by Andras Corban Arthen
In 1993, my daughter Isobel attended her first Parliament of the World’s Religions. She was but a toddler, and I vividly remember watching her wide unblinking eyes devouring the exotic panoply of colors, movements and shapes that surrounded us at every turn — a circus of the spirit, a carnival of cultures.
It was my first Parliament, too, and although I had never seen anything quite like what I witnessed that week, I had been around similar landscapes long enough to be impressed, though not mystified. But as I tried to imagine watching that spectacle through my daughter’s wondering eyes, I could not really fathom what kind of effect such a remarkable event would have on so young a child. What did she make of it? Would she remember? How would it change her? Could this turn out to be one of those early childhood experiences that leave a lasting imprint on a person’s life?
This year marked the first time that Isobel was old enough to be actively involved in the Parliament’s Youth Program, and she dove into it with relish. The Parliament has always gone to great lengths to encourage the participation of young people, and this year’s program was particularly promising: workshops, panel discussions, films, sports events, a nightly coffeehouse. And, beyond all that, the unparalleled opportunity to make friends with people your age from all corners of the world, from all races, from all religions.
She mentioned to me that some of her new friends asked her if she’d been to this event before. When she told them about her first time, back in ’93, they reacted with great surprise. Some of them have started calling her “the Parliament Baby”; as she told me this, there was a certain pride in her voice.
Isobel was a speaker in a panel entitled “Mother Nature Doesn’t Do Bailouts,” in which the panelists spoke about how their spiritual traditions had motivated them to get involved in environmental activism. She also did a presentation on Peace Jam, the excellent program that she’s been involved with for several years, which connects high school students with Nobel Peace Prize laureates to offer the young people the very best role models to inspire them towards careers in social justice and community service.
A couple of days ago, she asked me for the e-mail address of Dirk Ficca, the Parliament’s Executive Director, so she could write to him about some ideas she has for the Youth Program at the next event, in 2014. This Parliament’s not over, and she’s already thinking of the next, I mused; that’s surely a good sign.
Isobel was invited to perform a song for the closing of the Youth Plenary on Monday night, so there we were, all of us here from her family, her community, waiting for her turn to come.
The announcer’s voice rang over the loudspeaker: “And now, welcome to the stage Isobel Arthen from the EarthSpirit Community, a pagan organization based in Massachusetts. She has been touring internationally, singing world music for the past six years, and she’s joined on-stage by guitarist Jose Gonzalez…”
And there she was, the little girl with the wide eyes taking in the whirling Sufi dervishes, the Tibetan monks with their saffron robes and guttural chants, the Yoruban priestess with her multi-colored robes and skin as dark as a moonless night.
Only now she’s eighteen years old, a smart, beautiful, self-assured young woman, with her lithe body and her long dark hair, striding purposefully up to the microphone along with her dreadlocked, guitar-playing young man.
“I’ve been coming to the Parliament since I was two years old,” she tells us, “and I’ve kept coming because I truly, truly believe that one person, one voice, can make a difference. But I think we all know that one voice joined by hundreds, thousands of other voices, can become a force that can really change the world.”
Then she launches into the song, Ruth Pelham’s “The Turning of the World,” backed up by the members of the Youth Committee who have worked so hard to create a welcoming environment for their international peers who’ve come to Melbourne:
“Let us sing this song for the turning of the world,
That we may turn as one.
With every voice, with every song
We will move this world along,
And our lives will feel the echo of our turning…”
As I watch her I feel, of course, as proud of her as any father watching his only daughter achieve something notable. But there is more than that: I also feel a sense of fitness, of fulfillment, of completion. I think about the various turnings in my daughter’s life, and particularly those whose echoes have resonated most strongly within her, and realize that the Parliament is surely one of them. Something began to move within her as a little girl that first time sixteen years ago, something that has informed and inspired her life ever since, and that movement has now turned full circle within the radiant young woman singing upon that stage.
The Parliament is not just about weighty discussions of theological issues and other equally abstract themes. On a much more practical level, it is also about changing lives, about inspiring people, about helping to bring out the best in them. And my Parliament Baby is living proof of it.
Here is a video of Isobel’s performance: