Your Voice at the Center

Welcome to Your Voice at the Center

The Center for Ecumenical and Interreligious Engagement (CEIE) at Seattle University invites writers to share their reflections with us in essay form.  We include these essays – often drawn from CEIE’s  Religica Theolab or Interfaith Observer – in the monthly CEIE newsletter and also share them here.  If you would like to contribute please contact Resource Creative Designer and TIO Co-Editor Megan Anderson at Thank you from the CEIE Team.

Reflections on the 2023 Parliament of the World's Religions

Author: Dr. Robert P. Sellers

How the Parliament of the World’s Religions Contributes to a Better World


The Parliament of the World’s Religions was in Chicago August 14-18, 2023. For anyone attending an international convening, the experience can be life-changing. This year’s program book contained 304 pages. Typically, persons considering the hundreds of fascinating opportunities feel overwhelmed. As one commented, “It’s like a spiritual Disney World on steroids!”

Yet, despite diverse program offerings it may be chance meetings with others which people appreciate the most. How intriguing to become friends with those who treasure other religions and cultures as much as oneself!

These encounters are a fulfillment of the Parliament’s mission statement, which begins: “The Parliament of the World’s Religions was created to cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual community” [“Mission & Vision,” Parliament of the World’s Religions, accessed at]. The thousands who attend a conference do not agree on the doctrinal beliefs of their religions and spiritualities. Unity of theological belief is impossible, but harmony of ethical behavior is achievable. The venue becomes a microcosm of what our world might be if we all lived harmoniously. 

Yet, harmony is not enough. Beyond it there is a higher plateau of meaningful connection: friendship. 

Of all the old friends and new whom we met at the convention center, two young people – both attending their very first Parliament – are memorable.  

During our first minutes at the meeting, my wife Janie stopped to photograph a multinational crowd of intergenerational delegates encircling drumming, chanting leaders. With arms linked, this spontaneous group undulated back and forth, their circle growing smaller then larger, then smaller again. Next to her was Maria Malau from Indonesia, who was contemplating joining the dance. Since Janie and I spent a quarter century living in that beautiful land, she immediately began speaking Bahasa Indonesia, the national language, and Maria was excited to meet someone who spoke her language and loved her country. She, a graduate student at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union and living 12,000 miles from home, was eager to share her thoughts with Janie. They met several times that week – the differences in their ages, nationalities, and religious affiliation quickly unimportant as they relished an emerging friendship they believed would last well beyond the Parliament itself.

I was on a breakout panel that first afternoon. As is my custom, I went around to meet individuals waiting for the program to begin. Alex Zhu, a former student from MIT and an AI developer in Austin, lives not far from our home in Waco. He was very engaged during the Q&A and we determined to get better acquainted. Sharing a langar meal the next day, we sat on the floor and discovered, despite our unique backgrounds, that we might collaborate to reach his AI community with a message of interfaith cooperation. Having begun that process now, we will connect again in person, somewhere in Central Texas.

The Parliament’s Mission Statement clarifies the importance of cultivating harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities. It is to “foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world” [“Mission & Vision,” Parliament of the World’s Religions, accessed at].

Can it be that in these encounters with Maria and Alex, Janie and I sowed the seeds of interreligious friendship that will grow and be nurtured, that one day these bright young people will become mature interfaith advocates and world changers? Maria will carry back to Catholic Theological Union – her classmates, professors, organizations, and ultimately her extended family in Indonesia – the vision for a different world she received at the Parliament. She will engage the “guiding institutions” of a storied graduate school and her community with the message that harmony and friendship overcome barriers and differences. Alex will influence the “guiding institutions” of scientific research and business with his hope for a better world. He and his fiancé will become strong, visionary advocates for the possibility of peace and will work to inspire creative friends that artificial intelligence must promote a message of harmony rather than hubris, cooperation instead of competition. 

If these actions by Maria and Alex are even partially accomplished, the Parliament will have achieved its purpose. Multiply their changed lives by more than 7,000 others who attended – by the hundreds of thousands of chance meetings, conversations and cross-pollenating of experiences, inspiration and visionary thinking – and one can easily see the lasting contributions the Parliament makes to our world.  

