A desire to make the world a better place by allowing for a diversity of ideas to be heard and welcomed are at the core of the Millionth Circle and Parliament of the World’s Religions. Here’s a little history of how they have overlapped.
In 1893, the city of Chicago hosted the World Columbian Exposition, an early world’s fair. So many people were coming to Chicago from all over the world that many smaller conferences, Parliaments, were scheduled to take advantage of this unprecedented gathering. One of these was the World's Parliament of Religions, an initiative of the Swedenborgian layman (and judge) Charles Carroll Bonney.
Drawn to speak at the Parliament was Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902. His groundbreaking speech introduced Hinduism to America and called for religious tolerance and an end to fanaticism. He began his speech on Sept 11, by saying " Sisters and Brothers of America “ He received a standing ovation from the 7000 attendees. He continued "The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me.” Sectarianism, bigotry, and it's horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”
Sadly we know that his hope has not been realized and on Sept 11th 2001 fanaticism resulted in the terrorist attacks in the US. On September 11, 2010, Indian artist Jitish Kallat's "Public Notice 3" transformed the Chicago Art Museum's Grand Staircase into a powerful site-specific installation, drawing on the historical convergence of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Vivekananda’s speech calling for religious tolerance—delivered at the Art Institute on September 11, 1893. Public Notice 3, creates a trenchant commentary on the evolution, or devolution, of religious tolerance across the 20th and 21st centuries.
One hundred years later in 1993 a second Parliament of the World’s Religions was convened in Chicago. The Millionth Circle was not yet formed but two of its founding members were in attendance. Justine Toms and her husband Michael Toms broadcast live from the conference over shortwave radio for 5 days on their program New Dimensions Radio Broadcast. This “live” broadcast focused on four major questions: What is your individual vision for what should happen as a result of having this Parliament? What are the challenges that we face in fulfilling this vision that could grow out of such a parliament? What can be the world's goals as a focus for active people in spiritual and religious settings to address some of the problems that we've identified? What can I, as an individual, do both in consciousness and in external ways to make a difference in bringing this feeling of honoring the unity and diversity of all people--to bring this practically, in a spiritual and religious sense, into the world?.
Peggy Sebera, now a member of Millionth Circle, was also in attendance. She remembers "I was so happy to attend the 100th anniversary of the first Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. It was one the most thrilling things I had ever done. Seeing all of the many countries represented by their various forms of dress and customs was amazing. I had been invited to the Parliament as a table facilitator at the World’s Spiritual Leader’s gathering.Over the course of many days and 100’s of workshops, the World’s Spiritual Leaders had 3 separate invitational gatherings during this time I met the Dali Lama and many other world leaders. There were 7 leaders and a facilitator at each table. After getting to know the leaders at my table, I was later invited to visit 5 of the 7 leaders in their own countries. I traveled to India and Thailand and New York to visit them."
Dec 1999 was the next Parliament of World Religions in Cape Town, South Africa. A Call to Our Guiding Institutions was introduced. It began, "We find ourselves at a moment when people everywhere are coming to recognize that the world is a global village. The perils and promises of this new reality bring to mind several ancient understandings: that human beings are interdependent and responsible for the care of the Earth; that we are each worthy of a meaningful life and obliged to help the human community toward a life of peace and dignity; that the choices shaping a just, peaceful, and sustainable future are choices we must make together. Unique to this moment is the possibility of a new level of creative engagement between the institutions of religion and spirituality and the other powerful institutions that influence the character and course of human society.“
It was at this time that Peggy Sebera and a fellow Chakar Circle sister Ronita Johnson, both part of a circle of ten women, decided to show a film that had been produced about their circle called “Becoming, Women’s Lives, Women’s Circles” and to conduct a circle workshop.
Peggy says, "The circle was difficult. It was a challenge to be put in an auditorium with stationary seats for the circle workshop.” The hierarchical arrangement of seating is a testament to the lack of circles in our cultures. Speakers in the front and everyone else facing that direction with no interaction with each other. At this time two women from Europe Elly Pradevand of Geneva and Elinore Detiger of Iona, Scotland met with Peggy and Ronita. The suggestion to use Jean Shinodah Bolen’s book “The Millionth Circle” was suggested and an invitation went out to consider a circle movement of that name.
The first circle of what then became The Millionth Circle was held at Mother Tree in California. So the Millionth Circle was born out of a circle workshop at the Parliament of the Worl’s Religions. The Millionth Circle is a group of women who, since 2001, have volunteered their time through monthly virtual circles and annual in-person circles where a deepening of the circle experience occurs. By holding this Mother Circle they anchor the concept of a million circles, circles with a sacred center where each voice is honored and heard., Circles cultivate an environment of equality where compassionate solutions to individual, community, and world problems can be explored.
