“Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow
Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead
Just walk beside me and be my friend
Together we will walk in the oath of peace.”
~ “Don’t Walk in Front of Me,” song at the opening program of the peace walk
As the United States spent a day remembering the tragedy of September 11, 2001, a small community in Palo Alto came together in a big way with a simple, positive message. The Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice (MVPJ) organization planned a Multifaith Peace Walk that took place on the 15th anniversary of 9/11 this past Sunday, September 11, 2016. The walk began at Congregation Etz Chayim and Spark Church on Alma Street and wove through Palo Alto, stopping at different houses of worship on the way to a peace picnic, hosted by American Muslim Voice, at Mitchell Park.
Before the event, Rev. Dr. Eileen Altman, an associate pastor at First Congregational Church in Palo Alto, spoke with us about her work with MVPJ. Altman said, “My work with MVPJ is a form of prayer for me. It is a prayer of hope that the death and destruction that happened on September 11, 2001, and as a result of September 11, 2001, will not lead us into cynicism and despair. God calls us into life-giving, hopeful engagement with the world God created and loves. Death does not and will not win the final victory.”
Altman explained that “this is the third year that MVPJ has participated in Campaign Nonviolence, an international effort by Pace e Bene [Nonviolence Service] to encourage the spiritually grounded practice of active nonviolence to seek social change.” A similar Campaign Nonviolence event in Southern California inspired leaders to organize the peace walk.
Lauren Chan, a senior at Menlo School, participated in the Multifaith Peace Walk as Social Media Advisor. Chan’s sense of the importance of her role as an ambassador to the Palo Alto community outweighed her initial apprehension at being the youngest participant in a leadership position, and through social media, she effectively publicized the event.
The 15th anniversary of 9/11 comes at a time when there is still profound fear in many faith communities around the world. Altman stated, “Jewish groups will tell you about increasing anti-Semitism around the world. Muslims will tell you about increasing Islamophobia, especially in the United States. Sikhs are still reeling from the shooting at their temple in Milwaukee in 2012. Christians are being persecuted in places where they are in the minority.”
Altman recognized that “there are many other examples, of course, of violence in which the perpetrators cite a religious motivation. This has led some groups to become more fearful and reluctant to engage in interfaith connections. Even in the midst of the hopeful efforts [she] described, these sobering examples are reminders about why we must keep working together.”
However, Altman believes that in the wake of this turmoil most people need to understand that “the vast majority of people of faith, of all faiths, deplore and condemn violence. Some political leaders seek to gain or consolidate power by exploiting our fears and blaming violence on the religious tenets of one group or another. [Her] hope would be that more people would look past this sort of rhetoric and seek out relationships with, and deeper knowledge of, those we are told to fear.”
Members of different religious groups demonstrated a commitment to this hope— to building a better world— by gathering on the somber anniversary of 9/11, hopeful that their actions would inspire many to work for peace and recognize the bond that the faith community shares, regardless of religion.
The peace walk began with an opening program full of music and hope, in which Catholic, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders of worship, along with some of the people at MVPJ who spearheaded the peace walk project, spoke to the hundreds of attendees.
According to Rev. Dr. Diana Gibson of MVPJ, the level of support the walk received was astonishing and proved that “people are ready to say no to fear, division, and violence, and say yes to peace.” Although each community member supports different causes and has varying beliefs, “everyone can find strength in a message of peace: we all love, we all hope, we all laugh and cry, and we all dream of a kinder, more peaceful world.”
Gibson claims that despite different faiths, the community can fight as one for peace. To her, “multifaith” means “sharing honestly what stirs your soul and listening respectfully to what stirs another.”
Rabbi Chaim Koritzinsky of Etz Chayim then spoke to the crowd, offering prayers of “shalom,” or ‘peace,’ and urging those gathered to come together as one in the hope for peace despite their many differences. He led the singing of “Peace Has Yet to Come Upon Us,” first in English, then in Arabic, and finally in the original Hebrew.
Upon hearing the beginning of the song, a young girl in the audience exclaimed to her mother, “Peace! I learned about peace in preschool!”
Pastor Danielle Parrish of Spark Church spoke next, and proclaimed that the multifaith community “is not a soundbite,” that the faiths and beliefs of of an entire community, even the entire world, cannot be “encapsulated into one stereotype or one misunderstanding,” as the world works toward reconciliation.
Leaders of three churches, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, University AME Zion Church, and Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Parish co-hosted the walk and offered refreshments and words of peace to participants. Father Matthew Stanley of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Parish welcomed all into his church and offered a prayer “to take away any hatred and desire for revenge,” and to “respect all life, the dignity of every human being, regardless of religion, origin, wealth, or poverty.” He urged all “to be ministers of peace, beginning with those close to us.”
The walk concluded at Mitchell Park in Palo Alto, where all gathered in a circle and received an address by a leader of American Muslim Voice, the organization that hosted at the peace picnic, which was free and open to all. Members of the group joined and raised hands in a powerful display of peace and unity, coming together to demonstrate their belief that everyone deserves a peaceful world.
After this circle, leaders of the walk released white doves from the middle of the field as a symbol of peace.
As Altman said, “It is easy, too easy, to fall into cynicism. One form of cynicism is to blame ‘religion’ for all of the world’s problems and write off engagement with the vast majority of humanity who are religious adherents. But a more hopeful approach is to seek to better understand one’s neighbors, including the ways that their faith traditions move them to act compassionately. We all have much to learn from each other. Whoever you are, wherever you are on your journey, you are welcome to join in the work of hope.”