"God bless you," said a stranger, after I unleashed an ungodly sneeze in the Palmer House last weekend. This neighborly invocation had unusual overtones. We were waiting for the Parliament of the World's Religions to kick off with a procession that would take up three aisles of the crowded ballroom. When it finally began, it was a little disappointing. Unlike a Shriner's parade, the pacing was way off and the costumes lacked panache. During frequent delays, rubbernecking shutterbugs kept looking to the back of the hall. They seemed to be searching for the best hats. Exotic headgear-- turbans were in great evidence-- always inspired a rash of flashes. Some photographers stood on chairs to get better shots.
One contingent--probably one of several pagan crews--looked like a tribe of lost souls from a cruise-ship costume party. One slickster wore a tux. One woman wore a silky white cocktail dress. Another wore a gaudy gilt serpent affixed to her towering chapeau. A cross-eyed elderly woman in a faux-medieval gown brought up the rear twirling a noisemaker.
Like every other convention or trade show, this one had its rows of tables, booths, and displays. Pitches, pleas, and products vied for attention.
A Baha'i magazine boasted that this 100-year-old faith is "the second most widespread of the independent world religions," with an "annual rate of growth" measured at 3.63 percent. Setbacks were indicated in a bar graph charting the "Number of Baha'is Killed in Iran."
"Sikhism is the youngest of the world religions," stated a yellow brochure noting that it's "barely 500 years old." Endorsements from Pearl Buck and Arnold Toynbee were printed on the back. The Sikhs gave away bright yellow plastic bags proclaiming "There Is One God, We Are All One" for visitors to carry around.
"Nonviolence is the supreme religion," said a pamphlet from the Jains. This Indian religion's teachings include: "A dog becomes a deva (celestial being), and a deva becomes a dog from virtue and vice, respectively."
Striking a less dogmatic note, a handout from the humanists listed "Tentative Beliefs About the World." A sign at this booth announces: "We are not a religion. We are an alternative."
Followers of Emanuel Swedenborg publicized him by passing out a "Ripley's Believe It or Not" item about the theft of his skull in 1816. The Swedish Royal Academy of Science allegedly paid $3,200 to recover it.
"The Origin of The Urantia Book," a brochure authored by Meredith J. Sprunger, was devoted to the issue of not disclosing who the book's author is. "The revelators do not want any human being--any human name--ever to be associated with The Urantia Book," wrote Sprunger. "We are told the papers were authorized by high deity authorities and written by numerous supermortal personalities."
A table of Muslim literature included a June 1955 reprint from Reader's Digest titled "Islam: The Misunderstood Religion" by James Michener. A pamphlet published more recently by the Saudi Arabian embassy answered questions like "Why does Islam often seem strange?" A booklet for journalists, printed by the American Muslim Council, pointed out that the phrase "God is great" is "not the Muslim 'war cry,'" and the Quran--not "Koran"-- is "not the Muslim 'Bible,'" and "Allah is not 'the Muslim God.'"
"Touch My Heart and I Will Widen You to God Knows Where," offered a flier from Sri Da Avabhasa (the "Bright"), who is pictured nearly nude with crossed legs.
The Relationships Division of the Boy Scouts of America took a more literal path to enlightenment by giving away keychains with built-in mini flashlights.
Prayer was pushed in a multitude of formats, but the United Church of Christ supplied a pamphlet titled "How to Write to Members of Congress."
A brochure from Insight Travel announced pilgrimages to Buddhist holy spots in Nepal and Bhutan with "plenty of free time for your own explorations."
For souvenirs you could order Zen Buddhist T-shirts, coffee mugs, and baseball caps.
Amid this encyclopedic bazaar of elevated messages the sound of my lowly beeper going off was lost in the traffic.