Fresnans share insights from Parliament of the World’s Religions

Pastor Chris Breedlove and Sudarshan Kapoor
Pastor Chris Breedlove and Sudarshan Kapoor

A number of faith leaders and teachers from Fresno participated in the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City this month – a five-day conference that drew more than 10,000 people from more than 80 countries and 50 religious and spiritual traditions.

The conference, founded in 1893 in Chicago, featured a long lineup of renowned leaders and scholars from around the world, including people like Jane Goodall, Vandana Shiva and Karen Armstrong. The Dalai Lama was scheduled to speak but canceled because of health issues. The conference also included more than 1,000 smaller workshops and panels.

The Fresno residents who participated in the conference shared some of their takeaways:

We have a lot in common: Spending days immersed in a swirl of speakers, music, art and dance from religious traditions across the world had a soothing effect on retired pastor Arville Earl, who attended the gathering with son-in-law Chris Breedlove, pastor of Community United Church of Christ in Fresno.

“This allowed us to come to a greater understanding that there is more that we share in common than should be separating us,” Earl says. “Even though I had that suspicion, it was confirmed at this meeting.”

Sudarshan and Veena and Sudarshan Kapoor, whose northeast Fresno home doubles as a meditation center – a central San Joaquin Valley satellite for the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual Organization – say we are now living in a “global village.”

I was particularly interested to see how religion can be a positive force in promoting and making and bringing peace.

Sudarshan Kapoor

“We are one family, one human family, one human race,” says Sudarshan Kapoor, who also teaches peace building at Fresno State. “I think, in my opinion, there’s the message of what religion is.”

Strive to understand, stay open-minded: Hamid Mavani, currently a visiting scholar at Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School, presented for an hour and a half during a session that explored ISIS’ controversial claims that they are following the teachings of the Quran. He was impressed by attendees’ open-mindedness.

“It gives you a sense of optimism, that there are people out there keen on learning and who want to live with mutual respect and harmony. … There was a spirit of wanting to learn and remove stereotypes. They didn’t come in with a stubborn sense of, ‘I’ve made up my mind.’ It was really, really phenomenal.”

Mavani says he learned a lot, too.

“One should never assume they know everything about everything. … Become humble. Don’t claim that whatever you know is the final truth. There is a lot out there that needs to be examined. So a good dose of humility I think is what I got.”

Start with yourself, like Gandhi: Speakers addressed some big issues, things like climate change, income inequality, wasteful consumption, war, violence and hate speech.

How to change the world for the better? Start with yourself – like Gandhi, says Veena Howard, an assistant professor of religious studies at Fresno State.

It was an electrifying experience.

Veena Howard

She was a parliament panelist on: “What Would Gandhi Do? Moral Strategies for Sustainability, Peace and Justice,” “Pope Francis Embraces the Earth: Interreligious Reflections on Sustainability” and “Re-visioning the Animal-Human Relationship: A Communion of Subjects.”

Gandhi’s motto: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

“So the change begins with us,” Howard says, “not just simply by talking but by just doing it.”

The champion of nonviolence and self-discipline put his faith in the “common human being rather than the power of an empire.

“Mobilize enough people, and we can bring any kind of evil to its knees. And where did he start? He started with himself. He made changes in his own life.”

Be aware of issues affecting women: The conference began with an assembly of speakers addressing issues affecting women, including sexual assault, violence, war and poverty. It was a highlight for the Kapoors.

While religion has many powerful and positive elements, Veena Kapoor says, it also has contributed to the oppression of women.

“It wasn’t speaking against men or against any institution,” she says of the assembly, “but creating an awareness, because many men are also oppressed. And it is men who are oppressed who are now oppressing.”

Speakers encouraged women to “look at ourselves positively and see the strength within us, that we can make a difference, that we do have qualities. We have to really raise our voice and be heard. When we allow ourselves to feel less-than, we are giving our power away.”

Promote peace – and action: The parliament wasn’t just about getting along, Breedlove says.

Don’t just meet. Do something.

Pastor Chris Breedlove

“The goal can’t just be to have an interfaith community,” he says. “The goal is to actually do something with that collaboration together, that’s the real power. And so over and over, that was emphasized throughout the parliament.”

Sudarshan Kapoor says the most positive changes will come when people learn to act from a place of love.

Technology has helped bridge great physical distances, but the short distance between the head and the heart still alludes us, Kapoor says.

“Love is the most important value. Peace, love, brotherhood, sisterhood.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge