The undeniable, jarring sounds of a Japanese shinoube flute disrupts the silence of an expectant audience at the Rothko Chapel, a Cooperation Circle member of the United Religions Initiative (URI). The music ushers in a message to "pay attention" as Ashley Clemmer, Director of Programs and Community Engagement for Rothko, described it in reflecting on this incredible event, which took place on September 21 to celebrate the United Nations’ International Day of Peace (IDP).
Rothko Chapel’s IDP event consisted of a concert by the Silkroad Ensemble. Founded by famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Silkroad brings together extraordinary musicians from across the world in what they describe as a “radical cultural collaboration.” These musicians had never played together until their first rehearsal the night before the event, and yet delivered a transcendent performance where, in between the music, they shared insight on their diverse backgrounds and relationship to the pieces they presented.
Clemmer described a theme of the night as looking at the divide and the connector.
“It was about exploring the differences amongst us and connecting them to create something new, and exploring the possibility of honoring who we are and where we come from. All of us can live together in this complex, woven way, ” she said.
The theme for this year's IDP was commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.The URI Northeast Tennessee Cooperation Circle incorporated that into their celebration. Rabbi Arthur Rutberg, facilitator of the circle, said, "While the International Day of Peace is an important event that we have endeavored to publicly commemorate every year, it was even more special this year to promote the 70th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, the establishment of which is a prerequisite for peace.”
Rutberg also felt the impact of knowing that “scores of other URI chapters” were honoring the same themes in their communities.
Along with music and prayer, the interfaith gathering in the Johnson City area included the readings of the UN Peace Day Proclamation and parts of the Human Rights Declaration. The event was also good exposure for the interfaith work the URI Northeast Tennessee CC does throughout the year.
Rabbi Rutberg remarked, "I hope that those who attended became more aware of who we are, what we represent and the good work we try to do. I was moved by the great stories and teachings that each person shared from the Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Sikh traditions. I deeply appreciated their contributions and their resonance with Jewish values and universal human rights."
Stories were also a catalyst for a remarkable evening for the Safe Alliance of Interfaith Leaders (SAIL), a Cooperation Circle member of URI. Teaming up with other local organizations in Columbus, Ohio, they put on an event titled “Immigrant Journeys-Immigrant Voices.” They showed excerpts from the documentary “Human Flow” which were interspersed with emotional stories from three refugees who now reside in Columbus. The program also opened and closed with music - both a local interfaith choir and an international children’s choir.
This was SAIL's first official International Day of Peace event. In discussing the importance of hosting an event on IDP, SAIL President Barb Anderson said, "Even though [around the world] we all may be doing different events, they're all centered around [peace], so there's a commonality and solidarity. They’re supporting you and supporting peace efforts in their own communities around the world. That was really important to be aware of and very significant that we were doing the event on that day.”
The program went late into the evening, and yet guests clamored into the reception area afterwards, eager to talk to the storytellers. One of the stories, which impacted many of the women Anderson talked to, was Deborah from Uganda who was the victim of an acid attack by her estranged husband. She had to flee her home, leaving her children behind.
Though the night was powerful, one where those who attended left with a greater understanding of the plight of refugees in their own neighborhoods, Anderson is determined to bring in audiences in the future who are skeptical of the content SAIL focuses on. Anderson noted, "The challenge is how do you get to the people that are on the fence or not on board and get them to come listen to these stories to hear how refugees are human beings just like us? Their stories could've been ours if we had just been born in a different time or place."
More than just a day of celebration, these IDP events were hubs of different cultures, races, and religions coming together to advance the mission of peacebuilding. Within that sphere though, comes the reality that much of the world still waits to be welcomed into safe spaces of diversity.
Taking lessons from the musicians of the Silkroad Ensemble, Clemmer said, "What connects, unites, and makes it magical is that all of the musicians are willing to enter into this space of vulnerability. They have an openness without having anything figured out. Yet, they are open to what will come from it. Their mission is about creating bridges and moving towards peace, and they do that through the creative process of making music with people they don't know. It's a microcosm of the world and us...exploring the possibility that we don't have anything to lose in learning about one another."
This bridging of humanity is the focus of these organizations and International Day of Peace represents that beautiful uniting of the global human family.
This piece was written by URI North America Storytelling Intern Jessica Gorman.