Harmony, then, leads to new friendships which create partnerships that can cause seismic shifts in society and the world at large.

Rob Sellers is professor of theology and missions emeritus at Logsdon Seminary, Hardin-Simmons University, and former chair of trustees for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He and his wife Janie were missionary teachers in Indonesia for almost a quarter century. 


Experiencing the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions with Fresh Eyes 

Two young leaders from the Center for Ecumenical and Interreligious Engagement (CEIE) attended their first Parliament of the World’s Religions event. It was held in Chicago on August 14-18, 2023. Below they each reflect on their experience.  


Sofia Sayabalian: Curiosity, Complexity, and Cosmos


In August, I had the opportunity of attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. As a newly graduated Seattle University alumna, I was at the Parliament representing the Center for Ecumenical and Interreligious Engagement (CEIE) at Seattle University, alongside our Director Dr. Michael Reid Trice and my colleague and SU alumna Cloë Poole. 

This was my first time in Chicago, and wow, I was delighted. There was a riveting energy from the city. An old flame; a scholastic air coupled with liveliness, beauty and nature. Brick buildings boarded the foxglove foliage. The Parliament of the World’s Religions transpired on the bonnet of Lake Michigan at McCormick Place Convention Center, celebrating the 130th anniversary of the globally renowned convening. 

On the first day, after Cloë and I gulped down our coffee at a local coffee house, we entered the doors of the Parliament. We could feel the energy in that room and could see the crowds of people from afar. As we got seated for the Opening Plenary, we kept exchanging glances of excitement and gratitude. 

“Love is the greatest conqueror of the planet,” said Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson shortly into the opening ceremony. I felt a sense of peace and ease when I heard these words. As we were all gathered in that room in the morning on, I had a mix of emotions excitement, curiosity, mild anxiety. But somehow the idea of love being the greatest champion on this planet was a delicate but vital thing to hear that day. 

Throughout the week, I was enlightened and surprised by a variety of things. As Cloë and I got to explore Chicago during our free time and as we heard snippets of Chicago’s eminence from the many speakers at the Parliament, we learned that Chicago is the city that birthed the modern interfaith movement. 

I come from an Armenian Apostolic background where Christianity has a strong symbolic significance in my culture. For one, I was baptized in Etchmiadzin Cathedral in Armenia at the age of four. I can actually recall this old memory because of how significantly spiritual it felt to me at the time. However, I grew up in a non-practicing household. I’d attend church only a couple times a year, but I always knew that our religion was an important token for liberation and love. From the 1915 Armenian Genocide to the current-day upheavals in the Caucasus where Armenians are still subject to a kind of eliminationist rhetoric from its neighbors, our people’s strength and resistance lives in our hearts. It lives in our blood. 

How do I tie this to my experience at the Parliament of the World’s Religions? Well, attending the world’s largest and most diverse interfaith convening of people of faith and spirituality was a large deal. I arrived with an open mind and curiosity, and left feeling more curious, affirmed, and acknowledged. 

One of the most memorable moments for me during the Parliament occurred during a workshop led by Dr. Michael Summers, a professor of planetary and atmospheric sciences at George Mason University. Dr. Summers gave a very impressive presentation that led the audience through the potential of life on other planets and how vast the cosmos is. I’ve always found learning about astronomy quite fascinating, so I was all ears during his presentation.  

When Dr. Summers explained what the merging between science and religion meant to him, I had a bit of an awakening moment. When asked from an audience member about the certainty of God and why humans know to use the word ‘God,’ Dr. Summers said this in paraphrase: God is the name we have given the infinite, i.e., the cosmos, but it’s just a name.  

He continued to explain how such a form of purposefulness and complexity in the world around us – from the effortless spirals found in nature to the raindrop found on a tender herb – make it hard for us to fully imagine Creation because the notions of Complexity and Unpredictability keep a complete grasp of Creation out of our reach. And when I say “Creation,” I am referring to the Universe. The Cosmos. Just Everything.  

