By Ali Dunbar
Providing a space that recognizes the beauty of diverse cultures and spiritual traditions within and across communities is an essential element in building mutual trust, harmony and unity in society -- this was the common goal of three United Religions Initiative (URI) North America member organizations earlier this month when they hosted events to celebrate World Interfaith Harmony Week (WIHW).
WIHW was an idea first proposed at the UN General Assembly by King Abdullah II of Jordan in 2010. Ever since then, WIHW has been celebrated by people around the world during the first week of February. During the week, interfaith groups come together to host community events aimed at strengthening ties and bridging cultural understandings through music, educational programs, meals, and various other festivities.
In Fremont, California, Tri-City InterFaith Council’s event, “Power of Love Extending Harmony,” hosted at Niles Discovery Church, strengthened ties within the community.
At the event, fourteen different faith tables had informational displays with pictures and brochures sharing their traditions. After an hour of visiting the tables, attendees transitioned into an educational group activity focused on the different practices of various faiths. Participants chose an educational activity they would like to participate in, which included music, poetry, art, public speaking, and book groups that focused on exploring different faith practices.
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Event organizer, Moina Shaiqa, said, music was a big draw of the event. Performers sung about the transcendent themes of compassion and love in many different languages. The passion in the room influenced the energy of the night.
“[The] singing during the second half touched me a lot -- the Sikh song, the Hebrew song, and the rabbi singing the same words for ‘God’ that are in Hebrew and in Arabic -- the same word but just pronounced a little different.Those things are very powerful.”
Not too far away, in Pleasant Hill, California, the theme of unity rang consistently throughout the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County’s (ICCC) WIHW Concert, “One Power,” hosted at the Christ the King Catholic Parish and named after the inspirational song performed by well-known musician Daniel Nahmod.
A much larger number of community members attended this year’s event than last year. Loel Bartlett Miller, secretary of the ICCC, attributed the large turn out to the excitement from Nahmod’s performance. The group was first exposed to Nahmod’s encouraging lyrics of peace, love and compassion across all nations, cultures and faiths when six members of the ICCC participated in the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto, Canada, in early November of last year.
His evocative messages prompted Miller to speak with Nahmod after the show to extend an invitation to perform at their WIHW event. “I really felt the six of us from the Interfaith Council who were able to attend knew we had to bring these messages back,” Miller said.
In addition to the meaningful performance given by Nahmod, other community groups and members that performed included Rev. Julius Van Hook, the White Horse Youth Chorale, Hazzan Risa Wallach - Congregation B’nai Shalom, and M.T.O. Shahmaghsoudi School of Islamic Sufism, also participated in the One Power Concert.
Miller described the songs from the White Horse Youth Chorale, such as East and West Shall Come Together, to be especially touching. “The songs focus on compassion, harmony, and diversity. It was adorable to see a beautiful little group of children singing about the same principles we hold quite dear.”
“Music always connects people at the heart. It bypasses the mind and goes straight to the heart” Miller added. She believes that the powerful lessons that melodies and lyrics carry have the potential to build more compassionate communities by connecting people through song.
In Syracuse, New York, InterFaith Works (IFW) collaborated with Woman Transcending Boundaries, both local non-profit organizations, to hold their 9th Annual World Interfaith Harmony Assembly at the city’s Southern Missionary Baptist Church to celebrate WIHW. Inspired by the banner draped behind the church’s altar, this year’s theme was “We Are Family.”
And, during the service, when they ran out of candles during a ceremony, the participants demonstrated their desire to build and strengthen interfaith communities through the act of sharing.
You see, for the past few years, IFW roundtable members have come together for a candle lighting ceremony during the annual event.They first introduce themselves and then state the faith they represent. This year revealed the event’s growing significance within the Syracuse community as there were not enough candles for all the participating roundtable leaders.
Gracious Moyo, the director of Interfaith Initiatives, was touched by how three roundtable members responded.
“Three Islamic faith leaders, who are on the roundtable, came up at once to light one candle,” he shared. “[This] sent the message to the entire community that ‘Look we are different but we are coming together.’”
The theme of harmony and coming together across different faith traditions echoed throughout the night especially during musical performances. For instance, before a Congolese group sang Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I should not want” in their native tongue, they shared the story of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Although they come from tragedy, they bring joy and they come here with such hope” noted Daryl Files, a community engagement specialist at InterFaith Works. Moyo added, “We live in a world in harmony and when people sing we live in harmony.” For Files, these messages of hope and harmony always energize her.
“I always feel that, when I leave, I am this ball of fire” said Files. “That we, as a community in Syracuse, New York, we’ve got this. Now the biggest challenge is keeping that ball rolling.”