Parliament of the World’s Religions: “Reclaiming the Heart of Our Humanity” (2015)

The 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Salt Lake City, Utah from October 15-20, 2015 and attracted over 10,000 people from nearly 80 countries.[1] The event theme, “Reclaiming the Heart of Our Humanity,” came out of organizers’ hopes that the Parliament would provide the time and space for “thousands of kindred spirits” to come together “with compassion and forgiveness, with curiosity and convictions, with expansive vision and following a deeply personal call to action in response to the urgency of these times.”[2]

There were a number of milestones met at the 2015 Parliament. It was the largest of such gatherings to date and the first to host its own choir, comprised of attendees from around the world. It was also the first to feature a pre-Parliament Women’s Assembly and the first to offer livestream, taking the conference events far beyond Utah.

Organizers sought to transform the Salt Palace Convention Center, located in the heart of Salt Lake City, into a “meditative and peaceful environment.”[3] Banners with inspirational quotes in different languages flanked the halls. A group of Tibetan Buddhist monks from Drepung Loseling Monastery created a sand mandala in the main registration area and worked on it throughout the event. Nearby, a small Jain temple greeted visitors. Outside of the Salt Palace members of the indigenous communities tended a sacred fire. The fire was lit on the opening day and all Parliament attendees were invited to visit the fire for prayer in the mornings. Just inside the doors, near the registration booth, members of local, national, and international Sikh communities transformed an exhibit hall into langar hall, serving a free vegetarian lunch to all who visited. As lunch-goers removed their shoes and covered their heads, Sikhs from both the United States and the United Kingdom greeted them as guests and shared information about the Sikh tradition and the origins of the langar, a meal instituted by Guru Nanak to promote the value of equality among all people.

The inaugural Women’s Assembly took place on Thursday, October 15, before the official Parliament proceedings began. The Women’s Assembly sought to bring women together from around the world to discuss “the responsibility of the world’s religions to affirm women’s dignity and human rights” and “religious and spiritual inspiration for women’s empowerment.”[4] Women’s dignity and human rights was one of six subthemes that oriented the Parliament’s proceedings. Additional subthemes included: emerging leaders; income inequality; war, violence, and hate speech; climate change; and indigenous communities.

The Parliament officially opened with an “Indigenous Grand Procession,” led by members of indigenous nations upon whose land participants were gathered. Members of the Girl Scouts of Utah followed, presenting seventy flags, one from each country represented at the Parliament. Imam Malik Mujahid, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, began with an official declaration to open the sixth Parliament of the World’s Religions.[5] The plenary also featured welcome messages from Utah Governor Gary Herbert, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, Farhad Abdualnasr of the KAICIID Dialogue Centre, Elder L. Whitney Clayton of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Robert Henderson, a member of the Bahá’í community and of the Parliament Board of Trustees, and Rabbi David Saperstein, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Soon after Mujahid declared the Parliament open, and the welcome speakers were seated on stage, some audience members began to shout: “Where are all the women?” The outburst drew attention to the fact that, despite the special focus on women’s leadership, all of the welcome speakers happened to be men. Women did participate in the opening plenary as prayer leaders from the Jewish, Christian, and Sikh traditions and in leading the music.[6] Rabbi David Saperstein, one of the keynote speakers, made the role of women and girls in leadership one of his main points. He addressed the importance of educating women and girls around the world and the role of those assembled in not being silent in supporting such efforts. He quoted journalist Nicholas Kristof in stating: “the greatest threat to extremism isn’t drones firing missiles but girls reading books.”[7]

The next four days were packed full with over 600 hundred panels, workshops, films, plenary events, and exhibits. The exhibit hall featured booths hosted by interfaith and faith-specific organizations, publishing houses, and vendors. Activities began as early as 7 am, with opportunities to join different religious communities for rituals and “101” sessions about various traditions. From 10am-4pm each day, members of twelve local religious communities hosted small educational “faith spaces” displays to teach and answer questions about their tradition. Panels and workshops featured activists from around the world who addressed a wide range of issues and themes.

Many sessions focused on the role of religious communities in civic life. One panel, “Protecting Sacred Spaces: Church, Mosque, and Temple,” featured Pardeep Kaleka and Faatimah Knight. Kaleka is a former Milwaukee police officer and high school teacher who co-founded Serve 2 Unite, an organization that promotes peace-building among high school students using the arts. Serve 2 Unite was founded in the wake of the 2012 shooting at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek that left six dead (include Kaleka’s father). Faatimah Knight is an African American Muslim who organized “Rebuild with Love,” a fundraising campaign in 2015 to assist in the rebuilding of black churches damaged by arson. The campaign raised enough from the Muslim community to offer each of the four churches $24,000. In another session, a panel of police chiefs spoke about their experiences in communities with changing demographics. The chiefs, hailing from places like Louisville, KY, Salt Lake City, UT, and Winnepeg, discussed practical ways they have built “social muscle” and relationships with communities of faith, especially those that may be at risk of attack.