The relationship between science and religion can be an intimidating and even unapproachable conversation, but Dr. Summers managed to shed light on the subject from a very fascinating perspective. It was those kinds of workshops and lectures that were moving and, in my opinion, once-in-a-lifetime talks, where a kind of epiphany “grazed across my consciousness and lit up my vision for a moment in the serene darkness of it all,” as Dr. Trice put it. Cheers to more fascinating conversations and moments like these. Thank you to the Parliament and Chicago. 


Cloë Poole: “Proximity” and the Complexity of Artistic Expression


I entered the Parliament of the World’s Religions honored and eager to learn from the convenings about defending human rights, climate change, and the wealth of wisdom engrained into religious traditions. Upon witnessing the opening procession and plenary, the sublimity of it all seized my senses and created an atmosphere of wonder and awe. I heard clamoring drums, powerful bagpipes, and soulful choirs while seeing the turquoise water of Lake Michigan and hearing rolling thunderstorms.  

At the sessions, lived experiences were respected by listeners and compassion rooted itself into each moment of interfaith dialogue. The most memorable knowledge that the sessions, plenaries, and art exhibitions gifted me was on the word ‘proximity’ and the complexity of artistic expression.  

In the intertwining of the mystical and the physical, the discussions on ‘proximity’ deepened my awareness of the self in relation to the divine. In a session titled “Ultimate Freedom – A Discussion on the Mystic Way of World Traditions,” Sheikha Dr. Maryam Kabeer and Sister Dr. Jenna spoke on the mystic way in Sufism and Brahma Kumari. Sheikha Dr. Maryam Kabeer shared her experience becoming a Sufi mystic and coming into the presence of the divine. The presence and grace of Allah are treasures that drew Sheikha Dr. Kabeer nearer to her sense of self as a mystic.  

How we understand our personal proximity to the divine and how we articulate this proximity or nearness is at the heart of my academic studies in religion, spirituality, and mysticism. Sister Dr. Jenna brought Brahma Kumari into conversation with Sufism and has intensified my desire to continue studying world traditions. The concepts of an imperishable body, an awakening, liberation, and the human capacity to feel the energy of divinity flow through the body filled the concrete walls of the convention center as Sister Dr. Jenna spoke.  

The idea of the divine being so close that we can feel energy flowing within our body is profound and left me quite speechless. Sister Dr. Jenna and Sheikha Dr. Kabeer’s words continually echo in my ears and have deepened my understanding of the divine and its relationship with the self that I am always nurturing in my mind.  

While pondering the wisdom of mystics I had just experienced, the sharp and abrasive imagery of Dr. Saad Ghosn’s woodcut prints struck my eyes. Dr. Ghosn’s Did You Say Terrorism seized my attention with its stark contrasts of white and black, abstractly depicted human form, Arabic calligraphy, five-ringed target board, and jagged weapons. The panicked eyes of the person, flailing arms, and the text accompaniment to the print left me in a moment of contemplation. The text read:  

The worst terrorism is the one that is lived every day, the one that assaults the individual in their vulnerability and innocence. In my drawing, a composite male/female naked figure is the target of attacks. The Arabic calligraphy in the background connects me to my roots, alluding at the same time to the fact that in recent years Arabs have become a class of discriminated against individuals.1  

Arabic calligraphy and language similarly connect me to my roots and the struggles my Yemeni family faces in the United States. Discrimination puts the human mind and body in a perpetual state of qualms and leaves you feeling constantly targeted. When I gazed upon the composition, my family of African and Arab descent appeared in my mind, and I found an odd solace in recognition.   

My first Parliament of the World’s Religions has raised my awareness of the beauty of Chicago and the exchange of knowledge that interfaith convenings nourish. Every encounter and session enlightened me with new perceptions of the divine and modes of expression. 

1 Saad Ghosn, Did You Say Terrorism, woodcut print on Rives BFK, 30”x22.5.” 

Author: Alex Booker, M.Div.

Alex Booker

On Celebrating Black History Month (Feb. 2023)

Black History month is multivalent for me. On one hand I enjoy the focus on contributions of Black people across the globe in spite of the ever-present reality of anti-Black racism. As James Weldon Johnson says, “We have come over a way that with tears have been watered, we have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered” and we should be proud of not only the fact that we have survived, but in many cases, we are thriving.

