Friday, December 4, 2009

Peace at the Heart of the World (and Chaos & Connections behind the scenes) – Day 2 of the Parliament of the World’s Religions (Fri., Dec. 4 / 09)

Today, for me, was one of those days of the niggling complications that always threaten to take over participation in an event

Anna and I got to the Conference Center late today. We had to clear up some hotel issues for Raul. Thanks to only knowing very late if he could attend, I could only get him a room for the 2nd – 5th and the 7th – 10th. We had no idea where he would be for the night of the 5th and 6th. We managed to arrange another room at the hotel for those two days, but had to find Yoland Trevino to confirm, since she had offered to put him up of her roommates agreed.

For me and Anna, this Parliament has so far been about long walks and lots of calls, all trying to make various connections. Even just finding someone else in the same building can be an adventure when the Conference Center is a third of a mile long!

After working out the room, we then went off to find Raul, et al., to make sure that he was set up with translation for the day and to try to confirm whether or not he needed the weekend room.

These things being settled, we went to the EarthSpirit booth at 2:00pm for a run-through of today’s “Peace at the Heart of the World” ceremony, organized by Andras and Deirdre from EarthSpirit, and including other EarthSpirit folks, Angie Buchanan & Drake Spaeth, Anna & me, and some local Pagans we met on site. While we waited for everyone to gather, Anna and I spoke with three Witches from Queensland – Linda Ward, Belinda David, and Helen Gilmour – all part of a group called Pagan Hearth which is involved in interfaith (and intrafaith) work.

At one point, the script read-through got bogged down into questions of direction of circle flow and which quarters were which, given the differences of Traditions and Hemispheres, but we quickly agreed that the best rule to follow was that each person would perform their ritual part the way they usually do and we would all just go with the flow. As they say here, “No worries!”

There was enough time between our read-through and the ceremony for folks to grab a bite and change into ritual garb. Anna and I went off in search of a place to change.

On the way, we ran into Andras, who had been waylaid by a woman who was complaining to him in his role as a Trustee, about some aspect of the Parliament. Andras was listening politely while trying to explain that he had little or no control over whatever it was that was the problem. Just then, Charles Gibbs, Director of the URI, walked by. As he paused to talk to us, I took the opportunity to introduce him to Andras and we all commiserated over the behind-the-scenes hassles of putting on interfaith events.

Anna and I moved on. She found a women’s room readily enough. For me, things were a little more complicated…

Pagan women have it easy in interfaith work when it comes to ritual attire. There are a lot of women’s clothes these days that look great in a meeting, at a fine restaurant, and in a ritual. And if they DO have to change, women’s rooms are much more likely to accommodate serving as a quickie changing room. Women’s restrooms usually have purse-hooks or shelves upon which to place one’s belongings while attending to one’s appearance.

There is very little that Pagan men can wear to a meeting that will also look good in a ritual. Coat & tie? Forget it! Men in most of the other religious traditions either throw something over what they are wearing or have a specific garb that they wear all the time. Pagan men usually need a place to change their clothes and men’s rooms just don’t cut it. Almost all men’s rooms are made for men to come in, do one thing, and leave. They usually don’t have hooks to hang things, surfaces to place things, or even places to stand where you don’t run the risk of your robe dangling into a urinal. This convention center was no exception and was actually worse than most venues, with floors you really wouldn’t want to set a cloth or paper bag down upon. This is just one more little logistical complication that can be a part of interfaith work.

I asked the many Parliament volunteers if there was someplace – a closet would be fine – where I could change my clothes for a ceremony. No one had a clue and they were all on their walkie-talkies asking everyone else. Finally, one person said that a group had just finished doing Naga Chants in one of the meeting rooms which had a backstage dressing room and maybe I could use that. She led me through a maze of passages, and institutional kitchens, doubling back when we encountered locked doors to which she didn’t have keys, until we found a man wrapped in a sort of sarong covered with indigenous snake designs wearing a tall feathered hat, decorated with boar tusks, who said that he was locked out of the dressing room, where all his stuff was. All the doors around here lock automatically and the person who had let him in originally was nowhere to be found.