Parliament organizers, seeking to accommodate a larger portion of the hundreds of proposals they received from potential presenters, grouped together similar or related presentations and themes into Share Sessions. In addition to many others, a few shared sessions included:

  • Faith and Climate Change, Creation-Crisis Preaching;
  • Eliminate Violence in the Name of God and a Strategy to Counter Extremism;
  • Saying No to Silence and Faith Communities as Life-Affirming Communities;
  • Remembering Our Foremothers: The Role of Conscious Mentoring and Remembering Our Foremothers in the 1893 Parliament;
  • Workplace Wellness, Syrian Refugees, and No Religion Without Humanity; and
  • Fostering the Language of Interfaith: Cultivate Pathways from Interfaith Dialogue to Spiritual Activism.

Several institutions of higher education were also represented at the Parliament and faculty and/or staff representatives discussed innovative pedagogical tools, partnerships, and the state of interfaith efforts in America today. Dr. Stephanie Varnon-Hughes presented Claremont Lincoln University’s newly launched online resources intended to promote dialogue and education about religion. The Pluralism Project at Harvard University partnered with the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships to present “Uniting Across Faiths for the Common Good: Lessons from President Obama’s Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships and the Harvard Pluralism Project.” The presentation featured representatives from the Department of Education, the Department of Homeland Security, Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, as well as from the Pluralism Project.

Session hosts ran the gamut from local to international organizations and/or individuals working on research projects. The Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions hosted a session to discuss its findings from the Emerging Religious Leaders Study, a study funded by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. The KAICIID Dialogue Centre, a major funder of the 2015 Parliament, presented its Peace Mapping Programme and Talking Dialogue Project. The Parliament also partnered with the Charter of Compassion, which hosted several thematic sessions during the Parliament.[8] The Sustained Dialogue Institute shared the sustained dialogue model and illustrated its use in addressing contemporary conflicts around the world. Tracy Simmons, editor and community manager of SpokaneFAVS, presented best practices for using social media gleaned from her experience with the organization, a media outlet covering all things faith and values in Spokane (FAVS). Paul Eppinger shared lessons learned by the Arizona Interfaith Movement in the areas of funding and building a statewide momentum. Founding Editor Elizabeth Dabney Hochman and two high school-aged contributors spoke about KidSpirit, an online interfaith magazine for 11-17 year olds. They discussed the process by which young people develop, curate, and discuss the magazine, which seeks to sustain a global exchange among youth and is read in 180 countries.

Plenary sessions were held throughout the Parliament and addressed the six subthemes: women’s dignity and human rights; emerging leaders; income inequality; war, violence, and hate speech; climate change; and indigenous communities. Speakers included:

  • Women’s Dignity and Human Rights: Vandana Shiva, Marianne Williamson, Mother Maya Tiwari, Dr. Serene Jones, Valarie Kaur, Mara Lynn Keller, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, Bishop Barbara King, Mary Lyons, Sheika Anse Tamara Gray, Phyllis Curott, Katie Jo Welch, Audrey Kitagawa, Sara Rahim, and Rabbi Amy Eilberg.
  • Emerging Leaders: Eboo Patel, K.R. Ravindran, Ta’Kaiya Blaney, Zach Hunter, Barbara Lee, Andrea Tucker, Dr. Suzanne Barakat, Faatimah Knight, Isobel Arthen, Pardeep Kaleka, Dawn Maracle, and Donavan Arthen, along with Tai-go Drummers, the band Honey and the Sting, and the Pacifica Institute’s Young Whirling Dervishes.
  • Income Inequality: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (via pre-recorded video message), Michael Bernard Beckwith, Kathy Kelly, Dr. Oscar Arias, Rev. Jim Wallis, Barbara Lee, Rev. Chloe Breyer, and Rami Nashishibi. World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim contributed a video message.
  • War, Violence, and Hate Speech: Allan Boesak, Dr. Karen Armstrong, Dr. Jane Goodall, Medea Benjamin, Dr. John Esposito, Dr. Tariq Ramadan, Dr. Viswanath Dadarao Karad, Mairead Maguire, Robert Pape, and His Holiness Dr. Lokesh Muni.
  • Climate Change: His Excellency Sheikh Saleh Abdullah M. Bin Humaid, Brian D. McLaren, Kareena Gore, Jonathan Granoff, Marc Barasch, Katharine Hayhoe, and Chief Arvol Lookinghorse. Vice President Al Gore contributed a video message.
  • Indigenous Issues: Chief Arvol Lookinghorse, Oren Lyons, Wande Abimbola, Arnold Thomas, Rose Pere, Inija Trinkuniene, Flordemayo, Margret Lokawua, Steven Newcomb, Ta’Kaiya Blaney, Wilson Aronilith, and Darlene St. Clair.[9]

Several of the plenary sessions featured musical and dance performances, including Ta’Kaiya Blaney, a thirteen year old singer, songwriter, activist, and member of the Tla’Amin First Nation. Blaney sang and performed spoken word. On Sunday evening a sacred music night was held in the Salt Lake Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square. The “fast-paced parade of faiths in a stunning collage of talents” featured individuals from over ten different religious traditions.[10] Some sang or danced; others played instruments or offered recitations.

