Advocating for religion in a pluralistic society and in Canadian public life

Discovery Week - Encountering the World's Religions

This week will change you. You will experience a lifetime of study and travel the world within a city. You will go away with fresh eyes and a mind more open than you ever expected. We all need this experience. -Sharon Cooke

Travel teaches us so much, but perhaps you don’t have to go abroad to encounter the world. Sharon Cooke and her friend Tonya Broomer enjoyed the experience of a lifetime through Encounter World Religions Centre’s annual Discovery Week, spending 7 days exploring 11 world religions in what Tonya called a “smorgasbord of art, music, food, culture, and kindness!” Each day began with insightful introductory classes to a religion or two before traveling to visit grand temples and quiet meditation rooms, meet imams and rabbis, observe sacred rituals, and share meals with generous and welcoming host communities in Toronto. Sharon and Tonya came as cultural travellers and spiritual pilgrims, but the Discovery Week attracts a wide range of participants with varied reasons for coming. Charlene and Scott, a young married couple, received the week as a Christmas gift from family who attended previously. Others, including police officers, educators, business leaders and chaplains came to better understand how religion impacts the communities they live and work in.

While reasons for attending vary, experiencing the sights, sounds and lessons of the Discovery Week often elicits common responses. Brian Carwana, Encounter’s director, says that participants’ reflections often touch on similar themes:

1)    Who is the Other?

Brian observes that, initially, conversations centre around “who are my neighbours?” Through informational and experiential learning, participants explore the history, founders, sects, key practices and political issues of major religions. “Attendees appreciate how the background information helps them experience the site visits more fully. And the visits, in turn, enrich the classes. We not only learn about Islam’s founder, doctrines and the Shia/Sunni split, but we also experience the feel of a packed mosque at Friday prayer, the connection in our shared meal, the lessons from the weekly khutbah (sermon), and the reverence in the prayers we observe or participate in if we wish.” Because of Encounter’s unique relationships, participants experience opportunities rarely seen. “One of our favourites is our evening at the Sikh gurdwara. We enjoy a langar meal, hear kirtan (chant), and watch as the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy text, is put to bed in an elaborate ritual demonstrating the text’s sacredness to Sikhs. It’s an honour to witness this.”

2)    Who am I?

“While our conversations begin with learning about others, as the week progresses, those conversations begin to shift. As you interact with someone who prays five times daily, meditates every morning, or has not cut their hair in 30 years to mark their devotion, it is almost impossible not to reflect on your own rhythms and choices, both conscious and unconscious,” says Brian. Just as foreign travel helps us see our own home with new eyes, visiting these varied cultures, hearing diverse outlooks, and encountering different aesthetics (music, art, architecture), causes participants to see their own life in new ways.

3)    Who are we?

Towards the end of the week, participants linger over broader questions. Brian concludes, “The week is such a rich exploration of what community means; of the role of ritual in our lives; of what moves us; of how we use our bodies; and of how worldviews shape us. It is a feast of human living in all its colour and splendour, travelled with experienced guides and fascinating co-sojourners. In the end, we learn a bit more about what it means to be human."

If you would like a rich experience to learn more about your neighbour, our world, and yourself, consider attending Encounter’s 2018 Discovery Week, held July 8-14 in Toronto. The banquet awaits.

Karen McKay