A Pagan Response to the Parliament

by Andras Corban Arthen

Every Parliament of the World’s Religions focuses on a collection of particular themes chosen for their relevance to the interfaith movement or to the world at large. A great many other topics are broached during the course of the event, to be sure, but Parliament presenters and attendees are encouraged to weave as many of the key themes as possible into their presentations and dialogues.

The overall focus of the 2009 Parliament was “Make a World of Difference: Hearing each Other, Healing the Earth,” but this broad purpose was given a sharper definition through the following seven key themes:

  • Healing the Earth with Care and Concern
  • Reconciling with the Indigenous Peoples
  • Overcoming Poverty in an Unequal World
  • Providing Food and Water for All People
  • Building Peace in the Pursuit of Justice
  • Creating Social Cohesion in Village and City
  • Sharing Wisdom in the Search for Inner Peace

As explained in the Parliament’s literature, “These sub-themes have emerged from the dialogues of previous Parliaments and continue to resonate as urgent matters to address in this time and place by the largest interreligious gathering in the world. Throughout the Parliament week, hundreds of programs will explore these critical issues through the lenses of richly diverse religious and spiritual perspectives. So what do the Bahá’ís tell us about social cohesion? How do Christians and Muslims view their responsibility to humanity’s most vulnerable? Can Confucianism guide our approach to peacebuilding in the modern world?”

As an aid in framing the exploration of these topics, the Parliament, together with the Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha (the same Sikh organization that provided the daily langar — a free, vegetarian meal — at the Barcelona event in 2004) organized two special displays at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre. One, located on the second floor of the Convention Centre, was entitled “Sacred Sites, Sacred Solidarity” and addressed the growing destruction of holy places around the world as a result of globalization, political and sectarian violence, and ” the impact of urban, industrial and recreational development.” The other one, on “Teachings of the Traditions,” was situated inside the Exhibition Hall, amidst the dozens of booths which provided information about some of the various organizations (among them EarthSpirit) represented at the Parliament. Its aim was to highlight — using the seven sub-themes as a context — “the relevancy of religious perspectives on contemporary issues, as well as the successful efforts of spiritual communities to address these pressing concerns at local and global levels.”

Prior to the Parliament, several people involved in the interfaith movement were asked to submit text and photographs which addressed the focus of each of the exhibits from their personal point of view, as informed by their respective spiritual traditions. For the exhibit on imperiled sacred sites, for instance, a Christian Orthodox representative warned about the 1,700-year-old Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (built over the grotto in which Jesus supposedly was born), endangered by the imminent collapse of its roof due to the inability of its caretaking organizations to agree on how to proceed. A Diné woman wrote about Dook’o’osliid (otherwise known as the San Francisco Peaks, in Arizona), sacred not only to the Navajo but also to twelve other tribes, threatened with desecration and destruction by plans of the U.S. Forest Service and a private developer to expand the recreational resources of the Snow Bowl Ski Resort, located among the peaks. A Sikh described the impaired state of the Nankana Sahib Gurudwara, the birthplace of Guru Nanak in Pakistan, as a result of restrictions and prohibitions placed upon Sikhs by the Pakistani government, and of travel limitations due to border conflicts between India and Pakistan.

For the Teachings of the Traditions exhibit, a Bahá’í wrote on “Creating Social Cohesion between Village and City;” a Confucian discussed his tradition’s approach toward “Building Peace in the Pursuit of Justice;” a Hindu told of Vedic hymns in praise of natural forces in addressing “Healing the Earth with Care and Concern;” a member of Shimji Shumeikai described their founder’s development of Natural Agriculture as a spiritual practice in the context of “Providing Food and Water for All People.”

I was asked to write about an endangered sacred site of particular concern to pagans, and to offer a pagan perspective on two themes, “Reconciling with Indigenous Peoples,” and “Sharing Wisdom in the Search for Inner Peace.” I was also asked to provide a selection of photographs relating to the three topics that I was writing about, so that the organizers of the exhibits could pick the most appropriate. Below are my responses to the three topics, as well as the chosen photographs:


The Hill of Tara, known in Irish as Teamhair na Rí (“The Hill of Kings”), is one of the most ancient and sacred sites in all of Ireland. Located in County Meath, approximately 50 km from Dublin, Tara appears to have been used as a religious centre starting some 6,000 years ago. Ceremonial structures on the hill include the Lia Fáil (“Stone of Destiny” ) – a phallic-shaped menhir that served as the coronation stone for the High Kings of Ireland – and the Dumha na nGiall (“Mound of the Hostages”), a Mesolithic passage grave built around 3000 BCE.

