Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Parliament of the World’s Religions, Part I

October has been a crazy month. There was (and still is) so much going on. October is the month we celebrate my birthday, Creegan’s birthday, and Melanie’s and my wedding anniversary. It is a month when parent–teacher conferences are held. In addition to these recurring annual events, this October has included a whole bunch of religious goings-on. Some of these events were relatively small but still required a good chunk of preparation time (e.g. my speaking at church). Other events have been much more significant. On October 10th, the Utah Heritage Foundation hosted a tour showcasing the architecture of several mid-century churches in the area. The Salt Lake City Community of Christ building was part of the tour, and I had agreed to be onsite to answer the tourists’ non-architecture-related questions. A week ago today, there was a special Wednesday-night worship service at the same building, where CofC President Steve Veazey spoke. On Monday night, the SLC CofC had its monthly book club, which President Veazey also attended (as well as CofC Apostle Barbara Carter and current CofC Director of Finance Michelle McGrath). And last night, President Veazey graced the SLC congregation yet again with an open and frank Q&A session.

In the midst of all of this, the Parliament of the World’s Religions met at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City from Thursday, October 15th through Monday, October 19th. I had a pass to the entire conference, which meant I was busy, busy, busy, but also having lots and lots of fun. I didn’t attend nearly as many sessions as I thought I would, but only because—in many, if not most, cases—it was the one-on-one interactions that proved the most rewarding. It was hard to rip myself away from good conversations with amazing people. Those intimate tête-à-têtes are what I miss the most now that Parliament is over. The people I met seemed to be of the highest caliber, which is precisely why I found myself thinking at numerous times during the conference, “This is true religion. This is Zion.” Never have I been surrounded by such a diversity of beliefs and cultures, and yet never have I been immersed in such a large group that truly seemed to be of one heart and one mind.

Parliament began on Thursday with several sessions of the “Women’s Assembly.” This day was more particularly devoted to the issue of women in religion. (I was going to say “women’s issues,” but that seems a narrow way to put it. The treatment of and place of women in religion should be a concern for all, and nobody is excused from the ethical ramifications of ignoring such an issue just because that person isn’t personally or particularly concerned with it.) The very first session I attended was called “Women Re-Imagining Religious Traditions.” Among the presenters was Margaret Toscano, a scholar of some renown among those interested in Mormon studies. Margaret taught at least seven of the courses I took as an undergrad at the University of Utah, although I was unaware of her prominence in Mormonism until very near the end of my time there. She was (and remains) my favorite professor of all time, and I didn’t want to miss out on anything she was involved with. This session ended up being quite possibly the best of all that I attended during the entire Parliament. And not just because of Margaret, who served as moderator and thus didn’t share as much of her own personal story. All of the women who spoke were amazing, addressing the issue of women in their own religious traditions. Buddhism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism were each represented. I’m not going to try to recap everything that was said, but it was very good. At the end of this session, they had an open mic where people could ask questions or comment on things that had been discussed. One woman who got up to speak was named Grace. She was an older woman, using a walker, and she spoke of being an opera singer and college professor earlier in her life. She then talked about feeling sad and lonely and how nobody seems interested in anything she has to offer nowadays. She said she feels invisible. I’m a sucker for emotional vulnerability. My heart went out to her, and I will share more about Grace later in this post. Another person who spoke up is a woman who is in some branch of the U.S. Military. Among other things, she said she had recently looked back on her childhood and tried to recall the people she had regarded as heroes in her youth. She got choked up as she confessed that, as a child, not a single woman had been among her recognized heroes. I thanked this woman for her powerful comments as I left the session.

My next stop was the Community of Christ booth, situated among dozens (hundreds?) of others in the Salt Palace Convention Center Exhibit Hall. Meeting up with people from my church is always a highlight for me because they are all top-notch human beings. I don’t tire of seeing them, which is quite amazing, really. I was so enjoying my conversations that I failed to go to the 1 PM session I had originally planned to attend. Instead, I just hung out. During this chunk of time, I temporarily left the Exhibit Hall to find some lunch. I was tagging along with fellow CofC parishioner Roy, and we almost immediately ran into our associate pastor, Seth. All three of us then headed for Langar, a free vegetarian meal which was being provided every day of Parliament by the generous Sikh community. Unfortunately, free food equals outrageously long lines, and Roy quickly voiced his opinion that we do something else. There were a few pay food options in the Salt Palace, so we headed toward them. Capitalizing on Parliament, the food prices were, in my opinion, insane. I went with one of the cheap meal options: an $11 burrito. Roy got a corned beef sandwich that looked like something basic you’d make at home. It cost him $19. Crazy. While we were eating, a woman asked if she could sit at our table. She had been born and raised in California and was now living in London. She identified as Presbyterian. We had a pleasant conversation.

Allow me to digress and share more about the woman named Grace. While I was hanging out at the Community of Christ booth, before heading to lunch, Grace happened to walk by. She didn’t know me, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to reach out to her. And so, I hurried up to her, hoping I wouldn't scare her or seem like some kind of a weirdo. “I see you,” I said as I approached her. I’m so glad I took that chance. We ended up talking for several minutes. I held Grace’s hand as we shared with each other an abridged version of our lives and then went our separate ways. In the grand scheme of things, it was a brief moment, but I believe it meant a lot both to Grace and to me. I wish I had seen her again. She herself had said, before we parted, that she hoped we’d run into each other again. She seemed interested in hearing more about my spiritual journey. She has a relative—I want to say a niece, although I’m not certain—that is Mormon and, as Grace puts it, really wants Grace to join the LDS Church. Grace said she cannot join a religion that would limit how, with whom, and through whom the Holy Spirit works in this life. In context, it was relatively clear that Grace was referring to the ban on women’s ordination in the LDS Church. She said I could probably understand that concern, given my fairly recent conversion to Community of Christ. I told her I could. Like I said, I’m really sad I didn’t see Grace again. She was on my mind much of the conference, and I found myself scanning the crowds for her quite frequently. ‘Tis a shame.

