I wanted to go to the Parliament of the World’s Religions ever since I first heard about it as a high school student studying religion. I would close my eyes and imagine the very first Parliament in Chicago in 1893, when Swami Vivekananda rose to address an American audience for the first time. The crowd wondered if this man from India even spoke English. When he greeted them – “Sisters and Brothers of America!” – the crowd rose to their feet in applause. “Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth,” he said in his famous address. “They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair.”
Swami Vivekananda’s words echoed down the century to reach me one hundred years later, a young girl growing up on California farmland, struggling to defend her Sikh faith to Christian friends and teachers who threatened hellfire. My childhood encounters with religious conversion bred destruction and despair in my own small life, and inspired me to fight for Swami Vivekananda’s vision of religious pluralism as a filmmaker, writer, and storyteller. One can imagine my excitement, then, when invited to speak at the December 2009 Parliament as an adult, eager to join a movement of religious practitioners working together to fight those dark forces Swami Vivekananda identified, threatening even more destruction in our post-9/11 world.
During the Parliament, I floated from room to room in the convention center, taking in hundreds of lectures, panels, and performances from every faith tradition from every corner of the world. Thousands of people swarmed the convention floor, exchanging ideas and stories and songs, sharing inspiring examples of social justice work from their own communities. But in the in the midst of all this networking, I could not find my movement. In the middle of the convention center, the Dalai Lama’s monks sounded the drums, as if quieting the noise around us so that I could hear our collective longing – a deep desire for action. Everyone around me wanted to meet the need of the hour, climate justice, but no one had a blueprint for coordinated global action.
The loudest ones calling for action were young people like me. Interfaith dialogue for its own sake may have been novel one hundred years ago, or even twenty years ago, but my generation has done it all our lives. We no longer need the Parliament to introduce us to people from different faiths: we grew up with pluralism. Instead, we need a way to translate our shared progressive values from our multiple faith traditions into political and social action. We need the Parliament to help organize religious practitioners committed to the same issues into global grassroots movements that apply real political pressure. For example, the Parliament sent a video in support of climate justice to the Copenhagen Summit. Imagine instead: on the eve of the Copenhagen Summit, coordinated marches led by priests and monks and nuns in every city around the world capturing headlines, calling for commitment from our political leaders at the round table. Only the Parliament, the largest interfaith gathering on earth, has the potential to serve as a platform to mobilize such interfaith social justice movements on a global scale.
In his address on the final day, the Dalia Lama himself called on the Parliament to take greater action. In order to meet his challenge, I believe that the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions should harness the ideas of young people, including the generation who led the successful grassroots campaign in the U.S. to elect President Barack Obama, to institute a movement-building program into the next Parliament. Marching and praying and fighting and singing together, we become true “sisters and brothers” of the world.