“Oh, when the saints go marching in, Oh, when the saints go marching in
Oh Lord I want to be in that number, When the saints go marching in.”
-John P. Martin, M. M., November 12, 2018
As I drove back to Maryknoll, N. Y. on November 9th, surprisingly the verses of this famous hymn came rushing into my mind and I laughed at the divine playfulness that brought them to my memory. They so aptly describe what I experienced from November 1st to the 7th at the Parliament of World’s Religions in Toronto, Canada. I instinctively knew that it was an overwhelming kind of experience, that was exhilarating and spiritually uplifting at the same time. (I checked out the origins of “exhilaration” and by golly, its root means “to gladden”, as in “hilarious”.) Yes, it is a serious endeavor to bring together 7,500 people from 220 spiritual and religious traditions from dozens of countries. And yet it ended up being hilarious, as in having a grand time mingling with so many sisters and brothers, all of whom share with you a level of universal consciousness, of an elevated spiritual life and of an acute compassion for all of God’s creatures, among other things, all rooted in your love for your own tradition.
You only had to look around you to see the enormous variety of faces and dress that we all revealed to one another, either of one’s religious or spiritual tradition or of one’s culture of origin. (The Parliament is of the world’s religions, but their subtext speaks of including the spiritual traditions of the world, which affords a niche for the indigenous traditions all around us.) I too got into the act by my habit at such assemblies of wearing my Yucatecan white pants and guayabera topped by my Hindu “chador” (shawl) whose ochre color symbolizes my commitment to union with the Divine, with a blue turban from the Sikh tradition with which I identify from my pilgrimagings to their sacred places in India and the US.
In Toronto I was hosted by our brother missionaries of Scarboro, who gave me an excellent reception in the person of Father Terry Gallagher who knew us from the Philippines and with many years of interfaith commitment in Canada.
Toronto has earned the envious moniker of being the city with the most diverse religious and cultural population in the world, where harmony and understanding are cultivated by all levels of society.
Everyone knows what it means to live by faith. But now comes this word “interfaith” to open our minds, hearts and spirits to embrace the challenge to first appreciate other believers, then to understand them, then to see them as good religious persons, and to make friends with them, so as to collaborate with them for the world’s transformation and then even to pray and worship together to give thanks to God. It can mean an entirely new and enriching way of living your faith, by golly. And we showed that we love it!
The theme for this Parliament was “The Promise of Inclusion, The Power of Love,” This theme was further applied to the sub-themes of: Women’s dignity, Youth Voices for Change, the Spiritual Evolution of Humanity, Countering War, Hate and Violence, Care for our Earth and Change toward a Just, Peaceful and Sustainable World.
All well and good, so far, you say. Great topics! How about finding yourself in the maelstrom of extracting from the 380 page program book which of the dozens of workshops, assemblies, artistic, worship and musical presentations on each of these themes you would like to attend? No wonder my dominant feeling at this event was of intimidation. So much to choose from. So much to assimilate. So much, sadly, to omit.
One good thing is that there is always a free lunch. The Sikh community outdoes itself in selfless service to everyone with a free lunch. I was transported in memory to my days of a similar meal during my stays at their gurdwaras (“God’s gate” as their temples are called) in India. There is no beating the Sikhs when it comes to service and non-violent responses to discrimination. I say this in hyperbole and not to make comparisons with anyone else. I attended a workshop in which a Sikh adult man gave testimony to now collaborating with a man converted from his white supremacist ways, when he founded a group that was responsible for murdering his Sikh friend’s father.
Each day as I arrived at the Convention Center, I would pay my respects to my indigenous sisters and brothers by circumambulating their sacred fire and offering some tobacco to the fire. I would recall the spirits of all of our ancestors in ancient Mexico, Ireland, India and these United States whose sacred sites I have visited. I now have visited such a burial site in central Toronto whose bones were discovered by some Scarboro seminarians in 1960 and is now a recognized graveyard. What deep spirituality their chiefs had is illustrated by a quote from Iroquois Chief White Cloud! Too late have we come to appreciate your wisdom, but never too late to seek reconciliation.
I was so impressed by the vibrant role that the local indigenous peoples of Utah had at the last Parliament in 2015 and it exhilarated me to see more of the same in Toronto. The sad side to this history was on display in the reconciliation process over the government’s forced removal of indigenous children into “residential schools” to deculturize them, that only ended in mid-20th Century. We need to support similar efforts in these United States, too, over our “boarding schools”, often in the hands of religious communities.
The father of one boy taken away to become “civilized” asked his son what he learned there. The boy said: “To spit into a rag and carry it around with you all day”.
Such a marvelous, as in miracle-making, event can only ensure that you will meet people by divine inspiration and love it. Two Maryknoll Sisters were there, Claudette Laverdiere and Connie Krautkremer. Also former Maryknollers Gerry and Marita Grudzen. Lawrence Sullivan with whom I did my oral exam for a master’s degree at Harvard in 1991. Father Joshtrom Kureethadam, a Salesian from India who is one of Pope Francis’ consulting theologians spoke on his three initiatives to espouse non-violence, delegitimize the death penalty and abandon the just war theory. Young vivacious Vivian Kwok from Toronto who worked with Scarboro on interfaith stuff and in organizing parts of this Parliament.
Oh, so many challenges to my settled way of life I received from so many messages from so many inspired and committed people! Richer than a chunk of Black Forest chocolate cake with ice cream!
I will set up my materials here at Maryknoll for the curious ones.