On the other hand, I despise the way in which the powers-that-be have used symbolic gestures like honoring Black History Month, Juneteenth, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Day as recompense for the material pains and losses that Black people continue to suffer through since being brought to this foreign land.

So, with this tension I say, Happy Black History Month. As we celebrate the beauty that is the full African diaspora that has been produced in this country and across the globe, I implore us to stay vigilant and energized in our fight for justice that is ongoing and as needed as it has always been.

Alex Booker

Campus Minister for Religious Diversity, Seattle University

Author: Zachary Dar

Reflection: CEIE Student Affiliate Zachary Dar


CEIE Student Affiliate Zachary Dar has composed a reflection below on the article The Chinese Jews of Kaifeng (and what I’ve learned from them), written by Rabbi Anson Laytner, and published as part of the Interfaith Observer’s Winter Issue on “Religious Literacy”. 

As one of the world’s oldest religions, Judaism has spread to every populace of the globe; however, there is none as exotic as the Jews of Kaifeng, China: a culture that has survived a millennium. While the first Chinese Synagogue and largest synagogue complex in the world had been built in 1163, (two centuries after the arrival of Judaism), flooding from the Yellow River and fire had destroyed it four times over, with the last synagogue standing for 200 years until its fall in 1860. It wasn’t until 1420, (and the exposure of a royal family members treasonable plot, by a Jewish soldier), that Kaifeng Jews were allowed to assimilate into ordinary Chinese culture. 

In the 17th century, Matteo Ricci was the first Jesuit missionary to meet a Kaifeng Jew. This discovery inspired Europe to embrace the reassimilation of Jews into society. Being Jewish, myself, and having a home in the same footprint as the Matteo Ricci Institute of Seattle University, (a shared office area with the Center for Ecumenical and Interreligious Engagement), I feel a deep connection to this awe-inspiring journey of interreligious culture that is clinging to life in a modern society where we see a context in which Judaism is not an authorized religion to practice. In a profound statement, Rabbi Laytner notes, in the section titled “In Modern Times”, “Despite a profound lack of Jewish knowledge, members of this community have maintained a strong sense of identity in modern times, when awareness of their Jewish identity was all they had to transmit to the next generation.”

Author: Dr. Tony Kireopoulos

National Buddhist-Christian Dialogue


In 2022, the National Council of Churches’ bilateral interfaith dialogues continued to address critically important issues.  The experience of this interaction goes back to our member churches and finds its way into other respective interactions and work.  With the active participation of 25 member and non-member communions at the interreligious relations and collaboration convening table, the exposure for the churches to these other communities and the relevant issues through the dialogues is quite broad; likewise with such wide church participation, the exposure to our interfaith partners of ecumenical realities is quite extensive, and the input from the various churches informs work of the whole.  These intersections reflect the conciliar principles, methodologies and aims of the organization.

Among these dialogues, which include the National Jewish-Christian Dialogue, the National Muslim-Christian Dialogue, and the National Sikh-Christian Dialogue, are the following two dialogues, which are based on the West Coast:

The National Buddhist-Christian Dialogue, co-convened by the NCC with The Guibord Center, Claremont School of Theology, University of the West, and Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple, met remotely in May, and covered the following agenda topics: the historical and religious dimensions to the war in Ukraine; the lessons learned from the Japanese experience of WWII internment; and the continuing impact of Covid-19 in our communities.  In October, the dialogue resumed in-person gatherings and met in Los Angeles, and it covered the following agenda topics: the Lotus Sutra and peace, and the Christian scriptures and justice; internal distinctions in our respective traditions; and therefore implications for solidarity in the face of racial discrimination and hate crimes directed at Asian communities in the US.  The group also visited the Japanese American National Museum for a private tour (as the museum was otherwise closed to the general public for the day) of an exhibit on “Sutra and Bible – Faith and the Japanese American WWII Incarceration” (