Other Parliament events include the emPOWR Film Festival, which took place at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Arts (UMOCA) next door. The festival featured films like Standing on Sacred Ground, a four-part series about the work of indigenous people around the world working to preserve their sacred lands, and Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids, a documentary about the sons and daughters of prostitutes in the city of Calcutta. In addition to the emPOWR Film Festival, the Parliament also featured a screening and panel discussion of Belief, a production of OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, which aired for the first time on October 18, 2015.

Several awards were also presented during the course of the Parliament. Patrice O’Neill, creator of Not in Our Town, received the Outstanding Journalism Award. Dr. Karen Armstrong won the Paul Carus Award and the Charter of Compassion was given the Ahmisa Award for Non-Violence, a prize sponsored by a Jain monk. The Golden Rule award was bestowed upon the Rev. Dr. Paul Eppinger while the Faiths Against Hate Award went to Serve 2 Unite and the Cultivation of Harmony Award went to Dr. Muang Zarni, a Burmese scholar and activist. The Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions also awarded five capacity building grants ($6,000), one to each of the following organizations: The Compassion Games, MultiFaith Council of Northwest Ohio, Compassionate Atlanta, Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding, and the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia.[11]

The 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions concluded on Monday afternoon with a closing ceremony featuring remarks from Rabbi Rachel Mikva, Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, Dr. Robert P. Sellers, Imam Omar Suleiman, John Dayal, His Holiness Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswati, and a video from Bhai Mohinder Singh. Rabbi Rachel Mikva began with a blessing and likening the Parliament to her experience of Yom Kippur when, in the Jewish tradition, “we spend the day in synagogue working to become the human beings we were created to be and developing an amazing sense of solidarity with all those who have been on the journey with us through these last days.”[12] She shared the “to-do” list she had compiled throughout the course of the Parliament: “bring an end to patriarchy, andro-centrism, and the oppression of women,” “end extreme poverty by 2030,” “cultivate a culture of non-violence,” “manage that paradigm shift to that way we relate to the earth and all that exists in it and on it,” and “bring a little peace, love, joy, and truth to the universe.”

During her keynote, Dr. Karen Armstrong, world-renowned religion scholar and instigator of the Charter for Compassion, articulated the importance of moving beyond talk to action. This charge was taken up by Parliament organizers in the form of declarations, made long before the crowds convened in Salt Lake City. The six declarations corresponded with each of the Parliament’s subthemes and were printed in a commitment book. The book was intended as a place for attendees to “brainstorm and commit to taking tangible actions to implement individual, community level, policy change and media influence.”[13] In addition to the attendees who daily work in diverse and often diffuse ways to promote interfaith understanding in their own context, the declarations serve as lasting, cogent reminders of the values promoted by the Parliament, making that vision accessible for generations to come.


[1] “Reclaiming the Heart of Our Humanity.” 2015 Parliament of the World Religions program, 7.↩︎

[2] Ibid., 26.↩︎

[3] Ibid, 36.↩︎

[4] Ibid. 74.↩︎

[5] Mujahid served as the chair of the board from 2009-2016. The next board chair, Dr. Robert P. Sellers, was introduced in the closing plenary of the 2015 Parliament.↩︎

[6] The Rev. Patty Willis led the music for the evening, which was composed by Mary Lou Prince. Two of the five prayers were offered by women, including Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb. Dr. Anahat Sandu offered the closing prayer. (“Opening Ceremony and Procession – Plenary Hall – Parliament of the World’s Religions.” http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/75586059. Accessed May 2016.)↩︎

[7] Ibid.↩︎

[8] “Salt Lake 2015: Compassion at the Parliament.” http://www.parliamentofreligions.org/parliament/salt-lake-2015/compassion-parliament. Accessed April 2016.↩︎

[9] “Reclaiming the Heart of Our Humanity.” 2015 Parliament of the World Religions program, 27-33.↩︎

[10] Ibid., 25.↩︎

[11] Special thanks to Molly Horan for her assistance with these details. (Molly Horan. Email exchange with author. June 22, 2016).↩︎

[12] “Closing Plenary.” October 19, 2015. http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/75841162. Accessed April 2016.↩︎

[13] Molly Horan. Email exchange with author. June 22, 2016.↩︎