For the Indigenous pagan peoples of Ireland, the Land was their true sovereign, and the role of the sacred king was to act in the Land’s stead and manifest her sovereignty. After a series of trials to prove himself, he would become one with the Land through a ritual wedding, enabling him to rule. It was upon the Hill of Tara that this sacred marriage and subsequent coronation would be held, underscoring its position as the seat of spiritual and temporal power in Ireland. It continues to be regarded and used as a sacred site by many thousands of people today, including adherents of the Indigenous pagan religion of Ireland.

Despite its considerable spiritual, historical and archaeological importance, the Hill of Tara and the ancient underground structures surrounding it are currently endangered by the Irish government’s decision to build a major motorway less than a mile from the summit.

The Hill of Tara has been placed on the endangered sites lists of the World Monuments Fund, the Smithsonian Institution, and Sacred Sites International. An official application has also been filed with UNESCO to have Tara designated as one of its World Heritage Sites, but the Irish government has been withholding its prerequisite endorsement of the nomination until the motorway is completed.

To learn more about the current situation at the Hill of Tara and ways to stand in solidarity, please visit www.tarawatch.org orr www.savetara.com



There are many diverse ways in which spirituality manifests in the pagan traditions, but underlying all of them is a fundamental sense of experiencing the Sacred, the Great Mystery, through communion with the natural world. For pagans, Nature is our spiritual matrix, the means through which we may most directly connect with the Great Mystery that permeates every facet of our existence and surpasses the many identities, labels and theologies through which humans have attempted to represent it.

Nature is the most immediate and tangible manifestation of the Great Mystery. Like the Sacred, it contains us, but also transcends us. In cultivating a spiritual relationship with the natural world, we quickly come to realize that we are part of something much greater than ourselves, something so much more complex and far-reaching than we can begin to understand. We are as much a part of Nature as a tree, as a mountain, as a stream, as a meadowlark, as fire. Our sustenance, our very survival, depend upon it – the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the wood and stone we use for shelter.

Through spiritual communion with the natural world, we experience ourselves as enmeshed in a vast, living web of interdependent relationships, where we are part of everything, and everything is part of us. This leads us to an understanding that all our actions matter, that all our actions have consequences which affect everything else. It also instills in us a sense of perspective, of proportion – that the universe does not exist exclusively for the benefit of us humans, that the rest of the natural world deserves our respect and consideration.

Pagan communion with Nature brings us face-to-face with the Sacred in all its mystery and power, and can induce in us a mystical experience of profound inner peace, in which we merge with the Sacred and are nurtured and formed by it.



Indigenous peoples throughout the world have been subjected to a multitude of long-standing injustices – such as the taking of ancestral land, abduction of women and children and the destruction of ancient ways of life – as a result of conquest and colonization.

Those who practice the pagan spiritual traditions have a unique perspective concerning this situation, in that some of our ancestors were colonists, while others were colonized Indigenous people. Pagans are particularly aware of the origins of this problem in a policy of religious manifest destiny, a foundation that is often disregarded or ignored today. “Paganism” is a collective term that most aptly defines the Indigenous cultures of pre-Christian Europe: the Celtic and Germanic tribes, the Balts, the Scandinavians, the Basques, the Slavs, and many others. The pagan peoples suffered, at the hands of fellow Europeans who had converted to Christianity, almost all of the same injustices that other Indigenous peoples were later subjected to by their European conquerors. The systematic obliteration of European pagan societies was so extensive, and its history so thoroughly suppressed, that it has become all but invisible despite the fact that some of the Indigenous pagan spiritual traditions have survived into the present.

It is very encouraging that the world – and in particular the interreligious movement – seems to be finally recognizing this problem and attempting to do something about it before it is too late.

Reconciliation begins with awareness – a realization of the many wrongs committed against Indigenous peoples and an understanding of the extent of the consequences those wrongs have in their lives. Awareness is followed by an acknowledgment of responsibility: while the people who originally perpetrated those wrongs are no longer alive, their descendants and inheritors continue to benefit from the deeds of their ancestors, while Indigenous populations still suffer the consequences.

