Illinois Mennonite directs worldwide religious summit

Nov 17, 2015 by and

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One of the world’s largest and oldest interfaith organizations met in the U.S. last month, and an Illinois Mennonite orchestrated the final preparations and implementation.

Daniel Hostetler greets H.H. Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswati, president of Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh, one of India’s largest and most renowned interfaith spiritual institutions. — Daniel Hostetler

Daniel Hostetler greets H.H. Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswati, president of Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh, one of India’s largest and most renowned interfaith spiritual institutions. — Daniel Hostetler

The Parliament of the World’s Religions gathered Oct. 15-19 in Salt Lake City. More than 9,000 people representing 80 nations and 50 faiths and traditions met for a program of speakers, workshops, exhibits and performances focused on themes such as compassion, peace, justice and sustainability.

Daniel Hostetler, a member of Christ Community Mennonite Church in Schaumburg, Ill., served as executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions this year. Coming on board in April, he used his decades of experience in consulting and organizational leadership to nail down a myriad of logistical details in a manner of months.

The gathering happens once every five years. Dozens of speakers representing Hindu gurus, indigenous tribal leaders, Muslim imams, rabbis, priests and even primate researcher and conservationist Jane Goodall contributed.

“We come together and educate each other on our sacred texts and sacred practices, the cultures we come from and the importance of religions in our cultures and we interact,” Hos­tetler said. “ . . . There are a number of interesting twists on how different religions work together, even if they have very opposed ideas.”

The parliament’s main goal is to use knowledge to reduce friction between groups and increase harmony and peace.

Interfaith relationships simply “recognize all other religions as being valid in a nonjudgmental fashion,” he said.

Even atheists present

The organization’s beginnings are tied to the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago, when Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Spiritualists prayed together.

“There was a swami who came over from the Vedanta Society,” Hostetler said. “He was a very flamboyant figure. He began his speech with ‘sisters and brothers.’ He put ‘sisters’ before ‘brothers.’

“He was very colorful and he just electrified the crowd. He made headlines across the United States and put [the parliament] on the map.”

The organization has grown to include many other groups, including Mormons. Even atheists had a presence in Salt Lake City, when American Atheists president David Silverman participated in a session with religious leaders on human suffering.

If anything was lacking, it was fellow Anabaptists.

“I was the token; there wasn’t anybody [else] there,” Hostetler said. “One of the first things I wanted to do was worship. There wasn’t any Amish district I could find. Someone told me there was a Mennonite there, but I called him and I couldn’t get a hold of him.”

Hostetler shared about his own faith and religious history, describing himself as Mennonite but quickly expanding to also include Amish and Hutterites.

“I didn’t hear any criticism about being rebaptizers,” he said.

In addition to the general program, the first day of the event was dedicated to the Inaugural Women’s Assembly, focused on the responsibility of the world’s religions to affirm women’s dignity and human rights.


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