I recently returned from the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto. This year’s theme was “The Power of Love and the Promise of Inclusion.” It was my first time attending and I was surprised by how much I liked it. Even though both my ordaining organizations (Unity Worldwide Ministries and One Spirit Interfaith Seminary) were represented there, I went with the express purpose to staff the Interfaith Vegan Coalition booth. The Interfaith Vegan Coalition helps faith traditions bring their ideals of nonviolence and loving kindness to fruition by promoting vegan living. Being vegan is far more than a diet. It is a way of living that makes it possible for all beings to thrive and be free from harm. It is an essential step for anyone who wants to live non-violently and create a sustainable future for everyone. It is a spiritual practice consistent with the ideals of all the world’s faith traditions. This is the work that called to me because I believe it is the most important work on the planet right now.
The Interfaith Vegan Coalition booth was rarely without people gathered around it. Over the course of the week, hundreds came by gathering information and asking questions. There were many who already recognized the connection between spirituality and vegan living and were delighted we were there. Some represented seminaries and asked if we could teach a class to their students on "Veganism As a Spiritual Practice." Many more were vegetarians who told us they just hadn’t been able to make that final step to give up dairy or eggs. We engaged these people gently with probing questions, because most vegetarians don’t know (or prefer to not know) the inherent cruelty in dairy and eggs. Others came who knew nothing about us or vegan living, and we provided support and resources. These were the kinds of interactions we would have – supportive, engaging, encouraging and questioning. We were there to plant seeds and help or inspire in whatever way we could. For me it was a sacred service to the world.
I think the most amazing thing about the Parliament is that I sensed a tipping point on the horizon. Were members of the world’s many religions starting to wake up from their deep slumber and recognize that oppression is oppression and exploitation is exploitation regardless of who the victim is? The conversation seemed to be opening. With an estimated 300 religious leaders and 8,000 people attending from 80 countries, seminar themes were predominantly focused on topics like Equality, Sustainability, Inclusion, Non-violence and Compassion. These are aspirations that we know will make a better world. But they are usually presented by people who are blind to the normalized violence we participate in daily when we sit down to eat. If we were to look at our aspirations for Equality, Sustainability, Inclusion, Non-violence and Compassion through social, scientific and spiritual lenses, we would be forced to see that all roads lead back to the need for humankind to fundamentally change the way we live, eat and relate to other beings (not just human) with whom we share our planet.
I sensed palpably that this message was starting to land in people’s ears. The heavy interest in the Interfaith Vegan Coalition booth, coupled with other significant happenings at the Parliament, made me hopeful that in time, it would land in their hearts too.
Perhaps the most prominent way this showed up was at the opening banquet. For the first time in the Parliament’s 125-year history, an all-vegan meal was served. Unlike most banquets, where someone like me could request a vegan meal, this one served gourmet vegan food as its only option to everyone. The all-vegan banquet idea was conceived by Frank Lane of UnitedVegan.com who brought all the players together. It was hosted by the Charter for Compassion and sponsored by Good Dot and In Defense of Animals' Interfaith Vegan Coalition. Good Dot is an Indian food tech start-up, whose purpose is to bring plant-based proteins to India (and eventually to Canada and the U.S.) that are affordable for everyone. They provided the food that was prepared by Chef Sandra Sellani, author of The 40 Year Old Vegan. Good Dot Co-founder and CEO, Abhishek Sinha, gave a short speech at the banquet. He said, “We cannot expect the power of love and the promise of inclusion to succeed if we continue to cause unbearable suffering to billions of animals and to the earth. That is why we are grateful to the Coalition for allowing us to provide a vegan meal.” Banquet attendees left having experienced just how delicious plant-based food could be, and making the mental connection between their plates and their spiritual ideals, beliefs and values.
I was grateful to meet Abhishek personally. He shared space in our booth to showcase samples of his tasty and shelf-stable vegan food products with Parliament attendees. I found him to be a delightful and engaging visionary. He shared with me his vision of making palette pleasing, plant-based foods accessible for people of every economic level – “as cheap as McDonald’s.” He envisions Good Dot’s vegan products being distributed in the U.S. via food trucks, with a focus on accessibility to low-income communities. He and I made plans to team up and potentially create a similar banquet at a future Unity convention. I’d love to see every denomination do the same.
