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November 15, 2018, Toronto, Ontario – Amidst 12,000 delegates from diverse world religions and spiritual beliefs, six women representing the Adrian Dominican Sisters took in the message of inclusion and peace of the Seventh Parliament of the World’s Religions, November 1-7, 2018, at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
Sister Susan Van Baalen, OP, Associate Joan Ebbitt, and Pastoral Minister Cathy Rafferty were chosen by lot to attend the Parliament as a gift from the Adrian Domincian Congregation. Also attending were Adrian Dominican Sisters Esther Kennedy, OP, Patricia McDonald, OP, and Kathleen Nolan, OP.
Sister Esther saw the Parliament as an opportunity for participants to “deepen our understanding of global issues, transcend old barriers, and create loving pathways to inclusive peace, justice and love.”
Sister Patricia said the experience “was the chance of a lifetime.” Now marking its 125th anniversary, the Parliament of the World’s Religions has only been convened seven times since the first was held in Chicago in 1893. The theme, “The Promise of Inclusion and the Power of Love: Pursuing Global Understanding, Reconciliation, and Change,” articulated the purpose of the Parliament. Delegates represented about 200 faith traditions and spiritual beliefs from 80 countries.
The event began with an opening ceremony. Each of the other days focused on a particular theme in various plenary sessions and assemblies: Indigenous Peoples; women’s dignity; understanding and climate action; justice, peace, and reconciliation; and the next generation. The closing ceremony was November 7.
Sister Kathleen noted the strenuous schedule of the Parliament, and the multiple options for different events – for all groups of people, from children to scholars and activists – at each moment, even during plenary sessions. Typically, she said, she would eat breakfast, attend the plenary session – from 9:00 a.m. until noon – and then attend three or four breakout sessions before meeting others in the group for dinner. The dinner was followed by another plenary session, lasting sometimes until 11:00 p.m.
“You would have to send 50 people to get everything covered,” Cathy noted.
For the delegation from the Adrian Dominican Congregation, the Parliament was an eye-opener. Sister Patricia took the opportunity to attend programs and listen to a variety of speakers and people she met along the way. She encountered Wiccans and female Buddhist monks, listened to a presentation by a man who had physically transitioned from being a female, and spoke to two college women.
“The biggest surprise was the mass of diversity we have among us on so many levels – language, food, clothing, religion – and at the same time we’re trying to become one,” Sister Patricia said.
Joan was struck by the many presentations she attended and the encounters she had with others: a documentary on the experiences of three people who suffered through the U.S. immigration process; a panel of high school juniors and seniors who advocated for effective sexual education; and an elderly woman from Afghanistan who spoke of the constant violence and distrust in her country and the need for women to speak out. Joan said the woman’s message was that “when women are included, we’ll probably have peace. Women are wise and they must speak – and these women will change the world.”
Sister Susan said she loved the richness of diversity – both religious and cultural, along with the opportunity to “engage in rituals and serious dialogue with our indigenous North American brothers and sisters, and to participate with Hindus and Buddhists in their rituals. The inclusion of the fine arts reinforced the place of music, drama, poetry, and dance in the appropriate expression of religious beliefs.”
She added that she was struck by the inclusiveness of the more than 7,000 people there. “It was clear that those present were committed to making a better world through cooperation on issues as vast as climate control and world peace,” Sister Susan said.
The participants were also impressed by the qualities of the individual people they encountered. Joan takes hope in people like Vandana Shiva, an activist from India who has worked hard to heal Earth and was active as a member of the consciousness leaders during the 2009 Paris Climate Accord Summit, and in the many women recently elected to the U.S. Congress. “I think there’s great hope in that women are coming forth – they’re not standing down, Joan said.
People who stayed the course through dark and dreary moments impressed Sister Esther. She gave the example of Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian physician whose daughters were killed when an Israeli tank attacked their home in Gaza. He founded The Daughters for Life Foundation, a Canadian-based charity to educate Middle Eastern girls.
Likewise, Sister Esther recalled Sakena Yacoobi, a woman from Afghanistan, who is Executive Director of the Afghan Institute of Learning for women and girls. She continues her commitment to educating girls, in spite of seeing some of the girls murdered and schools bombed. “I saw example after example of people living lives of compassion and love,” Sister Esther said.
“Everyone who spoke came from such a deep whole-heartedness,” Sister Esther added. “Whether they were working for the United Nations or nonprofits, there was such a whole-heartedness about following through what you say is important to you and believing that who you are and what you do and how you are in this world truly makes a difference.”
Cathy was impressed by her realization that the “vast issues and problems” of the world have a profound impact on individual lives. She gave the example of boarding schools of the past, in both the United States and Canada, in which Native American children were forced to conform to standard U.S. languages and culture and lost their own.
“We have a lot of head knowledge, but we haven’t brought it to our hearts,” Sister Kathleen said. In the case of climate change and its impact on the environment and the future of Earth, “we know the urgency, but we don’t have the will [to take action to protect Earth]. We haven’t brought it down to the heart as much as we need to, to have conversion.”
The Adrian Dominican participants came away from the Parliament with messages that they would like to bring to the rest of the world.
Sister Patricia has a greater sense of the need to listen and to “establish ongoing trust and respect for others. … I would like to bring people to a sense of respectful tolerance and appreciation for the other.”
Joan said the message she brings to others is the need to “pay attention to the suffering people and the suffering world. … My greatest learning was to recognize even more how much the Earth and the people are suffering and how we seem to have slipped backward.”
Sister Esther expressed the idea of going to the deeper message of our spiritual traditions. “If we do, we will be able to build a human community,” she said. “On the surface we’re different, but not in the depths. If we could go to that place, we might survive as a species and help our planet to thrive and flourish.”
Waiting at the Windsor Station for the train to Toronto are, from left, Sister Kathleen Nolan, OP; Associate Joan Ebbitt; and Sisters Esther Kennedy, OP, Patricia McDonald, OP, and Susan Van Baalen, OP. Photos by Cathy Rafferty