HEARING EACH OTHER,
HEALING THE EARTH
A Celebration of Light and of Possibility
By Ruth Broyde Sharone
In a darkened auditorium, with a single tall candle burning center stage, the haunting sounds of a didgeridoo, a solo voice, and African drums reverberated through the audience. The spotlight illuminated a group of college students from the University of Southern California Unity Choir, as they raised their voices in prayerful song. The stage went dark again and four figures appeared and lit their candles from the one flame. Then the processional began, as members of the Southern California Committee for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, representing the diverse religious communities of Los Angeles—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, and Indigenous cultures-- streamed across the dark stage, holding candles high above their heads, lighting their own way and the way of those that followed.
It was a ceremony of light and of possibility. Men and women, adults and youth, in religious vestments and in everyday garb, circled the stage and formed a semi-circle behind the ones who would speak first: a representative from the Vedanta society intoned the prophetic words of Swami Vivekananda uttered at the first Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago more than 100 years ago; a representative of the Jewish community who invoked the special blessing of thanks to the Creator of the Universe for guiding us to the present moment; and a Christian minister who quoted Rev. Howard Thurman’s prayer urging us to rise to our highest potential by giving God our full selves.
Three youth spoke of their individual hopes, verbally interweaving their visions for a better world, a world of interfaith understanding and cooperation that they considered central to their own lives.
Two representatives of the Indigenous community consecrated the space of assembly in a ceremony both solemn and joyous. Thomas Onewolf, medicine singer from the Navajo tribe, solemnly beat his native drum. Keynote speaker, Yoland Trevino, a Mayan from Guatemala, poured water into a container of earth, and then added pieces of chocolate, telling the audience that the Divine Mother loved chocolate and that, in fact, chocolate originated in Indigenous cultures. A ripple of laughter passed through the audience at this new information.
The procession of religions continued around the stage, candles aloft, flames flickering and illuminating the rainbow of faces and faiths, and then receding as they disappeared.
The day of celebration, of dialogue, of introspection, of discovery, and of appreciation for one another, had begun.
Throughout the day, heads leaned towards one another, in groups of three or 20, as some 250 participants plumbed the depths of spiritual and religious inquiry as well as of grass roots practicality in 40 diverse and far-reaching workshops, searching for ways to tackle the main challenges of the 21st century: the ecological crisis, reconciling with the Indigenous populations of the world, the war on poverty, violence in religion, social and economic justice.
The title of the conference “Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth,” was not just a call to consciousness for the participants, but also an act of conscience. The organizers of the Interfaith Green Event, determined to “walk their talk,” made sure that the ubiquitous small plastic water bottles were uninvited. Fair trade coffee was served and corn-based, ecologically friendly plates were used for the vegetarian reception that kept participants physically nourished throughout the day.
The main event was held in the Ikeda Peace Auditorium of the Soka Gakkai Buddhist Center in Santa Monica, while the youth met nearby in a community park center. Workshop leaders, both adult and youth, moved back and forth in a flowing stream between the two meeting places. It was obvious that these participants had not casually decided to give up a perfect spring day by the Pacific Ocean. They had consciously chosen to deliberate on the important subjects that were being presented and investigated. This Southern California event mirrored similar events around the world in 80 cities, where interfaith activists had already or would be creating Pre-Parliament conferences, in anticipation of the largest interfaith gathering in the world, to be held in Melbourne, Australia in December, 2009.
The “Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth” event ended at the Buddhist Center in Santa Monica, California as memorably as it had begun. In a grand liturgical interfaith closing ceremony-- that was highlighted by the thunderous and perfectly synchronized drumbeats of the Shumei Taiko Ensemble--the participants were roused by a powerful call to action: to deepen their interfaith involvement, to bring others to the cause, and to embark on a united campaign for peaceful existence among all of the religions, a campaign and a way of life that, hopefully, will change the course of the world.
As Margaret Mead said: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."