The third and most important step is reparation – we cannot undo the past, but we can certainly change the present and the future. Reparation begins with apology, as the Australian government has commendably done. But an apology by itself has little meaning unless it is followed by a series of concrete and tangible actions to redress injustice. These steps can include the restitution of ancestral lands, or a fairly negotiated compensation for their taking; the restoration of sovereignty and autonomy; the repeal of discriminatory laws; the protection of Indigenous culture, religion and language; and the return of ancestors’ remains and sacred objects.

The Gods in Quarantine

by Andras Corban Arthen

Wande Abimbola is from Nigeria. He has been a professor of African cultures, religions and languages at several universities in his homeland, as well as in the U.S. He has also served as majority leader in the Nigerian Senate, and as a special advisor to his country’s president. In 1981, a council of respected babalawos from various parts of West Africa chose him as the Awise Awo Agbaye — the official world spokesman for the more than 30 million practitioners of the traditional Yoruba religion. In other words, he’s quite a big deal.

I had met Abimbola a couple of years ago at the World Interreligious Encounter in Monterrey, México, where we both spoke. I was struck by his presence, his quiet dignity, and his obviously vast knowledge and experience of the Yoruban traditions. When the Parliament convened a task force to select international speakers for the Indigenous program track in Melbourne, Kusumita Pedersen (my colleague on both the task force and the Board of Trustees, who had also met Abimbola previously) and I immediately and enthusiastically nominated him as a representative of the African traditions, and impressed upon the other task force members, who were not familiar with him, how important it would be for us to bring him to Melbourne. Abimbola subsequently was named one of the Parliament’s major speakers.

On the day before the event was to start, two members of the Task Force went out to the airport to meet the Abimbola family’s plane and bring them to their hotel. They waited and waited, as other passengers from that flight gradually came through the Customs doors and made their way out of the terminal. Eventually, the arriving travelers trickled to a stop, with no sign of the Abimbolas. The greeters called the Parliament’s headquarters to see if there had been any message or other news about the missing guests; no one knew anything, so they were advised to wait a little longer and to try to find someone from the airline who might shed some light on the situation.

Finally, the metal doors of the Customs area parted one more time, and Wande Abimbola, his American-born wife Ifaboyede, and their eight-month-old son made their way into the terminal, looking troubled and dismayed.

“They have taken our deities away,” they informed their greeters.

The Abimbolas were scheduled to offer several presentations on the spiritual traditions of the Yoruba, and they were bringing with them several objects which manifested particular orisas, the ancestral spirits whose veneration is central to Yoruban religion. The objects are not considered to be mere symbolic representations, but extensions and abodes of the orisas themselves — sacred emanations of sacred beings, to be treated with honor and respect. But this was obviously irrelevant to the Australian Customs agents in Melbourne, who unceremoniously confiscated the objects.

We had been warned that Australia has very restrictive and harsh policies regarding what may and may not be brought into the country, and even between one state and another. This is understandable, as many foreign species of animals and plants have been recklessly introduced into this land over the years, often with disastrous results. Rabbits and red foxes, brought over by European colonists in the 1800s for the purpose of “sports hunting” have become notorious pests throughout the countryside. The poisonous cane toad, introduced in the 1930s in an effort to eradicate the agriculturally-hazardous cane beetle, has proven to be far more of a liability than a blessing, eating just about anything in its path (except, it seems, cane beetles) and bringing a considerable number of other animals to the brink of extinction. Feral cats, descended from escaped or abandoned domestic animals, have become such a threat to other species that they are routinely poisoned, trapped or shot, and their pelts (heads included) are frequently sold as souvenirs at roadside stands along the Outback. Perhaps as a result of such disastrous and embarrassing examples, some local friends theorize, the Australian government has overcompensated with a vengeance to ensure that no invasive species of any sort will enter the country.

The Parliament had gone to great lengths to make sure that all our invited Indigenous speakers were clearly aware of the Australian restrictions, and also engaged early on in negotiations and conversations with the federal government and the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) to let them know that we were bringing a number of international Indigenous spiritual leaders, many of whom would be transporting sacred objects. All of the Indigenous speakers received official letters of introduction from the Parliament specifically identifying them to customs and quarantine agents, and AQIS officials assured us that there was a special dispensation in their regulations which addressed the question of Indigenous dignitaries visiting Australia.