Leaving him to his inverse of my situation while calling for backup, my guide led me to a women’s dressing room which was available. While Anna waited in the outer room with some women who suddenly appeared to prepare for a dance performance, I tried to perform the simple act of changing into ritual robes. Anna knocked on the door to say that the women were changing too, so I should knock before coming out. So far, so good.

Now… some of you know that I have been recovering from a surgical accident a little over two years ago that left me with somewhat limited control of my left arm and hand (and a LOT of pain). This usually isn’t to much of an impairment in interfaith, but I had rolled up the sleeves of my shirt due to the heat, and the rolls were just tight enough to not slide over my elbows, so when I tried to let my shirt fall off my back I suddenly found myself with my arms pinned by the rolled up sleeves and not enough motor control to get my arms close enough to each other to pull my way out. I was wriggling around in an effective straight-jacket, wondering how to explain this through the door to the small crowd of women in the next room without looking like a total fool.

Eventually, with enough wriggling, I was able to get free and make the change. Anna and I headed off to room 202, the planned ritual site, where Deirdre informed us that Andras had found a suitable outdoor site just outside the main lobby.

As we made our way there through the lobby in our robes, we were constantly stopped by friends and acquaintances who commented on our fancy garb, asked about what we were doing, and wanted to get their photos taken with us.

About 15 ritual performers, including an Earthspirit harpist, were gathered under the eaves of the Convention Center. We were soon joined by about 30 more people following Deirdre from Room 202.

The ceremony was about and hour long and included many beautiful chants, as EarthSpirit rites always do. Andras explained to all that the ceremony would be in three sections, addressing: Peace in Our Hearts, Peace Between Our Hearts, Peace at the Heart of the World.

The first part was led by Sue Arthen and included the circle casting and setup and focused on each of us opening our hearts to the voices and influences of the sacred creation around us – to Sky, Sea, the Green Ones, Air, Stone, Fire, the Animal Beings, Water, the Ancestors, the fullness of the Earth.

Angie led the second part and introduced Anna and me. We performed the Waters of the World ceremony that I have done at many interfaith events. (The text and list of Waters were posted previously.) Instead of handing out the Waters (since we didn’t know how many to expect and didn’t want to bring scads of unused vials across the Pacific twice), we invited the participants to dip their fingers in the waters and anoint their own hearts.

The third section was led by Deirdre and involved the passing of balls of twine around the circle and back to the center to weave a web. We each ended up holding several strands of twine, which were then cut, leaving each of us with several short lengths to braid together.

The ceremony was lovely, effectively engendering a sense of peace, and everyone seemed to enjoy it a lot. Raul attended with Rachael, and this was the first full-on Wiccan ceremony he had seen. He was favorably impressed. I introduced him to Andras and he, Andras, and Rachael chatted away in Spanish (which I can understand). Andras laughed at the “Don Don” story, and suggested that I become a Bishop so I could be “Don Don Don”. Raul thought this was hysterical. (If anyone wants to hear the “Don Don” story, say so and I’ll post it later.) I expect that next time I go to Latin America, all my friends will be calling me “Don Don Don”.

Shortly after the rite, folks started gathering to go to “Communities Night”, in which local representatives of each faith tradition host a dinner for visiting members of the same faith. Anna planned to attend the Pagan night, but I was unsure and wanted to make sure that Raul was a) somewhere he wanted to be, and b) somewhere with a translator.

I had promised to go to a brief meeting with Yoland and Charles at 6:00pm to talk about the URI’s new Wisdom & Vision Council (of former URI Trustees) which I co-coordinate. Anna and I walked half the length of the Center to find Charles and Yoland, planning to meet quickly and catch a cab to the Pagan night. Rachael and Raul went with us, hoping Yoland would have some idea of whether Raul should go to the Indigenous night (which was just an Aboriginal museum visit) or come with us to the Pagans.

