What I Learned at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

Opinion piece originally published with FaithStreet

This past weekend, I visited Utah to attend the largest interfaith gathering in the world: the Parliament of the World’s Religions. The Parliament traditionally takes place every five years, and this was the first time in more than two decades that it was hosted in the United States.

At a time when we constantly focus on the role of religion in violence and anger and strife, it was refreshing to be reminded of how religion can serve as an unbelievable force for good in our world. After a long weekend with more than 10,000 people of faith from around the globe, I am returning home with three key takeaways:

1. People are good.

The first thing I noticed upon walking into the Salt Lake Convention Center was the optimism in the air. People smiled and said “hello” as I walked from place to place, and many stopped to introduce themselves and engage in meaningful conversation. As someone who has lived in New York City for the past several years, I initially found these interactions to be strange and uncomfortable. However, as the weekend went on, I came to appreciate the deep sincerity and humanity behind these moments and felt moved by the spirit of love that permeated the gathering. I also realized that, from time to time, it’s refreshing to remember that people are ultimately good.

2. Diversity is beautiful.

My Sikh faith teaches me that no single religion has ultimate claim over God. One can realize divinity through any number of paths, so long as the underlying approach is through love. As a Sikh I also believe that divinity is most powerfully experienced through difference — encountering the vast diversity in the world helps us further appreciate the expansiveness of God. For me, being in the presence of such profound diversity — linguistic, religious, ethnic, regional — was an incredibly beautiful and spiritual experience.

3. We have much to learn from one another.

The Parliament hosted hundreds of sessions that ran concurrently throughout the weekend, and I found myself learning far more than I had expected. Watching Buddhist monks make mandalas of sand, walking through a traditional indigenous fire offering with a childhood friend, speaking with people of various faiths about how the Holocaust related to their own experiences, listening to my favorite musician sing devotional Sikh music, observing a theater performance on religion and violence . . . each and every interaction I had was an opportunity to learn from my peers. And the more I learned, the more humbled I was to realize how little I actually know.

*   *   *

Overall, attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions was an incredibly powerful experience. In a world where we spend so much time reflecting on how religion can be a dividing force, I was reminded of why religion is important to me personally and how it can serve as a force to bring people together. It is this message, more than anything else, that I am taking to heart as I walk away from the gathering this weekend.

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