But this was of no help to the Abimbolas, whose deities had been impounded by government agents who apparently did not know or did not care about the negotiations and understandings that had been in place for months. After some amount of dickering, the Melbourne AQIS agents decided that one of the sacred objects could be allowed into the country, but only if it was first irradiated. The Abimbolas consulted the orisa involved, who had to be propitiated with an offering of gin before he would agree to the procedure. The other sacred images, they were told, would need to be irradiated much more thoroughly, at a cost of several hundred dollars; until the fee was paid and the irradiation completed, the gods would be kept in quarantine.

Needless to say, this news upset me greatly, as it did Kusumita Pedersen. It was not, admittedly, a blatant case of racism, or of cultural or religious discrimination — there were far too many official regulations and protocols in place to provide a legal justification behind which such prejudices could safely hide — but it certainly felt like it. One is hard-pressed to imagine, for instance, that a white Roman Catholic bishop bringing the relic of a saint to Australia would have been subjected to a similar ignominy. Later on, this sentiment was supported by comments from Australian friends and some local Parliament staffers regarding the intense racism present among some segments of Australian society not only toward the Aboriginal peoples of this country, but specifically also against African immigrants and visitors.

Kusumita and I, as the Abimbolas’ initial sponsors, felt a certain responsibility about this situation, so we attempted to do whatever we could to resolve it. We spoke with the Abimbolas, who told us they had already filled out the necessary form to retrieve their sacred objects, and had handed it to another member of the Indigenous Task Force; all that remained, apparently, was for someone to take the form to the airport with the required fee and rescue the quarantined deities. Kusumita and I offered to pay the fee out of our own pockets if necessary, and arrange to borrow a car to get them to Customs and back.

Then, we found out that the Task Force member who had the form had given it to someone else, who in turn gave it to another. We wound up spending two days trying to track down the paperwork and find a suitable time to get the thing done in the midst of the madhouse of conflicting schedules that is the Parliament. The next time I caught up with the Abimbolas, some three days into the event, it was evident that they had resigned themselves to carry on their programs without their

captive orisas. They did so with grace and professionalism, and their style of shared presentations while taking turns caring for their young son provided an inspiring model of family collaboration.

I am happy to report that the Abimbolas were able to retrieve their orisas on their way out of the country without further incident. For me, though, this episode continues to ring a sour note in what was mostly a very harmonious event. It’s very easy, when attending a function such as the Parliament, to get so wrapped up in the beauty and idealism present all around us that we can forget some of the harsh realities that lie in wait just beyond these walls. The quarantined gods of the Yoruba were, this time, a constant reminder of the arrogance, the prejudice and the fear that continue to cause so much conflict among nations and cultures, and a reminder as well of how much we need to continue to talk, and teach, and learn from one another, as we do in the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

The Tibetan Art of Impermanence — a Photo Essay

by Andras Corban Arthen
The Gyuto monks of Tibet once again created an elaborate sand mandala during the course of the Parliament, to invoke peace and healing in the world and for the event. This is a visual account of that process.
The mandala is transferred from mind to canvas as a sketch.
Layers of fine colored sand are slowly applied over the sketch lines.
Gradually, with great care and breath control, the intricate details emerge.
The sand is applied through channeled metal rods, one rubbing against the other with precise control to release the exact amount of sand needed.
Painstakingly, grain upon grain, layer upon layer, over the span of a week the mandala is completed.
On the final day, the monks approach and circle the finished work, praying and chanting.
With a special metal tool, the mandala is scored and divided into eight segments.
Then, brushes in hand, the monks meticulously destroy what it took them so long to create…
…until nothing is left but a pile of colored sand.
The head monk carefully places the sand in a brass urn, in which it will be transported to the river to be released into the waters. Nothing lasts. Change is always. Change is all.

Parliament Baby

by Andras Corban Arthen

In 1993, my daughter Isobel attended her first Parliament of the World’s Religions. She was but a toddler, and I vividly remember watching her wide unblinking eyes devouring the exotic panoply of colors, movements and shapes that surrounded us at every turn — a circus of the spirit, a carnival of cultures.

It was my first Parliament, too, and although I had never seen anything quite like what I witnessed that week, I had been around similar landscapes long enough to be impressed, though not mystified. But as I tried to imagine watching that spectacle through my daughter’s wondering eyes, I could not really fathom what kind of effect such a remarkable event would have on so young a child. What did she make of it? Would she remember? How would it change her? Could this turn out to be one of those early childhood experiences that leave a lasting imprint on a person’s life?