The National Hindu-Christian Dialogue, co-convened by the NCC with The Guibord Center and Vedanta Society of Southern California, met remotely in May, with an agenda focused on historical and religious dimensions to the war in Ukraine and humanitarian concerns facing the world as a result of the conflict.  In October, the dialogue resumed its in-person sessions with a gathering in Los Angeles.  Topics included the meaning of respective holidays that were being celebrated during that timeframe, namely Diwali and worship of the Divine Mother, and All Saints Day, with particular focus on the various theological understandings of Mary; the interrelatedness of growing friendship, deepening theological understanding, interfaith dialogue, and collaboration; and how these converge when addressing the social complexities in the US and India in terms of racism, ethnic supremacy, and religious nationalism.  The group also had a private viewing of the film on the sanctity of creation, especially animals, called Anima, which was produced by The Guibord Center and is winning awards in international film festivals (

The NCC is fortunate to have the participation of Seattle University’s Center for Ecumenical and Interreligious Engagement at these two dialogue tables, and we appreciate the vision and leadership that the Center and its director, Rev. Dr. Michael Trice, bring to our conversations.

Author: Rev. Dr. Rick Rouse

Click on the image above to visit Rev. Dr. Rick Rouse’s profile at Seattle University.

A Lutheran Summit: Historic Gathering on Seattle University Campus


Leaders of major Lutheran institutions in the Pacific Northwest gathered for a Lutheran Summit hosted by Seattle University’s Center for Ecumenical and Interreligious Engagement.  Center Director and Spehar-Halligan Professor, Rev. Dr. Michael Trice and Advisory Council member Rev. Dr. Rick Rouse co-facilitated a stimulating day of conversation, discovery, and envisioning.  Participants shared their plans and aspirations for the spiritual formation and development of church leaders in the Pacific Northwest.   

The gathering was significant because it brought together bishops, laypeople, clergy, educators, and community service providers to explore their common mission and to consider the potential for collaboration and cooperation.  A guiding inquiry of the Summit was:  How and in what specific ways will we leverage our mutual gifts to best impact the Lutheran community in Washington State and the Pacific Northwest?  Summit attendees discussed such topics as the unique culture of spirituality in the Northwest, the complex issues of trauma and anxiety taking its toll on pastors and congregations, and the future of university and seminary cooperation in theological formation.   

A rich legacy of Catholic-Lutheran connection at Seattle U. was evident throughout the day.  Not only were additional members of university staff and faculty present for the conversation, but Provost Dr. Shane Martin spoke on the common values that Jesuits and Lutherans share in higher education.  Others attending the event included Lutheran Bishops Rick Jaech and Shelley Bryan Wee; Dr. Allan Belton, President of Pacific Lutheran University (PLU); Dr. Marit Trelstad and Kendall Jeske of PLU; Rev. Dr. Ray Pickett, Rector of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary; David Duea, Executive Director of Lutheran Community Services Northwest; Rev. Dr. David Hahn, Director of the LiVE Project; Dr. Joe Orlando S.U. Special Assistant to the Provost for Strategic Initiatives, Dr. Catherine Punsalan-Manlimos, S.U. Vice-President for Mission Integration,  Rev. Dr. Edward Donalson, Faculty Associate to CEIE and Director of the D.Min. Program at the School of Theology and Ministry, and Marcia Riggers, long-serving advisor to the university and today serving on the CEIE Advisory Council.     

Author: Dr. Marc Cohen

Click on the image above to visit Dr. Marc Cohen’s profile at Seattle University.

The Hebrew Bible’s argument for religious diversity 


The first five books of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy, are divided into 54 “portions.” One or two are read each week on a schedule followed (uniformly) by Jewish communities around the world. The cycle began again with the first few chapters of Genesis the week of October 16th, then this past week we read the chapter that include the story of the Tower of Babel. 

On the conventional interpretation, a group of un-named persons build (what we would call) a skyscraper, to displace God. And then an angry, threatened God responds: God “confounds their speech” and—because they can no longer communicate—the city-builders are forced to abandon their skyscraper. The name ‘bavel’ is derived from the Hebrew word for “confound.” As such, the story can serve as a myth explaining how human communities came to speak different languages. 

