This is PART 2 of contributing-writer Gail Katz’s highlights from the Parliament of the
World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia. CLICK HERE to read Part 1.
This report is not gavel-to-gavel coverage. Part 1 includes a link to the Parliament’s own Web site, where you can explore the whole, huge range of programs in Melbourne. For her ReadTheSpirit report, we asked Gail to write about how the Parliament revitalized her American perspectives on religious diversity, education and peace activism.
(And, here’s a wonderful idea if you live in the Midwest—or are contemplating a trip to Michigan. There’s a special note at the end of today’s story about a nationally renowned event coming in metro-Detroit on January 31, called: the World Sabbath.)
HERE IS Gail Katz’s …
Reflection on the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Part 2:
As co-founder and now president of WISDOM (Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in MetroDetroit), I was impressed with the many sessions in Melbourne that focused on breaking through patriarchy and opening up new visions for women of faith.
Gender relations have emerged as one of the central social and political challenges for the 21st century, and they have special significance for the world’s religions. New vistas are opening for women that reflect universal principles of human rights, even as a host of obstacles still stand in the way of these ideals.
In Melbourne, I discovered the eloquence of Sister Joan Chittister (right), Executive Director of Benetvision, a center for contemporary spirituality in Erie, Pennsylvania. She was a dominant figure at this conference and underlined the urgency of confronting obstacles and fully empowering women—because 70 percent of the world’s people in poverty are women.
In her focus on gender equality, she talked about the plight of widows without dowries, illiterate girls, beaten and trafficked women—and she encouraged all of us to face the fact that religion has a lot to do with these atrocities. New research into “women-religion-and-development” is largely ignored by institutions around the world, when it should be one of the highest priorities, Chittister told her audience.
One hopeful campaign highlighted at that Parliament session is www.EndItNow.org, launched by a faith group working to end violence against women.
Another recommended group is Gather The Women, which invites women to “demonstrate their courage to risk leaving old conformities by joining with millions of others throughout the world to celebrate women’s true worth, to express shared concern for our human family, and to create and support actions that will enable humanity to live together in a balanced, harmonious and peaceful world.”
Even more impressive was The Women, Faith and Development Alliance (WFDA). This is one global network of influential women (founded in 2006) that is trying to raise awareness about the importance of linking women’s organizations, faith groups and the international development community. This WFDA coalition is endorsed by a long list of faith groups. WFDA is becoming one of the most influential and far-reaching, anti-poverty coalitions in history.
WFDA’s goal is to “launch a campaign that will increase financial and other investment in women and girls by governments, multilateral institutions, non-governmental organizations, corporations, and individuals.”
How sobering it was to hear from Jane Sloan, Executive Director of the International Women’s Development Agency, that it would cost the world only two days of military spending to save the lives of six million women and girls!
Jacqueline Ogega (photo at right), a speaker from Kenya and the director of the African Women of Faith Network, described the potential power of women. At the brutal height of the civil war in Sierra Leone, a group of women of different faiths, distraught at their children being forcibly recruited as child soldiers, boldly decided to confront the rebels in their mountain bases. They were allowed to take some of the child soldiers back with them. This incident, said Ogega, is an example of how women have contributed to resolving conflicts in Africa, even though they are largely excluded at the political level.
Women of faith also banded together after the genocide that claimed up to 1 million lives in Rwanda to overcome deep hatred between Tutsis and Hutus and their own personal trauma. Together, they promoted forgiveness.
“Women are generally undervalued or not valued at all and are marginalized in terms of conflict resolution. Most of the time we look at women as victims of conflict rather than as resolving conflicts, and it is very important for us to shift that mentality,” Ogega said.
Liberian Peace Activist Asatu Bah-Kenneth (photo at right), promoter and cast member of the film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” was unable to attend the conference, as she could not get a visa for Australia.
However, her film was shown in Melbourne. It highlights the Muslim and Christian Liberian women who, after more than a decade of civil wars leading to more than 250,000 deaths and one million refugees, rose up and forced peace on their shattered country and propelled to victory the first female head of state on the African continent!
Here is a Web site to learn more about this powerful documentary film. Within that site, here’s a page that lists showings of the film across the U.S. in coming weeks.
I have to admit I became a Sr. Joan Chittister junkie throughout this conference, and followed her to two other presentations, one entitled “The Divine Feminine.”