In 2004 at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona Millionth Circle members Ann Smith, Ronita Johnson, Justine Toms, Donna Goodman, and Jean Bolen partnered with Peace X Peace to host a sacred circle with an altar in the middle of the large ballroom and small circles of eight around the room. Each small circle had an altar in the center. Ann remembers," The first woman leader of an Indian ashram arrived with her followers and I quickly made a circle with eight chairs, an altar and I facilitated. Other late-comers joined us. After introducing ourselves, I explained Circle Principles and shared leadership. The leader’s eyes lit up and said to her followers; ‘Did you hear that? Shared leadership is what we will be doing when we get back home.’ The discussion deepened and each one along with others in the circle practiced speaking and listening from the heart. She and her co-leaders left with a seismic shift for leadership in their heads and hearts.”
Millionth Circle has seeded, nurtured, and introduced circles at various places around the world since our founding. We see that giving women a chance to be witnessed and held in the safety of a circle can be a transformative experience.
The experience of attending and participating in the events of the Parliament of the World’s Religions is a rich one indeed. Justine writes "Barcelona is a city filled with jubilant energy and has become one of my most favorite places on the planet. I arrived a few days before the official opening of the Parliament to participate in a pre-Parliament gathering at Santa Maria de Montserrat Monastery where the icon of the Black Madonna, patron saint of Catalonia resides. The old city, with its gothic structures mixed with the uniquely whimsical architecture of Antoni Gaudi, provided an extraordinary compliment to the Parliament. One of the highlights, among many, was a night-time concert on the grounds of the unfinished church of the Sagrada Familia. “
The 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions was hosted by Salt Lake City. Preceding the opening the Millionth Circle represented by Jean Shinodah Bolen, Leslie Lanes, Onnolee Stevens, Justine Toms, Ronita Johnson, Rosemary Williams, and Linda Merryman partnered with Gather the Women to host a circle event at the Episcopal Church Center. We gathered at round tables and practiced circle principles to meet one another and prepare for entering the Parliament experience. The focus was on women’s spiritual wisdom, experiences and challenges that arise at the nexus of women and religion. After the circles we joined around a labyrinth outside to walk the sacred path.
This Parliament had for the first time a special women’s day. The powerful women speakers on this day included Marianne Williamson.
The theme of the Parliament was “Reclaiming the Heart of Our Humanity”. The LDS church, Indiginous groups, and Atheist, were among the groups included that had not been included in earlier Parliaments. Salt Lake City truly welcomed this Parliament. An evening concert at the Tabernacle was a highlight. The lovely city, the huge and grand convention center, all were a buzz with various groups. The experience of passing people in the hallways or on the streets often dressed in the attire special to their religion, and feeling a genuine nod or hello of friendship was one of the special aspects of the Parliament.
The Millionth Circle held a large circle workshop where women experienced being in a circle. It is often the experience of being deeply heard that moves a person on an emotional level to speak into the circle center feelings or observations that they have held close but never shared. Circles with a spiritual center become circles of understanding, compassion, and wisdom for people whose theology and religious traditions may differ, but sharing a deep spirituality is the common ground. They are a form through which transformation can take place through dialogue and silence. Circles with a spiritual center facilitate speaking and listening from the heart, support authenticity, creative solutions and compassionate actions. Circles are dynamic, inclusive, and nonhierarchical.
Jean Bolen presented two workshops "Deepening Conversation, Finding Common Ground: Circles with a Spiritual Center and she joined with Terry Tempest Williams for a workshop called Courage. Anger. Love. Something to Say: Someone to Listen
In 2018 the Parliament met in the very diverse city of Toronto, Canada. The theme was’The Promise of Inclusion The Power of Love.’ Millionth Circle partnered with SARAH4HOPE and Sacred Women International for an event called The Alchemy of Women’s Collective Wisdom and Power. Many women brought water from their area in little bottles and we combined them into one vessel as we focused on the waters of the world. Climate and the condition of the earth was a focus at the Parliament as well.
Again the Millionth Circle hosted a circle workshop that was well attended. Ann Smith, Jean Bolen, Ronita Johnson, Lauren Oliver, Justine Toms, Linda Merryman, and Onnolee Stevens attended. Onnolee recalled,”What an amazing assortment of people from so many cultures. And the feeling of being One in love and respect with all. Quite a remarkable feeling in these times”.
Two events in Toronto complemented the themes of the Parliament. A theatre performance of “Come From Away” about the love and care of the people stranded on planes after 9/11 who were so well cared for by the people of Newfoundland brought us to tears of hope. Also an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Toronto called’ Anthropocene’ added a powerful experience of the effects of man on the planet. Huge photographs showed the need to seriously address climate and man’s effect on the earth.
The Millionth Circle hosted a virtual circle workshop entitled 'Experience the Power of Circle: Tools for Opening Hearts’ during the 2021 Parliament. The theme for this Parliament was ‘Opening our hearts to the world: Compassion in Action‘. A video link to the opening of our circle is below. The circle guidelines and introduction to this workshop give an idea of how circle can be introduced. During the pandemic the Millionth Circle and many other circles have met online through zoom and found the format to work very well. Our intention is to continue to give people the opportunity to see the value of meeting in circles with a sacred center if not in person then on line.