But something very different is at stake, something we can see if we pay close attention to the text. 

11:1: Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. 

11:2: And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.  

11:4: And they said, “Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”  

One key to this text is the last part of verse 4, “else we will be scattered all over the world.” 

This desire, to avoid being scattered across the world, conflicts—directly—with God’s commandment to Adam at Genesis 1:28, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth.” And this desire conflicts with the same commandment given to Noah after the flood at 9:1: “Be fertile and increase, and fill the earth.” 

11:7: [God says], “let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so they shall not understand one another’s speech.” 

11:8: Thus the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city.” 

Note that the tower is not mentioned in verse 8, connected with the starting point mentioned a moment ago: interpretations of this story focused on the tower emphasize the wrong point and misunderstand the text. And note that—also in verse 8—God is not punishing the city-builders by “scatter[ing] them over the face of the whole earth.” God is, instead, restoring (or enforcing) God’s own vision, humans should fill the earth. 

But what is at stake in the commandment to fill the earth, why is building this city—the opposite of filling the earth—a problem? 

Theologian Rabbi Shai Held’s interpretation focuses on this question, and his answer follows the nineteenth century, eastern-European rabbi known as the Netziv. (“Netziv” is an acronym for that rabbi’s name, Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin.) 

The Netziv focuses on the end of verse 1, “Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.”  

The Netziv understands “the same words” to mean the same thoughts. And he explains: “the words themselves are not explained by the text, it just tells us that they were the same words, to teach us that it wasn’t because of the content of the words themselves that the Holy One of Blessing was distressed.” 

And the city-builders enforced this conformity in thought, this is implied in their worry in verse 4, “else we be scattered all over the world.” The Netziv again: “they [the city-builders] feared that since not all human thoughts are alike, if some would leave they might adopt different thoughts. And so they saw to it that no one left their enclave.” The tower was to serve as a watchtower. 

God’s intervention, God’s confounding the city-builders’ language, therefore creates space for different thoughts. Rabbi Held: “Our story is not about the loss of some primordial human unity lost in the mists of time, but on the contrary, about an active attempt to undo a divine plan for diversity.” 

Two further points are important here.  

First, the passages in Genesis chapter 10—before the story of the city and the tower—consist of a long genealogy. Those passages list Noah’s sons’ many descendants, all given by name. And the passage immediately after the story of the tower repeats the list of Shem’s descendants, extending the genealogy it to Abraham. The Hebrew the word ‘shem’ actually means “name,” in case we missed the point that names matter.  

But—in contrast—no individuals appear in the story of the tower. There are no names.  

Rabbi Held sees a connection here between the conformity in thought imposed by the city-builders and the lack of names: enforcing conformity destroys our individuality and that—according to Held—is “an assault on God”! “Jewish theology affirms that each and every human being is created in the image of God, and that our uniqueness and individuality are a large part of what God treasures about us.” So the story amounts to “God’s affirmation of the blessings of cultural, linguistic, and geographical diversity.”

Second, Rabbi Held doesn’t mention this, but the Netziv connects the story of the tower with another verse.  

Later in Genesis, Isaac blesses his son Jacob saying, “May El Shaddai [another name for God used in the Hebrew Bible] bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples” (28:3)—peoples, plural.  

According to the Netziv, a people—singular—follows one custom.  

So the mention of peoples in Genesis 28:3—plural—means that Jacob is blessed as the father of a Jewish community in which different groups hold different customs, religious practices, and interpretations!

The Netziv might not take this further step, but can we extend God’s blessings of cultural, linguistic, and geographical diversity to include beliefs and practices across religious communities? 

Can this text serve as the starting point for inter-religious dialogue and exchange, as a way of participating in this blessing?

From the other direction, by resisting this sort of engagement across religious traditions, by not engaging with others as equals, do we confound God’s blessing of diversity? 

Sources: Material taken from the chapter “People have names,” in Rabbi Shai Held’s wonderful book The Heart of Torah (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2017). Text of the Netziv’s Haamek Davar accessed at 


The author and Michael Trice dedicate this essay to the memory of Fr. Peter Ely, z’’l.