This year marked the first time that Isobel was old enough to be actively involved in the Parliament’s Youth Program, and she dove into it with relish. The Parliament has always gone to great lengths to encourage the participation of young people, and this year’s program was particularly promising: workshops, panel discussions, films, sports events, a nightly coffeehouse. And, beyond all that, the unparalleled opportunity to make friends with people your age from all corners of the world, from all races, from all religions.

She mentioned to me that some of her new friends asked her if she’d been to this event before. When she told them about her first time, back in ’93, they reacted with great surprise. Some of them have started calling her “the Parliament Baby”; as she told me this, there was a certain pride in her voice.

Isobel was a speaker in a panel entitled “Mother Nature Doesn’t Do Bailouts,” in which the panelists spoke about how their spiritual traditions had motivated them to get involved in environmental activism. She also did a presentation on Peace Jam, the excellent program that she’s been involved with for several years, which connects high school students with Nobel Peace Prize laureates to offer the young people the very best role models to inspire them towards careers in social justice and community service.

A couple of days ago, she asked me for the e-mail address of Dirk Ficca, the Parliament’s Executive Director, so she could write to him about some ideas she has for the Youth Program at the next event, in 2014. This Parliament’s not over, and she’s already thinking of the next, I mused; that’s surely a good sign.

Isobel was invited to perform a song for the closing of the Youth Plenary on Monday night, so there we were, all of us here from her family, her community, waiting for her turn to come.

The announcer’s voice rang over the loudspeaker: “And now, welcome to the stage Isobel Arthen from the EarthSpirit Community, a pagan organization based in Massachusetts. She has been touring internationally, singing world music for the past six years, and she’s joined on-stage by guitarist Jose Gonzalez…”

And there she was, the little girl with the wide eyes taking in the whirling Sufi dervishes, the Tibetan monks with their saffron robes and guttural chants, the Yoruban priestess with her multi-colored robes and skin as dark as a moonless night.

Only now she’s eighteen years old, a smart, beautiful, self-assured young woman, with her lithe body and her long dark hair, striding purposefully up to the microphone along with her dreadlocked, guitar-playing young man.

“I’ve been coming to the Parliament since I was two years old,” she tells us, “and I’ve kept coming because I truly, truly believe that one person, one voice, can make a difference. But I think we all know that one voice joined by hundreds, thousands of other voices, can become a force that can really change the world.”

Then she launches into the song, Ruth Pelham’s “The Turning of the World,” backed up by the members of the Youth Committee who have worked so hard to create a welcoming environment for their international peers who’ve come to Melbourne:

“Let us sing this song for the turning of the world,

That we may turn as one.

With every voice, with every song

We will move this world along,

And our lives will feel the echo of our turning…”

As I watch her I feel, of course, as proud of her as any father watching his only daughter achieve something notable. But there is more than that: I also feel a sense of fitness, of fulfillment, of completion. I think about the various turnings in my daughter’s life, and particularly those whose echoes have resonated most strongly within her, and realize that the Parliament is surely one of them. Something began to move within her as a little girl that first time sixteen years ago, something that has informed and inspired her life ever since, and that movement has now turned full circle within the radiant young woman singing upon that stage.

The Parliament is not just about weighty discussions of theological issues and other equally abstract themes. On a much more practical level, it is also about changing lives, about inspiring people, about helping to bring out the best in them. And my Parliament Baby is living proof of it.

Here is a video of Isobel’s performance:

Parliament Days Six and Seven: Blessings

by Moira Ashleigh

I sit in the airport among strangers, tired and pleased at having met and exchanged ideas and energy with so many new people. I feel the awareness of the bigger place that Paganism is holding now at the World Religious table. I am feeling pleased at our solid presence at this event. I feel happy to have been among the contingent that came here to make new connections and renew old ones.

Yesterday was the last full day of the Parliament of the World’s Religions and though it was raining outside the feeling inside the Parliament was that of the warmth of shared purpose. Deirdre Pulgram Arthen, with the support of MotherTongue and other EarthSpirit attendees, led the morning observance, the title of which was: Sing Praise for the Earth. We sang together of the fire, the water, the ancestors and All Beings of the Earth. People were very happy to sing with us, and several of the new “Weaving the Web of Life” chant CDs were sold later in the EarthSpirit exhibition booth.

