As is true of many people, I love encountering unfamiliar cultures when I travel. Yet, I will always remember my four days at the recent Parliament of the World’s Religions as taking my exposure to unfamiliar cultures to a new level.
Every time I walked down a hallway in the massive Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, frequented an exhibit or listened to a presentation, my sense of the world expanded.
Ten thousand religionists, whether practitioners, scholars or world leaders, gathered both to celebrate the world’s religious diversity and to stand together against climate change, racism, violence against women and violence in the name of religion.
Some of those attending were members of the world’s oldest religions, the ancient indigenous religions of Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe that predate historical reckoning. Their exquisite robes and headdresses were likely very similar to what their ancestors wore thousands of years ago.
Other attendees represented religions that could have been born last year. Most of these “new religious movements,” as they are technically called, center on a manifestation of divine light, a new charismatic leader or scripture and cosmic unity. Some of their representatives were dressed in amazing robes and headdresses as well.
The booklet that listed all the seminars and presentations at the Parliament was itself a five-pound book — really, a five-pound book. When I was offering my own two presentations at the conference, I knew that attendees had chosen from hundreds of options scheduled for the same time.
Normally at a global conference such as the Parliament of World Religions it is the keynote speakers that are most impressive. Certainly, this conference had headliners that brought thousands of us together. Jane Goodall, Karen Armstrong and the Sheik of Mecca (Saudi Arabia) spoke alongside Nobel Peace Prize winners and chiefs of Native American tribes.
Yet, as sometimes happens, my most memorable moments were not those with the superstars of religion but rather the numerous opportunities the Parliament afforded me to hear lesser-known voices or to meet amazing individuals.
One moment that I will never forget came during an address by Dr. Alan Boesak, who was one of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. He told the story of a principal of a school during the Soweto Uprising in 1976. The school principal was nonpolitical and in the beginning of the uprising did not participate. But after seeing his students involved and beaten by the police, he one day joined the protests.
When someone asked what had changed his mind, the principal explained that one day he would stand before God. He knew that one question that God would ask him was “Where are your wounds?”
The principal continued, “And I would have to answer God, ‘I have no wounds.’ To which God would say to me, ‘Was there nothing in the world that you were willing to suffer for?’”
Dr. Boesak’s story had a powerful effect on me, as I knew in that very moment that I was surrounded in that auditorium by hundreds of attendees who had suffered for their convictions. I met some who had recently been released from jail in their home country or here in the U.S. I heard others speak whose parents, children, siblings or friends had been killed for their faith or moral stand. And I had no doubt that some in the room would sacrifice their lives or their freedom in the near future.
But I? As a close friend and colleague reminds me, I live in a society in which I am favored with what is termed “white male privilege.” I am routinely directed to the speedy line at airports; doormen at hotels open the door for me, smile and welcome me warmly; and waitresses frequently refer to me as “hon.” In the last 20 years, I have been pulled over maybe five times by police, and each time — yes, you guessed it — I received warnings, not tickets.
So, am I lucky to be in the favored race, the favored gender, in the most favored nation in the world without a wound on me?
Only God knows, and I am sure that one day God will let me know.