Female divinity, or feminine aspects to the divine, can be found in many religious traditions. For some women and men, the Divine Feminine is a source of strength and balance. The feminine aspects of the divine are foundational to their religious practice. Redressing the current imbalances of the world—excessive greed, polarization, isolation and environmental destruction—requires a new or renewed connection to the feminine energies of the divine, Chittister argued.
Women, who are left out of property, politics, food, water and schooling are the invisible majority of the human race.
When I later attended the session entitled “Conversation with Sister Joan Chittister” it was fascinating to see that more than half of the audience were men, clearly demonstrating that these crucial issues are no longer exclusively regarded as “women’s” issues. This was in stark contrast, according to Chittister, to women-only sessions that were held at similar conferences in the past.
Flying home to the U.S., we landed in the Los Angeles airport 12 hours after take-off on our Air New Zealand flight. Then, the next day, we caught a flight to Detroit. It was on this flight that I wound up sitting next to a 7-year-old, second-grade, adorable little girl who became my conversation companion for the flight.
On the other side of the little girl sat her mother, a California woman in her mid 20s who was flying with her husband and three children to spend holidays with her parents in the Midwest.
As they took their seats and buckled up, the mother glanced my way and saw that I was reading Bruce Feiler’s “Where God Was Born: A Daring Adventure Through the Bible’s Greatest Stories.” Her face lit up and she asked me if I was a Christian? Did I go to church?
I explained that reading a book about God did not necessarily make me a Christian. Many religions believe in God. I asked her if she was familiar with the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. She said that she had read parts of it, but her primary focus was on reading the New Testament each day and coming closer to Jesus.
She seemed flabbergasted as I described the origins of the Bible in the Torah and explained that a portion of the Bible that Christians consider holy is also considered a holy text by Jews.
As it turned out, she had never met a Jew.
I described WISDOM, my women’s interfaith organization, and I explained that the women on my board of directors were affiliated with eight different religions. I told her I was on my way home from attending a global conference about religious diversity in Melbourne, Australia.
Then, her little girl spoke up and announced that she knew one word in Hebrew, and it meant, “Hello,” but she couldn’t remember what it was.
When I mentioned the word “Shalom,” she nodded. I explained that the word meant much more than, “Hello.” It also means, “Goodbye,” and, “Peace.” Both the girl and her mother were surprised.
I told the girl that one of my cats is named, “Shalom,” and she was quite amused!
That exchange on the plane certainly reinforced why our interfaith efforts are so important. So many people live in segregated communities and live with such misconceptions and lack of knowledge.
Sister Joan Chittister talked about people can limit God—if they hold onto limited assumptions about God. Many people around the world may be confused about who God is, she reminded us, but God does not have an identity problem!
Specifically, she was warning against the temptation to cast God in exclusively male form. When we limit our knowledge of God, she said, we “see with one eye, we hear with one ear, we think with only half of our brain—and it shows.”
AND, here is information about the upcoming WORLD SABBATH:
The 11th Annual World Sabbath of Religious Reconciliation will be held at the Church of the Holy Family, 24505 Meadowbrook Road in Novi, Michigan, on Sunday, January 31, 2010, beginning at 4:00 PM. (Novi is northwest of Detroit and easily accessible from major arteries I-96 and also the I-275 branch of I-75 that runs west of Detroit.)
This special service is a celebration of our religious diversity to help break down barriers and pursue peace. We have invited our youth from many of southeast Michigan’s religious communities to lead us in calls to prayer in the different faith traditions. In addition, we will have several musical offerings, some of them by children’s groups, to add ethnic color and sound to our interfaith service. For the third year in a row, we are asking a number of religious schools to involve their third- through seventh grade-students as Children of Peace in the creation of Peace Banners. These banners will be glued to pieces of basswood to make flags that the children will proudly display at the World Sabbath celebration. Following the World Sabbath service, we will collect these banners, and sew the felt rectangles into the Third World Sabbath Children’s Peace Quilt, which will be displayed at various religious institutions. The goal of the World Sabbath is to teach our diverse population and especially our children in Metropolitan Detroit that the work of building a community of justice, equality, reconciliation, and peace is a calling that we all share.
For more information about the 2010 World Sabbath program, presenters, honoree and photo of our first Peace Quilt please go to our website at www.worldsabbath.org.
(Below is one last image from the Parliament photo stream.)
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