What I originally thought was a disaster in last minute having to take over a friend’s registration to the Parliament of the World’s Religions turned in to a great opportunity to attend this auspicious event and meet Benish Shami, a young muslimah committed to partnering with my Christian friends to help the poorest of the poor around Islamabad.
The Parliament in Salt Lake City was so large - over 10,000 came from 80 countries and representing 50 faith traditions - even days spent there surely could only scratch the surface to understand how so many can individually and collectively make a dent in the Parliament initiative to Reclaim the Heart of Our Humanity by promoting compassion, peace, justice, and sustainability around the world.
But as we sat reflecting days later about our experience it became clear there were two big take aways Benish and I want to share more widely.
1. Diversity decreases divisions
Getting to know someone outside of your own faith tradition opens your mind and heart to see how much we have in common versus the differences and problems that many people and the media seem to focus on. Benish noted she had never heard of most of the religions represented but seeing the caring so many people brought she hoped sharing about her experience back home would interest more Pakistani’s to become familiar with other religions and let go of reservations to interact with non-Muslims.
Benish was very moved by the chanting and rituals of the indigenous tribes of Utah who opened the Parliament, welcoming attendees to the Great Salt Lake gathering space and keeping a sacred fire burning throughout the event. I shared with her that perhaps the connection truly was in her blood as many of America’s tribes trace their ancestry back to descendants of Genghis Khan.
I have been involved with interfaith groups for many years now, but was stretched to interact with people representing faiths beyond the Abrahamic traditions. Indeed when you experience one of the largest langars ever - perhaps 5,000 people being fed for free everyday by the Sikh community – sitting next to Hindu, Jain, Yoruba, Aboriginal, and even Atheist, you begin to see how small our world now truly is.
2. Partnering prospers peace
Perhaps the most hopeful part of the Parliament was actually seeing and hearing about partnerships that have been fostered between faith traditions – some that many consider hardcore and enemies.
We were both impressed with the session featuring Imam Zia Sheik who moved from the UK to Texas and there formed a friendship with evangelical Pastor Bob Roberts. This friendship impacted both of them so much they are now committed to connecting other evangelical pastors and imams in the USA to address human rights issues together. The first trip of this group will be to Pakistan, focusing on minority rights. Truly amazing!
Although I did not get to attend his session, Benish had favor to meet another great leader from SE Asia - Rajvir Singh. Now based at Yale he uses that platform to give voice for the rights of Dalit’s with Buddhists and Hindus. And we are honored Dr. Singh continues to reach out after the Parliament to offer advice and encouragement for the work being done by REAP, the small NGO started by Shamim Mehmood Masih to begin Reformation for Empowerment and Alleviation of Poverty.
Especially moving to me was John Dayal’s address during the closing plenary. A Dalit convert to Roman Catholicism and member of India’s National Integration Council, he spoke from his heart about his extended family example of the growing trend of inter-religious marriage, that presents a tenuous future for his 7 yr old grandson, Khabir . Threatened not by family, but a rising tide of external forces. Dayal challenged all world and religious leaders, as well as every person of faith, to live out our understanding of God’s abiding love. A love that calls us to partner together: to defend the right of every person for religious freedom and uplift victims of religion, and, by daily living God’s love, overcome those seeking to control what all the Khabir’s around the world can eat, who they can marry, or how they choose to worship God.
During his address I could not help but think of perhaps the best “partnering” moment - experiencing the large youth choir that performed at the Mormon Tabernacle Sunday evening. Amazing to see how they had learned three songs together only over the few days of the Parliament. Who could not be inspired seeing more than one hundred standing and singing as one while representing Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, Baha’i, and Christian. I pray those friendships forged in a few days will continue to deepen over many years, and hope each one will take back those songs to teach other youth, so the song for peace resounds worldwide.
And so we two sisters of this earthly family – Christian and Muslim – invite you also to “reclaim the heart of our humanity” by becoming a part of the Parliament, embracing diversity to decrease divisions and finding ways to partner and prosper peace. Of course since we both do this as supporters of REAP, we strongly encourage you to help develop that effort that reaches out to raise up the poor living in Pakistan, regardless of ethnic background, class or religion.
Join the Parliament even if you can never attend a worldwide event. You can do that by courageously living out the tenets of your faith and being open to partner with different people to break down divisions and nurture peace right where you live, and impact the whole world more than you will ever know - but God knows. Salam, Shalom, Shanti, Peace be with you all.
The worshippers of the All-Merciful are they who tread gently upon the earth, and when the ignorant address them, they reply, “Peace!” The Noble Quran, Surah 25: 63
When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him. The Holy Bible, Proverbs 16: 7
Whoever is unmoved by the ups and downs of life and treats the enemy as a friend, listen to me, says Nanak, accept that person as liberated. Guru Tegh Bahadur (Sikh)
Benish Shami lives in Islamabad and assists REAP to promote and run programs for the poor. Ladla002@gmail.com
Jeanne Swartz is a supporter of REAP, board member for People to People International Delaware Chapter and planning member for the Philadelphia Interfaith Walk for Peace and Reconciliation. email@example.com
Shamim Masih is founder of REAP, based in Islamabad, Pakistan (Reformation for Empowerment and Alleviation of Poverty). Shamim is an Ambassador for the Parliament of the World’s Religions and also works as a correspondent for Pakistan Today. He has translated this article in to Urdu for publishing upon request. firstname.lastname@example.org