In the afternoon Don Frew, Charlie Gibbs, and Yoland Treveno gave a presentation: The United Religious Initiative: A Global Network of Interfaith Effort. This organization was born out of the 1993 Chicago Parlianent. From that event there were a group of people that wanted to stay connected. They work with the model of cooperative circles, circles that have to have at least 7 people which need to represent at least 3 faiths. After the major speakers, different area leaders were invited to talk about the fruits of their work. Things like youth projects, women’s circles, youth circles, and social action assemblies. The belief and the actual experience has been that cooperative circle coming together doing anything creates peace. A Korean monk spoke of his reason to be a part of URI. He said “URI means we take responsibility, duty for the future to think in peace, speak in peace and act in peace.

The Queensland Pagan took the EarthSpirit group to dinner that night at a local Italian place near the river. We were quite overwhelmed at the generosity of this small group of women. On our way out of the restaurant a fire show started. The casino sets off these flame bursts from tall columns on the river. This only happens for a few minutes and then is gone. It was a moment where I felt connected to all the fire work we do together at Rites of Spring and Twilight Covening. After the fire show some of us slowly walked back to the rooms enjoying the beautiful weather because several of us knew the trip back to Winter would happen all too soon.

Wednesday morning dawned warm and clear. Many of us were packing out of our rooms, some to go home to the states, some back to New Zealand, some out to the Austrailian Outback, and one off to the Orient. It is a short day at the Parliament culminating with a Plenary where His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be addressing the Parliament attendees. Security is very tight.

One of the morning workshops “The Revival of the European Pagan Traditions” with Andras Corban Arthen and Jonas Trinkunas of the Lithuania Romuva tradition drew quite a large crowd. Andras will describe this in detail in an upcoming post.

I hope you have enjoyed the snippets of the Parliament. There are plans to do more in depth pieces after people return from their travels. And be sure to catch all of us at the upcoming events that are highlighted on http://www.earthspirit.com. We will have many stories to share.

Parliament: Australian Pagans Speak

by Chris LaFond

On Monday morning, panel of five pagans from Eastern Australia spoke individually on their own practice of paganism and the progress that they have made in engaging in interfaith work in Australia in recent years. She’ D’Montford spoke on dispelling the myths surrounding the word ‘witch’, and on the meaning of the pentagram. Glenys Livingstone presented her own work on what happens when European paganism is transplanted to the southern hemisphere. Her term for what she does is ‘PaGaian’, that is, pagan and gaian, which stresses the whole earth connection of all life. Glenys also spoke of her work in re-imagining deity using feminine motifs.

Gede Parma, a twenty-one year old energetic man defined witchcraft as an “ecstasy-driven, earth-based mystery tradition.” He presented his work in the Sydney area in founding a coven that has already hived off and is starting to spread to other parts of the world. Fabienne Morgana talked of growing up on an Australian farm the size of Rhode Island, and how she came to paganism when her parents’ spiritual traditions simply didn’t speak to her in the wilds of Australia.

Finally, Linda Ward spoke to us of her work in the interfaith movement in Australia, and how just a few short years ago, we (pagans) were blatantly refused a seat at the interfaith table. In the last three or four years, they have made tremendous progress and are now an important part of the dialogue here in Australia. She argued that a pagan ethical system is by its nature already interfaith, since it has to take into account all beings of the earth and diversity in all its forms.

It was very exciting to see the strides being made in such a short time!

Parliament Day Five: Towards religious freedom

by Moira Ashleigh

A lovely sunny day dawned and with it always much to do at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Today there was a panel by the Austrailian Pagans who have been established in the state of Victoria, where Melbourne (pronounced Melbun) is located, for around 30 years. EarthSpirit has found the pagans here to be wonderful people, energetic and enthusiastic about their practices and their continued work to become more accepted in this country.

Later in the day a panel on “Pagans and Religious Freedom” included Patrick McCollum, Grove Harris and special guest David Garland (from PAN the Pagan Awareness Network here in Australia). Patrick spoke of how Paganism has been discriminated against by every religion even other religions that are discriminated against. He told of how 40 years ago his house was fire bombed by some Christian neighbors trying to convert him to Christianity. And of his continued struggles with the misconception of paganism in the California prisons where he is a Pagan chaplain. He also spoke of the 9 year Pentacle Quest and that at one time the government’s suggested solution to the problem was to sand all religious symbols off all veterans grave markers rather than to just approve the pentacle for the few who requested it.

Grove Harris spoke of the challenges facing Pagans as they move into town councils to try to offer the beginning blessings, and being told they could not because they were not monotheistic. She also warned us to pick our battles carefully and to not just jump in because we want to be heard if there is a working dialogue happening between the “major” religions. She spoke of how in prisons pagans cannot practice if there is not an outside spiritual leader to facilitate the ceremonies.

