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United at the Parliament of the World's Religions: The Tree of Transformation

Early this November, Dr. Pamela Ayo Yetunde (Director of Interreligious Chaplaincy and Assistant Professor of Pastoral and Spiritual Care and Counseling), Jessi LeClear Vachta (Associate Director of Admissions) and a group of current students attended the 2018 Parliament of the World's Religions in Toronto, Ontario. There, they held a panel, "Making Interreligious Chaplaincy Education Meaningfully Inclusive." The following is a reflection by Kimi Graff, who is working on an MDiv in Interreligious Chaplaincy.   


The first day I walked into the Parliament of World Religions, I entered through an area filled with art.

My eyes were immediately drawn to the image of a tree with rainbow roots and strong branches. As I came closer, I saw that it was called the "Tree of Love," and was part of an exhibit by Dr. Juss Kaur and was a form of mantra art. The person running the exhibit directed me to a card and a website that introduced Dr. Kaur and explained her work. “Each meditative painting is imbued with thousands of miniscule, handwritten mantra inspired by the Sikh concept of oneness – a universal approach to life that is mindful of the Divine presence in everything and everyone, and thus recognizes all people as one,” the card explained.

Later, a visit to the artist’s website expanded on how creating that image had led to healing within the artist. “The Tree of Love is a symbol of life, energy, balance, strength, stability, growth and harmony. Withstanding the greatest of challenges, the tree stands rooted firmly with the flow of time. For me, they symbolize a certain spiritual steadfastness: time beings that remain in His Divine Will, enduring all types of change, intent on strengthening the roots to get nourishment and reaching out to get light. Within each of us is the Tree of Love that is reaching into the radiant light. This tree represents the journey of our soul. As we cultivate or meditate with faith and devotion, using the mantra as a guide, the symbolic tree spreads its roots of love deep within, such that all that sprouts forth from them (the branches/relationships) are also nothing but love. We attract love, it surrounds us, protects and embraces us. The word, Waheguru – vwihgurU – is pronounced “Wah-hay-guroo”. Wah means Infinite, hay means Thou, and Guru means Higher Self, or the Divine Teacher within each sentient being. This is the mantra which has been lovingly handwritten minutely in the painting to portray the omnipresent Divine energy.”

As my week in Toronto progressed, this image of a tree kept rising to the surface, and it made me think of how much it defined my time at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. I came to United and thought I knew where God was leading me. I thought I knew who I was. But as I move through this third year, I am reminded again that United has been the place where I found the person inside of myself who is strong and willing to speak for justice, love, and compassion. United has been the place where I learned to spread my branches. I am not the person I thought I would be, but each step away from that person is towards someone who is committed to transformation within myself and in the world around me.

Spending time with the small group of faculty, staff, and students who were with me in Toronto, I realized that the Parliament felt a lot like United. The people there came from all over the world, spoke different languages, and had different customs and styles of worship. I learned so many things about other faiths and traditions. It was a radically inclusive space that fed on mutual respect and love of life. Five days in Toronto and three years at United have taught me the same lesson – we do not have to be the same to love and honor each other.

My final hour in Toronto was spent visiting exhibit hall booths. I was drawn to a jewelry display by indigenous artists which again featured trees. I made my selection and handed it to the person to pay for it. She looked up at me and said I could not buy that necklace. I started to walk away, but she told me to wait as she turned to rustle through the boxes and crates behind her. She came back with another necklace, nearly identical to the one I had chosen. She said this was the necklace for me. The other showed growth, but this tree had a piece of quartz wrapped in the roots. This was the tree of total transformation. It was grounded by the quartz to allow the tree to shake and tremble as it grows.

I went to Toronto as Kim, but I came home as Kimi. Reclaiming the Siksika name that has echoed in my soul since my naming ceremony is the next step in my personal journey of transformation. In Algonquin it means secret, and I kept the secret of who I am for years. Coming to United empowered me to live without fear.

As we move towards the transition from one place to another, I am reminded again that it is not about the space itself but about the people within it. The programs at United and the mentors who teach/lead them, from art to theology to leadership to transformation to interfaith dialogue, are like those pieces of quartz. They ground us so that we can shake and tremble as we welcome the changes within ourselves. Eventually we will leave, and those pieces will continue to ground us as we change the world.

In the spirit of the Parliament, I recommitted to everything the blessed divine is calling me to become, spreading the seeds of radical inclusiveness, with love, justice, hope, dignity, and compassion as roots. Who are you and who are you called to become? Where will you find your tree of transformation and what will be wrapped within its roots?

Learn more about United's M.Div. programs.



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