On Thursday afternoon, I attended a 2:30 session of Parliament. I had most of my Parliament schedule figured out ahead of time, but as of 2:20, I was still up in the air as to which of the 2:30 sessions most appealed to me. At some hours, there were well over 30 concurrent sessions from which to choose. I considered a session on Mormon feminism, but I feared that attending sessions devoted to Mormonism was stupid considering the opportunity Parliament offered to expand my horizons. As I stewed things over, Roy expressed interest in one of the 2:30 sessions that I had strongly considered, titled “The Role of the Divine Mother in Religion and Interspirituality,” and so I ended up going with him. Sadly, this was my least favorite experience at Parliament. It just did not resonate with me at all. It was a very new age type of thing, and I questioned whether much of what they were saying really meant anything or not. I kind of think some of that stuff is just a matter of filling in the dots with whatever you personally want, since the language that gets used is quasi-scientific mumbo jumbo. When I’m told to tap into the multidimensional realm, I don’t know precisely what I’m being asked to do. But that’s the thing: I don’t think I’m being asked to do anything that qualifies as “precise.” I think I’m probably supposed to make myself feel good and then tell myself that it’s the multidimensional. How the hell would I even know whether it is or isn’t? What criteria do I have for determining when/if I’ve tapped into the multidimensional? (There’s probably something to be said about Wittgenstein in all of this.) So, anyway, I was quite disappointed and wish I hadn’t wasted my time. That’s me being honest.

Although an opening ceremony was scheduled for 6:30 PM, I didn’t really want to hang around for two-and-a-half hours after the 2:30 session ended. The opening ceremony would’ve gone until 9 PM, and I was giving strong consideration to returning by 7 AM the next morning to participate in a Zoroastrian Thanksgiving Ritual. I was already sleep deprived, and I was relying on public transit to get to and from the Parliament. For all of these reasons, I opted to head home after the 2:30 session ended. The opening ceremony was going to be broadcast live online, which helped me feel better about leaving. And so ends my first day of Parliament.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t make it to the Zoroastrian Thanksgiving Ritual. Sleep deprivation had some detrimental effects on my entire Parliament experience. Not once did I get six total hours of sleep in one night during the time of Parliament, and some nights I was much closer to four hours. Consequently, when my alarm went off just after 5 AM on Friday morning, I decided to sleep an additional hour. I made it to the Salt Palace just in time for an 8:30 AM session, “Rethinking Salvation: Images and Metaphors of Salvation.” This was the first and only session I attended with a lone presenter. In this case, it was Reverend Doctor Kristin Johnston Largen, a Lutheran. Admittedly, I took some pride in the fact that Rev. Dr. Largen’s “radical” (my word, not hers) interpretation of salvation sounded right in line with the Community of Christ view of things—that salvation is as much, and maybe even more, about the here and now than anything. I really enjoyed the session.

A friend from the SLC CofC congregation, Josh, was with me during my first Friday session. I ended up hanging out with him for a good chunk of the day. After the “Rethinking Salvation” session, we found ourselves back at the Community of Christ booth, which had quickly become the hangout spot for all of us CofC people. Once again caught up in socializing, I didn’t make it to the plenary session on women. Or, rather, I came to it quite late and watched only a little bit of it. Josh went with me, and despite our late arrival, we left a little bit early to get some lunch. We didn’t attempt Langar and went instead to the nearby Red Rock Brewing Company. It wasn’t cheap, but I got a rather nice and filling meal for less than Roy had spent on a basic corned beef sandwich the day before. After lunch, I met up with another CofC local, Dan, and we went to the 2 PM session called “Finding What was Lost for Women: Removal of Sacred Truths from Religious Teachings.” This was the second session at which Margaret Toscano was participating, and it was not as a moderator. I enjoyed the session, but the room was cramped. I had to hold my arms in front of me to avoid resting on the people beside me. I was feeling claustrophobic, hot, and sleepy. It got miserable after a little while. I had to stand up. I climbed over the necessary bodies so I could slip to the back of the room and stand there. Dan and I left this session a few minutes early so as to participate in a group photo with other CofC folks at the CofC booth. Then, despite there being several hours of sessions left for the day, I bailed. Melanie and I had planned a belated birthday date, so I soon met her at the nearby Gateway mall, where we watched The Walk (probably the most anxiety-producing film I’ve ever seen) before going out to dinner at Ruth’s Diner. But that’s a story for another day.

Margaret Toscano at the Parliament of the World's Religions.  Friday, October 16, 2015. 

Margaret Toscano at the Parliament of the World's Religions.  Friday, October 16, 2015. 

Another presenter at the session titled “Finding What was Lost for Women: Removal of Sacred Truths from Religious Teachings.”  This speaker shared her experiences growing up as a Muslim woman.  Unfortunately, I don't have her name as she was a late addition to the program.  Friday, October 16, 2015.

The group photo at the Community of Christ booth.

There are three days of Parliament left, but I’m going to stop here for now. To be continued…

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