I also made meaningful connections with some extraordinary spiritual and religious voices in the world. Rabbi David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland and Honorary President of the Jewish Vegetarian and Ecological Society, came by our booth with his wife. His energy was magnetic. He spoke with a direct and confident style, instantly conveying that he was an accomplished man. He is also a vocal and staunch vegan, believing that religious/spiritual people have a religious obligation not to be party to the mistreatment of animals. He shared with me that when he presents on the topic, he clearly points out that animal products in global industrialized food production are all in violation of Jewish ethics regarding tza’ar ba’alei hayim (the suffering of living creatures). While at the Parliament Rabbi Rosen gave a talk on Inter-religious Understanding and participated in a panel alongside New Thought minister, Rev. Michael Beckwith, another committed vegan spiritual leader, where they discussed the ethics of veganism.
Another absolutely amazing person I connected with was Sailesh Rao, Executive Producer of Cowspiracy and What the Health. Sailesh (who incidentally dedicated 20 years of his life to help make the internet happen for all of us) shared our booth space to promote Climate Healers’ Vegan World 2026, which is fundamentally about creating a culture of normalized non-violence. This new culture will require the establishment of a new economy based on completely different spiritual, ecological, social, economic and political principles than we have today. It’s an intriguing idea, and one I have to delve into more deeply.
Sailesh is also the Executive Producer of the new spiritually-focused documentary, A Prayer for Compassion. He held two screenings of the film in Toronto during the Parliament. In it, Director Thomas Jackson asks the question, "Can compassion grow to include all beings? Can people who identify as religious or spiritual come to embrace the call to include all human and nonhuman beings in our circle of respect and caring and love?” He then interviews a variety of people representing faith traditions from Hindu to Muslim to Jewish to Unity to Evangelical Christian, who each speak about living spiritually aligned lives as vegans, and creating a world that works for all. It’s a must-see film for spiritual communities and I would love to see it shown in every religious and spiritual center.
Sailesh Rao being interviewed after a screening of A Prayer for Compassion
Every day during the Parliament, the Ontario Sikhs and the Sikh Gurdwara Council offered a beautiful plant-based lunch to all attendees. While veganism is not a tenet of Sikhism, abstaining from the meat of a slaughtered animal is part of their code. This lunch wasn’t your typical dining experience. There was a process we each went through that began with taking off our shoes, then sitting in a chair and having someone wrap an orange scarf on our heads, then heading for a buffet line where we were each personally served by Sikhs. All diners then sat on the floor to partake in their delicious meals while the Sikhs walked up and down the aisles offering us more. The food was abundant and provided to everyone every day at no charge. It was a fabulous experience. The holy energy of sacred service was palpable. I walked away each day feeling divinely loved…and with a very happy belly.
There were more activities at the Parliament that focused on restoring our relationship with animals, vegan living, and how they both relate to sustainability and religious/spiritual responsibility. Dr. Neal Barnard, President of the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine, which promotes a strictly vegan diet and stands against animal testing and vivisection, participated on a panel called, “Role of Religion as Injustice Healer.” Lisa Kemmerer, author of Animals and World Religions, gave a talk on “Integrated Justice,” showing how nonviolence to animals is critical to justice for all. She also participated on a panel titled, “Justice for Just Us? – Extending the Moral Circle to Include Animals” along with Candace Laughinghouse, Charlotte Cressey, and Dr. Alka Arora. Lisa shared our booth space with her beautiful traveling art exhibit, “Animals and World Religions.”
In every way my experience at the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions was mind-blowing, and I wanted to share it with you to give you a feel for the wave that is coming. It’s a Vegan Wave. It’s not here yet. In fact, it may still be far off the shore. And yes, maybe most people can’t see it. But it is there and building momentum. It’s coming. Ask yourself if you are ready to be on it. Because riding it is much more fun, more kind, and better for the planet and humanity than being on the other side of normalized violence and planetary destruction. I am predicting that many of the world’s religions will ultimately be on it. Because Compassion, Non-violence and Justice are bigger than just us.
© carol saunders 2018
I am grateful to Lisa Levinson, Campaign Director of In Defense of Animals and Founder of Vegan Spirituality, and Judy Carman, author of Peace to All Beings - Veggie Soup for the Chicken's Soul, for inviting me to participate in the Interfaith Vegan Coalition booth at the Parliament. I am excited about future opportunities to co-create together.
Rev. Carol Saunders
I am an ordained minister, speaker, writer and lover of all life. In 2010 I founded a spiritual community in Deerfield, IL, a suburb of Chicago, and have recently transitioned it to a weekly interactive gathering and podcast called The Spiritual Forum. Being a voice for the animals and a light for the spiritually-inclined who are willing to seriously examine the self and begin to awaken, are what Spirit has called me to be. I am here to support anyone who wants to move toward living in closer alignment with their deeply held spiritual values. Our world needs more Love, Peace and Kindness. We can make that happen. But we won't be able to until we transform some of the violent and unkind ways of living we inherited from our culture. Be Love. Be Peace. Be Kind. Today.