In 1893 Chicago witnessed the birth of the interfaith movement when representatives of the major religions gathered there for the first Parliament of World’s Religions. More than 6,000 people crowded into an assembly hall (now the Art Institute of Chicago) to hear an opening address delivered by a 30-year-old monk, Swami Vivekananda. His electrifying address, delivered with passion and eloquence, in which he called for the end of religious bigotry and intolerance, brought the assembled representatives to their feet. In this galvanizing moment, Vivekananda’s fiery message forged a pathway for the previously separated faith streams of East and West to meld their currents for the first time. With this dynamic call for unity, he initiated a global interfaith dialogue and established himself as a leading religious figure worldwide.
The year 2013 marks the 120th anniversary of Vivekananda’s speech as well as the 150th celebration of his birth. To commemorate these events and to refresh the interfaith community’s awareness of its work between Parliaments, the Chicago-based Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions (CPWR) invited interfaith workers to Chicago for a program on November 16. They entitled their program “Living Out the Vision – Celebrating the Anniversary of a Movement: 1893 Parliament, 1993 Parliament, and our Dynamic Future.” As can be gleaned from this broad-ranging title, the Council invited participants to join them not only in a review of that breathtaking moment in 1893, but to share the anticipation of the exciting potential of interfaith in America in the years to come. I was fortunate to attend this November’s Chicago celebration, participating as a representative of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio.
In 2013 the interfaith movement is gaining momentum around the world. In the United States, interfaith activism has tripled in the last ten years. Governments at home and abroad are investing in interfaith work because it brings people together. Interfaith is good for societies everywhere – and it’s catching on. And, as I write this in the Chicago airport awaiting my flight home, I smile to myself as I hear over the airport public address system, “The interfaith airport chapel is located on level two. Everyone is welcome.” Case in point!
The morning of November 16 I made a beeline for the Art Institute of Chicago, the site of the original Parliament in 1893. Walking past city workers draping trees with holiday lights and cheery skaters spinning over the temporary ice rink in Millennium Park, I retraced the footsteps of Swami Vivekananda and his fellow delegates who assembled here 120 years ago. The Art Institute has grown and flourished around the site of Vivekananda’s speech. In 1893 the space was a large outdoor patio that was tented to accommodate 6,000 attendees. On this ground now stands Fullerton Hall, a jewel box of a concert hall located within the Art Institute, just down the stairs from its superlative Impressionist art collection.
On the morning of my visit, Fullerton Hall was locked, but a docent, noting my earnest interest in the space, and learning that I was on a pilgrimage to the place of the first Parliament of World’s Religions, generously sought out a guard to unlock the door for me. As he escorted me through the hall, he described where the stage had been placed 120 years ago and where the delegates had packed into the tented space. The current elegant little theater seemed to glow from its legacy; it is naturally illuminated by the light coming through a dome constructed of golden-hued Tiffany glass. Additionally, at the back of the hall is mounted the memorial plaque honoring the spot where the Baha’i religion was first spoken of in America, at the 1893 Parliament.
The Council’s celebration began in the afternoon, convening at the Sinai Congregation in downtown Chicago. Several hundred attendees, from as near as the Vedanta Vivekananda Society in Chicago and from as far away as India and Tanzania, gathered for an opportunity to savor retrospectively Vivekananda’s historic speech, to learn how women had advanced interfaith work in 1893, and to assess the last century’s evolution in interfaith understanding.
After welcoming words from members of the current Board of the CWPR, a senior sadhu of the Vivekananda Vedanta Society, Swami Varadananda, recapped for us the scintillating and groundbreaking message offered 120 years ago by Vivekananda. Swami Varadananda believes the tremendous impact of Vivekanda’s message came not simply through the delivered words but by means of an invisible conduit that the young monk carried from his vibrant Hindu guru, Ramakrishna. Swami Varadananda shared that Vivekananda felt that the West had acquired tremendous energy with its mastery of the material world and technology, but he viewed the United States as “an empty case.” Well acquainted with the spiritual wealth of the East, Vivekananda sought to merge the two. The swami conveyed his belief that this melding initiated by Swami Vivekananda in fact awakened in the slumbering hearts of Westerners a yearning for spiritual light. It is his feeling that this yearning, native to the hearts of all people, forms the basis of the potential of harmony between religions.
Many attendees of this current gathering were unaware of the potent role women have played in the development of interfaith expansion in America. Rev. Dr. Allison Stokes, Founding Director of the Women’s Interfaith Institute, in the Seneca Falls area, enriched our afternoon with her review of a lesser-known gathering, the Parliament of Representative Women which convened earlier in the year of 1893 in Chicago. (Apparently the Chicago World’s Fair, called the Columbian Exposition, attracted a number of smaller specialized meetings, or parliaments.) In May of 1893, 45 years after the Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls, women gathered at a Parliament to assess the progress of their pressing agenda for equality. It featured the now-elderly centerpiece of the historic 1848 Seneca Falls gathering, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as well as other women prominent in the advancement of women’s equality, such as Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Eight women – five Unitarians, two Universalists, and one Congregational — spoke to a large assembly comprised of both men and women on issues of exclusion and inclusion. Julia Ward Howe presented a talk entitled, “What Is, and What Is Not, Religion?” to further promote the advancement of interfaith acceptance.
The current Board Chair of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, offered his concluding remarks regarding the role interfaith has played and will continue to play in our lives. He underscored how it was the churches, not the government, that immediately rallied in New Orleans to assist the victims of Hurricane Katrina. He stated, “Religion is a force for good; interfaith brings out the best of each faith.” While the challenge continues to be finding funding for interfaith projects and organizations, he stressed that America should be proud that this is where “interfaith was invented” and should continue its work with volunteers. He asked the attendees, “Where else in the world can you find an organization directed by a woman, with a board chaired by a black Muslim, and with the entire staff comprised of college interns?” He rallied the gathering with his belief that our diversity, “as American as apple pie,” should be celebrated as the source of our strength.
No date or location has yet been determined for the next Parliament the World’s Religions. But while the date is being determined, the Council is strengthening the interfaith movement with its programs of education, such as Sharing Sacred Spaces, the Partner City Program, the Ambassador Program, a women’s task force, and an indigenous people’s task force. You are invited to learn more by visiting the Parliament’s website at www.ParliamentOfReligions.org. To quote from the site, “The Parliament succeeds when strangers become neighbors, acquaintances become friends, and enemies choose to coexist peacefully.”
And to quote from Vivekananda’s speech to the Parliament in 1893, “As the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”
This is the archive for the Bay Area Interfaith Connect, the former newsletter for the Interfaith Center at the Presidio .