In 1893, 122 years ago, Swami Vivekananda travelled to Chicago from Calcutta, to speak at the very first of these Parliaments. He spoke of Hinduism: his religion, and mine. He spoke of the idea of tolerance, universalism, and acceptance of all faiths as equal, each holding the same claim to truth.
He spoke of the immense, dazzling variety of the world’s religions as simply different paths: each one winding according to its own choosing; each one leading finally to the same goal: service to the Divine.
At that time, and in that place, the idea was revolutionary. A few short years later, in the same city of Chicago, another man, an American and a Christian, spoke of these same ideas. His audience was small; his voice, quiet; his thoughts, no less radical.
This man, Paul Harris, shared the belief that all religions were equally valid and that the trappings of tradition and observance were merely trappings, while their essence remained the same.
He spoke of measuring others by their deeds, not their creeds. He valued friendship above dogma, kindness above conviction. He saw the entire world, with all its inhabitants, as a beautiful gift, belonging equally to all, given by God — along with the duty for caring for it, and for each other.
In this, without knowing it, he echoed the teachings of Vivekananda’s own guru, Ramakrishna: saying that all living beings were an embodiment of the divine self; and that therefore, service to God could be rendered by service to mankind.
In 1905, Paul Harris founded, not a religion, not a place of worship, but the first Rotary Club — beginning the Rotary movement that grew and spread, year after year, decade after decade, nation after nation.
Today, there are no fewer than 34,000 of these clubs, with over 1.2 million members in some 200 countries and geographical regions.
And I am here this evening as their representative. I realise that in this forum I may be a round peg in a square hole, for Rotary is not a religion. Neither does it replace religion. But it certainly complements it. It elevates our faith, as it elevates us.
It allows us the chance to truly serve the divine, indeed reclaiming the Heart of our Humanity — by serving those who are in the greatest need. You could ask: what is so profound in this concept of service? After all service is simply charity and this is an idea common to every religion.
As the great sage Hillel said, Love your neighbour as yourself: the rest is commentary.
But what makes Rotary unique is that it is a framework in which we serve others — not with, or through, or despite our religion — but in parallel to it. In Rotary, you can have a dozen faiths in one room.
In Rotary, every religion is respected, every tradition is welcomed, every conviction is honoured with one caveat only: that our faith may never be permitted to divide us. For in Rotary, we come together in friendship, and we are bonded by the one thread of service.
And the power of service to unite people has proven, over the last 110 years, to be extraordinary, because service to others provides a bridge. It gives people a way to come together, a reason to work together, whatever their differences or their debates.
When it is for the common good, the good of their community, their children’s future — people begin to cooperate in ways that would simply seem impossible in any other context. And the results of this are quite literally changing the world.
Three decades ago, we were already a very large, very international oganisation; having tens of thousands of clubs, hundreds of thousands of members, and having completed some very serious, very ambitious service already.
We had of course countless club projects; projects that provided water, sanitation, nutrition, education to those who needed it; we had built schools, hospitals, houses; we had done a great deal in many ways.
But the time had come to aim higher. To find a project that would unite every Rotarian everywhere in the world, in the pursuit of a single, shared goal. The goal we chose, was the total, global eradication of polio: making polio the second disease, after smallpox, to be completely removed from the earth.
At that time, in 1985, there were 125 countries in the world where polio was an active threat. About 1,000 children were being paralysed or killed every single day — all this, even though there was a vaccine that was cheap, effective and easy to administer.
We thought, what excuse have we got? What excuse for not trying?
And last month, thirty years later, several billions of dollars and countless hours of work later, Nigeria — the last country in Africa with wild polio — stopped transmission of this disease.
We have now only two countries left, sharing one remaining reservoir of wild poliovirus, across one border: the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And we have every reason to be optimistic, that in a very short time, those two countries as well will see their last cases.
And the incredible thing about all of this — beyond the obvious, beyond this colossal achievement of completely eradicating a disease that has plagued humanity for millennia — the incredible thing is not just that it is being done, that it is so close to being done — but how it has been done.
The level of cooperation, optimism, commitment, ability, willingness and desire of so many people, in every country in the world, of every faith, colour, background, rich and poor, to join in this work.
Along with our partners and health workers we are in pursuit of one goal: A world without polio. A world with a bit less fear. A world with a bit more hope.
Because at the end of the day, how can we say that we are God-fearing men and women — how can we say that we serve God — if we do not do our best, to take care of all of God’s creations?
For God’s work on earth must be done by all of His people on earth, every one of us. If we fail in that, we fail in the task we were placed here to do — we fail in our humanity.
And so, whatever religion you represent here in this forum, however you conceive of God, of service, of charity, of our responsibility to each other — I ask you all to remember, that God is not up there.
He is down here. With us. In us. In all of us. And whatever you do for the least of us, here below, you do for Him above.