Parliament of religions coming here

Three people sitting at a table.
The Rev. Gary van der Meer (centre) has coffee with Imam Shabir Ally, founder of the Islamic Information & Dawah Centre, and Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, founder of City Shul synagogue, in 2016
 on May 1, 2018

When I was first looking for a connection between St. Anne’s and a synagogue to learn about Passover, I contacted a rabbi whose synagogue often holds orientation events for Christians.

“I would be happy to help, but from what I have heard you say about becoming a neighbourhood church, it might be better for St. Anne’s if you get to know a downtown synagogue,” he said.

He recommended Elyse Goldstein, a Reform rabbi at a newly planted congregation on the campus of the University of Toronto. “We are not interested in spiritual tourism,” she told me. “It’s either friendship or we don’t have time for it.”

Friendship is what we have done. We met for coffee, then visited each other’s services. For our first shared learning event, we brought together roughly equal numbers of Jews and Christians on a weeknight to present, explore and compare our traditions of Chanukah and Christmas.

Our people sat in mixed table groups for the initial “getting to know each other” conversation, followed by our presentations on the traditions and significance of our upcoming celebrations. The conversations grew in volume; we enjoyed hearing each other’s experiences and learning together.

Over four years, we have come a long way together and have had a variety of learning evenings and annual sermon exchanges. City Shul comes to St. Anne’s and Elyse preaches on the Christian lectionary texts. St. Anne’s goes to City Shul and I preach on the synagogue’s lectionary texts. I attend Yom Kippur and Elyse comes to Christmas Eve.

We also have a friendship with our local mosque. I met Ilyas Ally, the assisting imam of the Islamic Information & Dawah Centre, at a social justice event. When we realized we were neighbours, we decided to meet for lunch. When St. Anne’s started its annual Christmas concert, I invited Ilyas to give the closing prayer.

The Christmas concert brings together local people, including many who do not participate in any religious services, and we wanted them to know about the friendship that exists between St. Anne’s and the mosque. News and world events often give the negative impression that religion fosters violence and intolerance. Our friendship is always well-received. When we announced our shared refugee sponsorship plans, the audience was excited with us; when we introduced our refugee families the next year, it was to a standing ovation. We have had shared learning events and a shared sermon, but our relationship with the mosque became most real in the meetings of our shared refugee committee.

As the diocese’s new Interfaith Officer, I appreciate questions about starting an interfaith friendship between your congregation and communities near you. What has surprised me more has been how many such friendships and partnerships already exist.

We might be tempted to think we just happened on a great idea. What better place to learn about world religions than at our doorstep in multicultural Toronto? What better time to appreciate what other religions can teach us than when “religious nones” are the fastest growing segment in the census?

The time and place are right, but this isn’t a new idea. The Parliament of the World’s Religions is coming to Toronto in November. The gathering was first held in Chicago in 1893. It resumed in Chicago in 1993 and has since travelled to Cape Town (1999), Barcelona (2004), Melbourne (2009) and Salt Lake City (2015). The Parliament will bring together participants from more than 200 religious, Indigenous and secular beliefs from more than 80 nations. There will be workshops and presentations on a number of subjects, including climate change, women’s experiences, Indigenous experiences, youth, and comparing experiences of engaging the next generations across religious traditions.

The coming months will offer many opportunities to organize delegations, plan presentations, volunteer and learn as we host 10,000 visitors to Toronto. The parliament’s mandate is “to cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world.”

In the words of the Rev. John Joseph Mastandrea, parliament ambassador and a minister of Metropolitan United Church in Toronto, the gathering “is more than a symbol – the parliament is an instrument of peace.”

To learn more about getting involved in the seventh Parliament of the World’s Religions, visit


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