by Ellen Grace O’Brian
Vice-Chair, CPWR Board of Trustees
As a practitioner of yoga, I was aware of the Parliament of the World’s Religions as the watershed interreligious event that opened the door to yoga in the West through Swami Vivekananda’s dynamic presence at the first convening in 1893. What I didn’t know was that beginning in 1993, this powerful global event was now occurring approximately every five years and was open to everyone with an interest in the interreligious movement. Although I had heard about the Parliaments in Chicago (1993) and South Africa (1999), it wasn’t clear to me how to participate and that it was something that could so profoundly affect my life and my community.
Curiosity has a way of helping us discover doorways that we didn’t know existed. In 2002, I learned about a local group of people meeting in someone’s home to talk about the next Parliament event slated to convene in Barcelona in 2004. Between homemade soup, networking, and sharing about why we thought it could make a difference to bring people together, I found myself on the path to the fourth global parliament event. This local connection with people who had been to other parliaments, and those who, like me, were just learning about it, was invaluable. It provided inspiration as well as information. Little did I know I was already engaged in one of the hallmarks of the Parliament: bringing people together in ways that empower and equip them to solve the problems we face in our world today.
When I checked in at my first Parliament in Barcelona, I was overwhelmed by the abundance of programs and events, the sight of so many people from different religious traditions and far reaches of the globe engaging in dialog, and the inspiration that pervaded everything from the meeting place to the program book. After a time of prayerful consideration about what I should chose amidst such rich opportunity, I dove in. One of the things I decided to participate in was a dialog with others who were concerned about the rise of religiously motivated violence in our world.
The dialog group I was assigned to included a Hindu man from India; a Muslim woman from Egypt, a Christian seminary student from the US, a Catholic woman from Rome, and a Lutheran man from Switzerland. We were provided with some questions to reflect upon and discuss. Why was this issue important to us? What in our own experience had contributed to why we cared about violence in our world? What could we see ourselves doing we returned home to our own communities that would make a difference?
As I sat with this group of people from religions, countries, and viewpoints different from mine, something became apparent that changed everything for me: we all shared a deep concern about this issue and a belief, grounded in our diverse traditions, that peaceful change was possible. The experience of connection across differences was profound, I felt like I was sitting in the heart of the world. We were inspired to return home and engage in action. Then it came to me. I live in a large, diverse, metropolitan area. I realized that if people who were concerned about the rise of violence in our own community gathered together, that group would look very much like the one I was with in distant Barcelona. And, with a similar rich diversity, we could find ways together to begin to solve this problem.
When I returned home with this inspiration from the Parliament, I reached out and was joined by leaders from different faith communities, educational institutions, government and nonprofit organizations, students and community members who met to convene a community nonviolence conference. Inspired by the Parliament model, hundreds of people have attended these conferences over the years and brought forth their own commitments to action.
Whenever I think about what the Parliament does, or what it means to attend such a global gathering, I remember my experience of sitting in the heart of the world. And I think about what happens when people come together and share their deepest concerns and aspirations for a peaceful world.
Rev. Ellen Grace O’Brian is the Spiritual Director of the Center for Spiritual Enlightenment, a ministry in the tradition of Kriya Yoga. She was ordained to teach in 1982 by Roy Eugene Davis, a direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda. She is the author of several books on spiritual practice and is the editor of the quarterly magazine, Enlightenment Journal.
Rev. O’Brian is the Founder of Meru Seminary, training leaders in the Kriya Yoga tradition, as well as Founder and Chair of the community nonprofit educational organization, Carry the Vision, which provides educational programs in nonviolence. She received the 2008 Human Relations Award from the Santa Clara County Office of Human Relations recognizing her contribution to positive human relations and peace in Santa Clara County. She serves as a member of the Advisory Council of the Association for Global New Thought; on the Executive Board of the International New Thought Alliance; and as Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.