke about Native American sweatlodge rites and vision quests. I then spoke as interfaith commentator. After sharing some perspectives about Wiccan liturgy, I pointed out similarities among liturgies described from all three paths -- Roman Catholic, Native American, and Wiccan/Pagan. Some of the common patterns I discussed included the use of light as a sacred symbol, the process of spiritual transformation through ritual purification, and the important themes of renewal and rebirth. I then guided a short interfaith meditation of attunement to the Parliament's community spirit. Next, I facilitated discussion among the diverse group of delegates attending this program, which included a Hindu holy man and Roman Catholic nun, Pagans, Lutherans, Buddhists, and others. I ended the session by sounding a ritual bell and encouraging all those that attended to keep the process of interfaith dialoguing going in their lives and communities.
This interfaith session went so well that shortly thereafter I received an invitation for both me and Lady Olivia to be present the next morning at a closed interfaith session focused on Buddhist-Catholic monastic dialogue. We were the only priestesses and Pagans present in a room that was mostly filled with Catholic and Buddhist monks and religious theologians. Security in and around the room was tight since the Dalai Lama was there. The dialogue which compared and contrasted traditions was interesting, but even more than by the words spoken, I was deeply moved by the spirit of mutual respect and caring that characterized this interfaith exchange as well as pervaded the Parliament as a whole. During break, before he left the room, I got to speak with the Dalai Lama briefly and conveyed Pagan support for his work.
Later that day, the Circle delegation added a Pagan celebratory touch to the closing gathering in the park. Some of us were among the first to get up and start dancing when the Afro-Caribbean band starting playing in mid-afternoon. Soon hundreds of delegates were dancing ecstatically together in the aisles of the bandshell. Delighted by this, the band played on and on. Interfaith dancing that afternoon and again at the close of the evening session added another dimension to the interfaith exchange of perspectives that had characterized the week.
Although the Parliament ended as a conference, its spirit lives on in the transformed souls of each of those who participated. We shared from our own paths and learned about others. The Parliament also lives on in the consciousness of those who have learned about it. Books, media reports, documentaries, tapes, and other materials coming out of the Parliament are circulating the spirit of the Parliament around the planet. The Parliament's Council is continuing its interfaith work. The ripple effect of the Parliament is enormous.
May this Parliament generate more such conferences. May it continue to aid planetary healing. And, may it bring about continued interfaith dialogue and cooperation around the world.