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1999 Parliament: Reflections

When Selena Fox asked the Pagans at the Parliament of the World's Religions to write something about their experiences during those eight days in South Africa, her request seemed simple enough but it turned out to be very difficult. How do you describe a lifechanging event before the seeds just planted have had time to sprout, grow, blossom, and bear fruit? How do you do justice in a few words to an interfaith gathering that brought together more than 7,000 people, representing widely differing practices and beliefs from all around the world? How do you write about the Parliament apart from the social, political, and spiritual realities of presentday South Africa, or the wider world beyond? Time and space (the short time since the Parliament and the limited space of these pages) allow me to share only a few disconnected, personal impressions.

At the Miami airport, while waiting to board the flight for Cape Town, Donald Frew of Covenant of the Goddess told me that a reception for Pagans would be held at the Holiday Inn Waterfront on the evening of our arrival. There my partner Joseph and I were welcomed joyfully by Selena Fox, whom I had known until then only through the pages of CIRCLE Magazine. This informal gathering allowed American Pagans from the two coasts and the heartland and South African Pagans to meet. Throughout the next eight days we would form a closeknit group, sharing the experiences of morning rituals, daily lectures, evening meals, and one night a drumming circle.

On the Parliament's opening day, we marched together in a procession from Company Gardens, where panels of the AIDS quilt were on display, to the infamous District Six. Lining the route, silent protestors, mostly fundamentalist Muslim extremists, displayed signs denouncing the Parliament as a Satanic or Zionist plot and proclaiming Islam to be the only truth. Marching past the blackonwhite messages of "PWR GO TO HELL" and worse, we created a counterpoint by singing Goddess chants, some of us dressed in ceremonial robes. Sue and Deirdre Arthen carried a multicolored banner for EarthSpirit, and Selena rattled her sistrum with obvious zest.

Arriving at District Six, once home to a non-white community brutally uprooted under the policy of apartheid, we stepped onto barren, red soil that still disfigures the landscape like a gaping wound; a reminder that the people who lived here had been shipped off to segregated townships, their dwellings leveled. Under the blazing midday Sun, Wiccan priestess Deborah Ann Light, who represented the North, began the formal ceremony to bless the land, followed by indigenous people representing the other three directions. The intent was to transform this place from a symbol of infamy to one of healing and hope.

The Parliament's more than 800 scheduled events began the following day. Often those events concerning Earthbased traditions, such as Shinto, Wicca, or Native American and indigenous African religions, were held simultaneously, making for difficult choices. Choices were further complicated by the problem of getting from point A to point B, since the system of shuttle buses connecting the Parliament's multiple venues was often inefficient if not capricious, confirming my worst forebodings. But I was blessed in that regard. As soon as I had stepped off the plane, I became aware that Africa has its own rhythm and that it would be wise to accept it on its own terms. That I did, and what could have been frustration and anger became instead the joy of adventure and a sense that things were unfolding exactly as they were supposed to.

My experiences gravitated around three areas of identity: Hindu, Pagan, and Gay. All received abundant nurture at various events. Add to that an illuminating workshop on Kabbalah, scholarly conversations over dinner, the amazing energy of a South African drumming circle, and that only begins to hint at the week's richness and diversity.

In the opening procession we came face to face with the virulent fundamentalism which most often infects monotheistic faiths, breeding discord. But time and again the Parliament illustrated that an opposite current also flows, dissolving the boundaries between faith communities and peoples. We don't hear much about this, because the media consider that "good news is no news," and postdenominationalism doesn't sell as well as hate crimes and terrorist bombings. One night Joseph and I attended the first ever interfaith service at Cape Town's Metropolitan Community Church, the socalled Gay denomination. The service brought together Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Baha'i celebrants, and the closing ritual would have been meaningful to any Pagan. Around an outdoor altar with candles at the center, a thick line of white salt formed a circle upon the brown Earth. Salt represents preservation, we were told, and the circle, of course, represents wholeness. Earlier, each of us had been given a stone, and now we were told to step forward and place it on the circle of salt, leaving there our wish that the miracle of South Africa's racial healing and peace will continue.

Pagans were a visible presence at the Parliament, even though we numbered maybe 20 out of 7,000. Three Pagans, Selena Fox, Donald Frew, and Deborah Ann Light, belong to the 250member Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders. From what I observed, Pagan events were well attended by a diverse and interested audience. When a South African presenter failed to show up for her lecture, "Women and Witches in CrossCultural Discussion," Selena quickly organized an impromptu panel of six Witches to address the audience of 50 that had gathered, and each speaker had a unique contribution to make. Carol Nowlan (Epona) of Johannesburg addressed the presentday burning of women as Witches in Africa and showed that the social tensions and ignorance operative today are not all that different from the conditions that incited the Burning Times in Europe. At another workshop, Rowan Fairgrove and Catherine Starr explained the basics of Wicca to a largely appreciative audience. If I remember correctly, the question of Satanism never arose, and the varied Christian, Hindu, and other attendees seemed to regard Wicca not as something exotic or bizarre, but as simply another spiritual tradition about which they were eager to learn something.

Do Pagans have any specific gift for the global community? Probably several, but one emerged rather dramatically. At a panel discussion entitled "Critical Issues: Questions for Religions from the 1993 Parliament," hostility toward the Catholic Church erupted through the polite veneer when members of the audience posed tough, even angry, questions concerning proselytization, the Vatican's complicity in the spread of AIDS through its opposition to condoms, and the church's unrealistic suppression of the human body's natural sexual functions. In all fairness to Sister Joan McGuire, who tried valiantly to respond, any answer that would have even mildly placated her interlocutors would have also violated her church's doctrines. Alone among the panelists, Donald Frew acknowledged her untenable position, expressed sympathy, and offered an apology on everyone's behalf. At that moment I understood that gentleness, empathy, and respect for others, even for those whose forebears once committed atrocities against our own, form a gift of healing that Pagans can bring to the global table.

On the last day the organizers planned to close the Parliament on a high note with the appearance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In actuality, his brief talk was all that stood out against the surrounding two hours of mindnumbing speeches. Had I merely reached the saturation point after eight days, or was it the discomfort of the dark and cavernous Good Hope Centre with its airconditioned downblasts? No, it definitely was the speeches.

Nevertheless, the Parliament came to an exhilarating close later that night when 16 Pagans met for dinner at the Africa Cafe. Filling two of the three tables in the thirdfloor dining room, we feasted in the African manner with dishes from all over the continent. At one point someone asked, "What shall we call this night?" and I replied, "The First Supper." Selena announced it so all could hear, and that is how I shall always remember it. Now just by pure accident (of course!), the dining room opened onto a rooftop terrace, and after dinner we formed a circle under the South African stars. Thanks were offered to the Goddess for bringing us together for those extraordinary days, and when Rowan Fairgrove opened the circle, we experienced an outpouring of love as we embraced one another. The Parliament could not have ended more perfectly. "Blessed Be!" we exclaimed, and indeed we were.

David Nelson (Devadatta)
Santa Barbara, CA 93105