I craned my neck to see the next presenter, when a middle-aged South-African man walked up to the lectern.
The event was stretching into the night, and I wanted nothing more than to listen to the main speaker, Jane Goodall, and go home. It seemed that the organizers were keeping her presentation for last, and I was on the verge of leaving.
Then, Reverend Allan Boesak, an anti-apartheid activist and religious leader, spoke. “We will come before God, and God will ask us, “Where are your wounds?’ And if we have none, He will say, ‘Was there nothing worth fighting for?”
Everyone hushed. In a booming sermon style, punctuating his statements with gestures, he spoke of the struggles that we must go through to achieve justice and equality. He spoke of of his battle against apartheid. I forgot my irritation and listened, enraptured by the sincerity in his voice. As a youth, he’d seen fellow activists killed, yet persevered against injustice. I found it amazing that someone could have such stories to tell.
I had come to the Parliament of World Religions to speak with another editor on a KidSpirit panel. The Parliament, perhaps the biggest interfaith convention in the world, welcomed over 10,000 attendees from all corners of the earth. Gathered there were famous activists and religious leaders. All of this was framed against the soaring blue mountains of Salt Lake City.
I’ve long carried a skepticism about the effectiveness of interfaith work, which aims to resolve religious conflict through dialogue. I have seen religious extremism on television, read about it in the news — ISIS destroying priceless Assyrian artifacts, the Westboro Baptist Church members picketing funerals of slain servicemen. On the other hand, there is interfaith, which seems passive. How could like-minded people chatting about religion make a real difference in a world so plagued by hatred?
Reverend Boesak spoke about his role in South Africa’s battle to end apartheid. He had fought for equality and change through politics, and did so because of his strong religious convictions. He is a theologian and a cleric, and he drew upon Christianity for his sermons against apartheid. At the same time, many churches and Christians supported the racist system. Religions and their scriptures are much the same today, but this shows that people interpret them in different ways. He voiced his interpretation of Christianity, which was one of equality and fairness, a perfect counter to the racist ideology that many other churches were supporting. Hearing him speak showed me what a powerful impact religious dialogue can have on society.
Alan Boesak’s speech was a moment of revelation. His story changed my perception of interfaith as passive and ineffectual. It revealed a new way of looking at the same concept: interfaith as a fight, a battle. It takes work and sacrifice to create change. I saw that the first thing I could change was myself. I’ve realized how little I know about some other religions. I want to educate myself, and this may not be easy; internalizing other worldviews can be uncomfortable, as our long-held beliefs are challenged. But I think understanding other religions is key to understanding and contextualizing one’s own system of thought.
I left the convention having seen and heard dozens of speeches and plans for fixing the world, but Reverend Boesak’s words made me want to make a difference in my own way. For me, making a difference is writing about my faith and the world through its lens. I feel that my religion has much to contribute to many of the social and environmental problems we’re dealing with today.
Nimai Agarwal is in 11th grade. He has been practicing Vaishnavism, a monotheistic tradition within Hinduism, since his childhood. He leads the KidSpirit Ed Board in Maryland.
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