Event is 'greatest gathering of religious leaders in history'

The 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions, described as the greatest gathering of religious leaders and spiritual devotees in history, brought under one roof followers of diverse beliefs.

The parliament, which was held at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago, marked the centennial of the first World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago in September 1893, the same time the Tabernacle Choir participated in the Columbian Exhibition, the 1893 World's Fair. (See Sept. 4, 1993 Church News.)This year's assembly, held Aug. 28-Sept. 5, was one of extremes, a meeting of East and West. In an assortment of religious regalia, adherents wearing robes of various colors, saris, turbans and tunics representative of many religions of the Eastern world mingled with those wearing clothing typical of that seen on the streets or in churches of the Western world.

Christians and Jews rubbed shoulders with Buddhists, Confucianists, Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Shintoists, Taoists and followers of numerous other religions. Self-described pagan and neo-pagan adherents had a noticeable presence.

The Rev. David Ramage, one of the parliament's organizers, said in a press release: "At a time of increasing anxiety and strife, interfaith dialogue offers a way to unite people in working for peace and the relief of suffering. In particular, we must work to lessen religious conflict around the world."

The published goals of the Parliament of the World's Religions were to promote understanding and cooperation among the world's religious communities and institutions, assess and renew the role of the religions of the world in relation to personal spiritual growth and the challenges facing the global community, and develop and encourage interfaith groups and programs that will continue inter-religious cooperation into the 21st Century.

Reports of attendance at the parliament ranged from 4,000-7,700. The parliament featured 170 major presenters or main speakers, some 500 seminars and lectures, 60 panel discussions or presentations by prominent representatives of the academic community, and a symposium featuring 28 separate addresses on the topic of religion and violence.

A showcase featuring a spectrum of spiritual and religious song, dance, drama, poetry and instrumental music was featured throughout the week.

Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Council of the Twelve represented The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the parliament and delivered one of the gathering's major presentations. (See article on this page for a report on Elder Nelson's address.)

"I'm happy to be here, to have the opportunity to meet with other people and get acquainted with leaders of other religious denominations," he told the Church News shortly after his arrival in Chicago.

"We are all together on Planet Earth, and we need to talk to one another, promote understanding, mutual respect and tolerance for each other's viewpoints that are held sacred. We are all sons and daughters of one Eternal Father. We're literally bothers and sisters, so we have much in common. Of course there is much that we don't have in common too, but I feel the things that unite us are greater than the things that separate us."

The Church was one of the few Christian faiths that sponsored an exhibit at the parliament. The exhibit featured a foam-board cutout replica of Thorvaldsen's statue, "The Christus," which shows the Resurrected Savior standing with outstretched hands. On a background wall were the words, "Come Unto Me." A case displaying a Bible and the Book of Mormon, placards citing scriptures, and an enlarged color photograph of a family were also part of the exhibit.

Public Affairs directors from the Chicago area who staffed the exhibit distributed more than 500 copies of the Book of Mormon in 15 languages.

"Copies of the Book of Mormon have gone to religious leaders of other faiths, to scholars and theologians," said Stuart C. Reid, manager of community relations in the Church's Public Affairs Department.

Brother Reid said of the number of people who stopped to view the display, more than 800 people had a meaningful conversation with the Public Affairs staff at the exhibit.

The exhibit, he said, was an important contribution to the parliament in that it established three basic principles:

"It stated the importance the Book of Mormon has to our faith as another testament of Jesus Christ. It showed that from the Book of Mormon and the Bible we learn of the importance of the divinity and the mission of Jesus Christ. It showed that faith in Christ helps us understand the vital importance of the family in this day and time.

"It is ironic that 100 years ago when the Parliament of the World's Religions was last conducted, its organizers did not view the Church as being representative of orthodox Christianity. Yet at this parliament, of all the presenters, Elder Nelson provided the most clear and direct testimony that Jesus Christ is the Savior and Redeemer of all mankind, and the Church's exhibit was the only Christ-centered display in the exhibit hall."

The Rev. Thomas A. Baima, one of the trustees of the parliament's organizing council and the ecumenical officer for the Catholic Church's Archdiocese of Chicago, said of the LDS Church's display: "I immediately identified the exhibit as being from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." Asked if he felt Christians attending the parliament identified with the exhibit, he replied, "Of course, when we see an image of the Lord Jesus we have an immediate identification."

Asked to comment on the seemingly small presence or visibility of Christians attending the parliament, the Rev. Baima said:

"I think what we're seeing in the mixture that has come to this hotel is a much better picture of what the religious world is like. If we live in Nebraska or southern Indiana, we see very much a monoreligious culture. But if we come to a city like Chicago, we see the global village. I think gathering people to this hotel is showing what the world really is. There are many, many religions in the world.

"The genius of the parliament was that it was prepared to let anyone come who felt they wished to come. I'm particularly happy The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came. . . . "

"As Catholic Christians, one of the things we've appreciated about the Church is its interest in morality," he said.

"The important thing about this parliament is that the door was open. Groups who felt they wanted to associate had the freedom to come in."

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