As things seem to go at interfaith conferences – but more so at this one, it seems – it took a while to get everyone together and the group kept growing. Marites Africa, URI Regionak Coordinator for the Pacific, joined us. Then George Armstrong, emeritus URI Global Council Trustee, and his wife. Then Swami Agnivesh, new URI GC Trustee for Asia, and his assistant Alison. The group grew as it moved, slowly making its way out the East door of the complex, where we encountered a number of Atheists protesting the Parliament with signs like “Let Reason Decide!” and “$100,000 prize if you can prove your religion is true!” and “Don’t just believe!”

While Alison called around on her cell, trying to find a restaurant that could accommodate all of us, the rest of us engaged the Atheists. They were stunned that all of the religious folks had been nice to them, that many of our group agreed with almost all of their views on science and reason, and that we have atheists in our own interfaith organizations. There was a lot of posing for pictures with the Atheists in their anti-religion T-shirts and me in my Wiccan robes and Swami Agnivesh in his brilliant orange garb.

Alison reported that she had found us a vegetarian restaurant, but this meant walking all the way back to the other end of the Center to catch taxis outside the Hilton and let Rachael drop off her scooter.

Along the way, we picked up Uncle Max, one of the leading Aboriginal elders at this event. He was fascinated by Rachael’s scooter and wanted to drive it. She gave him some quick lessons and off he went, driving loops around us as we made the long walk back.

Eventually, getting later and later, we made it to the taxi stand and waited for several cabs to carry our swollen group of 11. While we waited, Jake Swamp, former Chief of the Akwesasne Mohawk nation, walked out of the hotel, spotted Raul, and asked to be introduced. It turns out that he is organizing something similar to the Initiativa Indigena Global and there is interest in cooperating. How fortuitous.

The taxis arrived. Alison explained to four drivers where we were all going. Anna left for Pagan Community night and I went with the URI crew, since in snatches of conversation, Charles, Yoland, and I were still having our meeting about the Wisdom & Vision Council.

Almost 40 minutes later, as our taxi slowed to figure out where this restaurant was, someone mentioned for the first time that the name of the place was “Nirvana”. Hmm… Vegetarian. Nirvana. Oh no. “Is this an Indian restaurant?” I asked. No one in our cab knew. When we got out and found Alison, I asked her. Yes, it was Indian.

I am terminally allergic to an unknown ingredient in Indian food. Alison offered to move to another restaurant, but most of us were already seated and this seemed logistically impractical, if not impossible. I could have just not eaten, but that would have just bummed everyone else out for their meal. Standing there, still in my white and purple robes, in a suburb of Melbourne, I had to turn around and catch a cab home to my hotel. Fortunately, the 24-hour McDonald’s next door was open after I had gotten back and changed clothes.

I hope they had a great dinner. Anna had a great time, as she reported when she got back from Pagan night. I’m sure she’ll write something to CoG’s lists about it, or maybe something I can post here.

Once again, it is late. Tomorrow will be a busy day. The program listing just for tomorrow is 45 pages long. There are many fascinating programs, several by friends of mine. On top of that, the Australian Pagans have moved one of their major conferences – Magic Happens! – from Sydney to Melbourne just to coincide with the Parliament, and that is all day tomorrow. Anna and I MIGHT be doing our “Images of Our History” presentation there, but we’re still not sure. And I still have to finish the meeting with Yoland and Charles. And finish prepping my own presentation for Sunday. It promises to be another chaotic, complicated day. I hope I can keep that Peace at the Heart of the World with me throughout the day.

Blessed Be,
Don Frew
National Interfaith Representative

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting Don, and all of your interfaith work. I can relate to trying to find a place to change in a modern convention center, and to gathering a ton of hungry people for dinner in a strange city.

    The idea of there being no official translators, as contrasted with Barcelona, is quite upsetting. Thank you, Rachel and others for helping with that.

    -Eric Arthen