Five Fresno State students embarked on the opportunity of a lifetime as they joined Associate Professor of Philosophy and parliament board member Dr. Veena Howard in attending The Parliament of the World’s Religions. Through their experience, many students returned from their trip with a deeper knowledge of their own spirituality as well as a deeper appreciation and understanding of other faiths.
The Parliament for 2018 was held at Toronto in Canada. Howard served as a member of the Board of Trustees with the Parliament which enabled the students attending alongside her to be exposed to unique perspectives from various religions and cultures and their leaders.
Although Howard was involved with a number of panels at the event, a highlight for many was the panel “Nonviolence in a Violent World: The Sweeping, Surprising Effectiveness of King and Gandhi” where Reverend James Lawson and Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi discussed the topic.
“I loved having Reverend Lawson and Arun Gandhi together on one stage together. I think that will not happen ever again because they both are in their late 80s-90s and they don’t travel so far” said Howard.
The Parliament centered around the idea of interfaith communion and featured around 1,500 panels and events with over 80 different countries in attendance. The group of students who attended the event come from many of areas of study including philosophy, public health, psychology minor in pre-nursing.
Coming from a Hindu and interfaith background herself, Howard was delighted to find that the Parliament had a positive impact on her students.
“Post-parliament they shared their experiences with me. Their lives have been transformed,” said Howard. “Different languages, difference ethnicities, some of the world’s most renowned activists, thinkers, religious leaders came. So you imagine putting them all in one place and our students are getting the opportunity to have that experience.”
Participants were encouraged to attend a variety of meetings where they could gain insight into a wide range of beliefs through a religion’s presentations. Each student came away with an individual experience and specific insight that they had gained from the Parliament.
“Seeing so many perspectives. I think that was a big thing. There were so many groups who on paper don’t get along and have really wild histories. Getting to talk to different people in those different groups to see where they’re coming from and seeing them actually work together for a cause that benefits them both I thought helped me for myself figure out that it’s important to see things from all perspectives and not just have like tunnel vision.” said Shriya Joshi, student. “In public health, you work with a lot of people in that department and it opened my eyes to a more personal and humane way to approach just life in general.”
Not only did the event offer the opportunity to learn about others, but it also gave them a platform to address the parliament as well and speak up about their own relationship with religion.
“The women’s assembly was very powerful. In this event, it really is focused around women and our students, both of my female students participated in it,” said Howard. “That was really good to have them part of this elders and the younger generation. One would read and then the other one would read. It was such a beautiful ceremony to see this transference of knowledge from the elders to the younger generation.”
“It gave me empowerment,” said psychology major Kamesha Cornett. “It was large, it was about 2-3,000 people watching. I was on stage and I got to say Christian scripture. It was ‘both men and women I pour out my heart to you.’ That was amazing.”
Another student sought out ways to improve interfaith integration within the event and pioneered a group of people hoping to acquire a diverse point of view by varying their attendance. Their intention was to hear from groups that might not necessarily have the biggest following at the Parliament, including the LGBTQ2 community.
“What I would’ve liked to see more of is people encounter things that don’t necessarily mesh together with their beliefs and still being able to not just like tolerate each other but be friends,” said philosophy major Samuel Wittstruck. “The last day of the conference I actually walked around a lot just to talk to people to see where going and to talk about the other events they went to and I formed this small coalition of people who were there to actually do interfaith stuff.”
Wittstruck’s efforts proved fruitful and noteworthy as his point of view caught the attention of board members.
“Later, I ended up talking to some of the directors of the organization and they’ve invited me to come speak at the next parliament … along with my coalition.”