David Garland told the participants of how he lost everything when he came out as a Pagan and a Witch, his wife, house, family. He also explained the differences in the Australian Constitution which does not guarantee religious freedom to the citizens but which does have ways to “work” the system. He spoke of having blanket drives and how the gifts were rejected by the aid organizations because they came from pagans. David spoke on the ways they are growing to reach the critical percent of the census that will gain them more freedoms in this country.

The questions and answers after the panel varied from the Hindu leader who identified his tradition as Pagan and has been a great support to several Pagan efforts in the prisons, to the Australian Christian prison chaplain who wanted to know the fruits of our religion. Moira spoke to him after the session pointing out our food drives, clothing drives, environmental initiatives, peace rituals and most of all that Pagans in holding the Earth as sacred have helped to bring the Ecological Crisis we are in to the forefront of people’s minds and hearts.

There were also several interviews that day. Deirdre was interviewed by Ed Hubbard and Chris, Mark and Day were interviewed for Iran TV. Chris waxed eloquent about EarthSpirit Community, and the Pagan practices and beliefs. Monday evening’s plenary was the Youth Initiative performance, which will be covered in another posting.

And then off to sleep since we had an early morning presentation of Songs of the Earth.

Parliament Day Four: The Halls

by Moira Ashleigh

Both the Exhibition hall, where we have our booth, the actual convention center, and the sidewalk outside halls are full of people speaking of and demonstrating their traditions. The traditional dress is colorful and there is a lot to pay attention to so as not to offend other beliefs.

Displays here are generally open positive statements. We do have one small group of protestors that stand outside, except on Sunday, with banners saying “Jesus is the only way to God” and “Don’t trust religions trust Jesus Christ Only”.

There is a second protestor in the entrance to the Exhibition Hall doing a one man growing art protest on oil consumption and devastation of the environment. Each day he comes and lays out his growing installation of cloths, speaking for the environment and for Peace and then dons a protest costume and a gas mask – then just stands all day. Several of our group have thanked him for his work.

In one hall there is a very long brown paper roll, where people are invited to write messages to be sent to the Copenhagen summit on the Environment. The creator of the initiative is Shekhar Kumat of Brahma Kumaris. He spoke to us of how hard he lobbied to be allowed to do this piece at the parliament and that only at the last minute did he get permission. He does not know how it will get to Copenhagen, but would be very willing to go with it. What is most lovely is to see the mix of languages and the growth of the piece. Most of us have added our words of encouragement and strong incentive to the paper.

A little further up the same hall are the Tantrayana Buddhist monks. Who stand still in meditation postures all day except for one demonstration of religious drumming and music with procession. This happens every afternoon and sounds like thunder rolling through the entire conference. Speaking to one of the monks, I learned that they hold themselves in meditation all of the time even when talking, they constantly connect upward through the top of their heads.

Upstairs in the actual meeting room halls there are two notable groups. First the Jainism art display and table. This is one of the three religions born in India. The art depicts their 24 Tirthankaras or great souls who “ferry you across” the ocean of life and death. They are giving away free coloring books of their art to all participants.

Finally in the back corner of this hallway are the Guyoto Monks of Tibet. They are the followers of his Holiness the Dalai Lama. They have a booth where one can buy scarves and beads plus a growing sand painting done by the monks in real time. It is fascinating to watch them work so close to this beautiful Mandala. The colors are bold and the detail precise as they work in meditation and cooperation.

Today is another less busy day where we will be working making connections in these halls. Tomorrow MotherTongue will be doing the Morning Observance. Many warm wishes to those of you at home preparing for Yule, from your community here at the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Parliament: Sacred Envy

by Chris LaFond

This morning, Sunday, I attended a panel discussion entitled “Sacred Envy: Exploring What We Love about Our Own Faith, What We Admire in Others and What Challenges Us in Both”. The panelists were Rabbi Brad Hirschfield (who designed the presentation), Sr Joan Chittister, and Imam Feisal Rauf.

The format was simple: each of the panelists would address one of four questions, and then a few audience members would get to make comments on the same issue. In answering each for ourselves, we were asked to consider where we were right now in our own faith/spiritual landscape. 

