Preparing for the Parliament

by Andras Corban Arthen

Jonas Trinkunas (with staff) leading a Romuva ceremony

A few months ago, Deirdre wrote a piece recounting a bit of the history of EarthSpirit’s work in the interfaith community, and in particular our involvement with the Parliament of the World’s Religions over the past sixteen years. In this article and the one that follows, I will describe more fully the work that I’ve been doing as one of three pagan members on the Parliament’s Board of Trustees (along with Angie Buchanan and the newly-elected Phyllis Curott), and give you some idea regarding the pagan presence at the upcoming Parliament in Melbourne, Australia, starting in just a few days.

The 35-member Board works with the Executive Director and his staff to organize the Parliament, which takes place every 5 years. Board members are selected not only in terms of their experience with the interfaith movement and the various resources they bring to the table, but also with the intention that the Board will reflect the religious pluralism that is central to the Parliament. Board members include Buddhists, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, American Indians, Protestants, Sikhs, Jains, Bahá’ís, Zoroastrians, etc., and of course, three of us pagans. (Go here to see the Parliament’s Board members [2009 archive; current].)

Because most Board members tend to be very well connected in their respective spiritual communities, participation on the Board offers an invaluable opportunity for interacting and networking with other religions. Moreover, because we work closely with each other, we are able to develop the kind of meaningful personal relationships which generally can outweigh most religious differences. Once people get to know and appreciate you as a person, they will tend to view your religion through the filter of their personal knowledge of you. This can be particularly helpful to us, given the many misconceptions and prejudices that pagans constantly have to deal with.

As is the case with most non-profits, the Board has several standing committees that are necessary to keep the organization going. On top of those, as a new Parliament nears, several additional committees are convened to specifically address the work involved in organizing the event. I am currently a member of the Board’s Human Resources standing committee, and have also served on its Executive Committee; and, for the Melbourne Parliament, I have also been serving on the Program Committee and the Indigenous Task Force.

The Program Committee develops the framework for how programs will be handled during the Parliament, then plays a central role in soliciting and processing the many program proposals that we are sent from all over the world. This year, for instance, we received more than 1,500 proposals to fill the 350 or so program slots we had available. Those of us on the Program Committee, along with the Parliament staff, had to sift through the proposals, analyze and review them, and make recommendations about which ones should be accepted or rejected, and which should be combined with other similar ones to create new programs. Needless to say, this required a great deal of work and time — several of us spent many hundreds of hours each over the span of many months.

The Indigenous Task Force was created in response to the Australian government’s recent and unprecedented actions toward the Aborigines of that land. At the beginning of last year, newly-elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia for the Stolen Generations — between the 1860s and the 1970s, over 100,000 children were taken away by force from their Aboriginal parents and mostly placed in institutions run by religious or “charitable” organizations. This was done “for their own good,” and a lot of those children wound up as servants in the homes of white Christian Australians.

When Melbourne was chosen as the site for the next Parliament, the Board felt it was important to acknowledge the Australian government’s apology and to encourage further steps of that sort, so we decided to create the Task Force in order to bring to Melbourne a sizable delegation of indigenous speakers and representatives from all over the world, to bear witness to the hopeful developments taking place in Australia, and to highlight the plight of indigenous peoples in other countries.

I was very glad when I was invited to serve on the Task Force, not only because its mission represents a cause that I’m very committed to, but also because I saw it as an opportunity to bring some light to bear on the indigenous pagan traditions of Europe.

In the interfaith movement, pagans are almost always placed within the category of “New Religious Movements,” which refers to spiritual practices that have developed since approximately 1850, and which are not direct offshoots from older religions such as Buddhism or Christianity. This category generally includes such groups as the Bahá’ís, the Rastafarians, the Brahma Kumaris, various New Age spiritual movements, the Church of Scientology, etc. While most pagan practices found today clearly fall within this category, there are those which don’t, particularly the traditional forms of ethnic paganism that have managed to survive in various parts of Europe.

The practices that my teachers passed on to me, which originated in the Gaelic-speaking regions of the Scottish Highlands, represent one such surviving tradition, and for the last forty years I have sought out other keepers of similar traditions in both Europe and the Unites States. This pursuit has been a great challenge, because practitioners of this sort are very scarce, generally live in remote rural locations, and most are extremely private about what they do. It is not surprising, therefore, that most people — including, it seems, the great majority of modern pagans — are not aware that such traditional practices still exist. Yet, the existence of these European survivals carries significant implications not only for pagans, but also for indigenous peoples throughout the world, a point which I have tried to make for many years at various pagan and interfaith events.

The Indigenous Task Force named me as one of the speakers for the European traditions, and gave me the task of finding others to bring to the Parliament. The first person I invited was Jonas Trinkunas, krivis (chief high priest) of Romuva, the pagan religion of Lithuania. I have known Jonas for a long time, and in 1997 he attended our annual Rites of Spring celebration. He is quite a remarkable man, who has maintained his ancestral tradition alive in spite of opposition not only from the Catholic church, but also from the Soviet Union during its occupation of his homeland. I am glad to report that Jonas readily accepted the invitation.

Unfortunately, of the other potential speakers whom I know personally, two had health problems which prevented them from attending, and several others simply could not imagine participating in an event like the Parliament and speaking openly about their practices. I pursued several leads of people who were referred to me by others, but none of them replied to my messages. I had really hoped to at least find a traditional speaker from among the Sami of northern Scandinavia, but it appears they have been so thoroughly Christianized that, while the Sami definitely qualify as an indigenous population, it is almost impossible to find actual practitioners of their indigenous religion. I even carried on a direct correspondence with the Sami vice-president of the Finnish Parliament, the dean of the University of Helsinki, and the rector of the Sami College of Norway, all of whom are reputed to be experts in Sami culture, but none could help me find me a suitable speaker.

In the end, the Task Force additionally decided to invite a young indigenous representative from each continent, so I asked Jonas to pick someone from his Romuva community and he chose Arturas Sinkevicius, a young leader and educator who is involved in the religious training of Romuvan children.

Jonas, Arturas and I will not only be engaging in a special track of panel discussions with the indigenous representatives from other cultures, but will also participate in a day-long Indigenous Assembly during which we will all have the opportunity to get to know each other more deeply and explore issues of common interest and concern.

Since its first modern convocation in 1993, many indigenous delegates from all over the world, as well as many practitioners of contemporary paganism, have participated actively in the Parliament. This will be the first time, however, that the Parliament of the World’s Religions will officially recognize the indigenous European pagan traditions as such. (Go here to view the invited indigenous delegates [archived] to the Melbourne Parliament.)

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