1. What do you love about your own faith?
2. What do you envy or admire about the faith/religions/rituals/etc. of other traditions?
3. What would you most like to change about your own faith (or what embarrasses you most about it, what do you see as its greatest weakness, etc.) and
4. What would you like to see change in the traditions of others.

The panelists addressed all of these questions directly and candidly, even the more confessional questions of what they are most embarrassed about in their own traditions (almost universally, the repression of women was mentioned as one of those challenging issues). The final question of what you don’t like about the faiths of others, or what you might challenge others of those faiths to change was handled deftly and delicately by the panelists.

Instead of rehashing the whole presentation here, I’d like to offer my answer to these questions, reminding the reader that we were asked to answer them based upon where we are right now in our own spiritual landscape (these answers may change with time).
What I most love about being pagan, and the approach of EarthSpirit to paganism, is the connection to the web of life, and not capitulating to the human temptation to believe that our own species is better or more important in the larger web than any other particular one.
What I envy most about certain other traditions (Catholic, Islam, Judaism, in particular) is the commitment to pursue the intellectual side of spirituality. While paganism stands high and above most other traditions in being experiential, sometimes what is needed is more thought and reflection on those experiences, and integration into the larger web.
What most bothers me about current paganism (and neo-paganism) is the superficiality with which many of us approach ethical issues. Life is not as simple as “And it harm none…”, and many situations call for much deeper thought than that.
What bothers me about many other traditions is the widespread belief among many practitioners that their way is the only true way.
The panelists were, of course, some of the best representatives of the interfaith efforts of their own traditions. In finishing, Rabbi Hirschfield spoke about the “end of the story” of each of our traditions; that is, what it is that we believe should happen to achieve peace, salvation, etc. His closing statement was quite provocative, and challenged us all to think about what level of diversity we are willing to tolerate. He said “We have got to have an end of the story that has greater diversity than we are willing to participate in.”

I leave you with this question: How much diversity are YOU willing to participate in?

Parliament Day Three: Towards Summer Solstice

by Moira Ashleigh

Day 2 ended late and Day 3 started early. Today Melbourne was also cool and windy but still no rain. Australia has been in a drought for 10 years, which makes the cost of living quite pricey. A few comparisons are coffees at $4.00, a six pack of beer at $17.00 and dinner meals starting at $30.

The first Pagan program began at 8 AM with Patrick McCollum’s Solstice ritual: “Solstice Sites and Celebrations”. Where as folks at home are getting ready for Yule, here in the “down under” they are building toward the Summer Solstice. Another intriguing difference is are their elemental associations. East is still Air, moving on to Earth as South, then Water is West and Fire is in the North. In this ritual Patrick focused on the Solstice as honoring both celebrations, but of course the land made itself known as the sun raced in to shine brightly as North was honored. Guided by the advice of indigenous people here in Australia, Eucalyptus leaves were chosen to use as wish bearers for the ritual participants.

The panel for The Divine Feminine, was filled to overflowing with parliament attendees listening to the panelists: Mary-Faeth Chenery, Sr Joan Chittister, Mother Maya, Ven Karma Leshke Tsomo, and Phyllis Curott. Phyllis spoke first and addressed the topics of culture divorced from the feminine and the repercussions, naming things rather than listening to them, the courage of leaving the faith of the fathers, and bringing the goddess out of the underworld; all this from a pagan perspective.

Directly after the Divine Feminine was a Pagan Panel: Men Who Love The Goddess. These panelists were: Drake Spaeth, Patrick McCollum, Michael York, River Higginbotham and Don Lewis. Some of the ideas covered in this panel included; masculine and feminine within, needing to be in balance, divinity as imminent, the understanding of enchantment and of magic.

In the afternoon, Multifaith Perspectives and Interreligious Holiday and Celebrations seemed to be a panel where the participants had their own programs to promote. Though Deirdre made a valiant effort to bring the panel to a place of conversation, it appeared there was an impasse on ways to create Interfaith rituals that are inclusive. It is unfortunate that this was less productive that it could have been. But it is good to remember that in Chicago at the Parliament of the World’s Religions 1993,  these religious leaders would not have sat at the same table.

The EarthSpirit booth continues to be a draw for participants and was even mentioned in the local paper. During the day our harpist and druid Chris LaFond and the Anglican harpist, Cath Connelly spent time creating beautiful music, including a new piece in progress by Cath celebrating the Winter Solstice.

Tomorrow is a light day, where many of us will attend the presentations of other groups and network in the halls building bridges of smiles and conversations.