Over 400 people gathered on the cold, snowy afternoon of Feb. 9, 2014, to celebrate the diversity of our community through song, dance, prayer and poetry. The 4th annual World Interfaith Harmony Assembly, co-sponsored by InterFaith Works of CNY and Women Transcending Boundaries, was hosted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Liverpool.
As we arrived, their members guided us to the kitchen area, where we added our goodies to the array of refreshments church members had prepared. Before and after the program, people were encouraged to imprint their hands in paint on a banner that would be sent to the United Nations, the organization that established World Interfaith Harmony Week in 2010. The theme of this year’s program was the Golden Rule, highlighting the common goal of loving and respecting oneself, one’s neighbor, and the wider world.
A tone of tolerance and harmony was set even before the official welcome. Dr. Joan Hillsman at the piano sang “If I can help somebody my living will not be in vain,” followed by the Syracuse Chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America singing The Harmony Song. Beth Broadway, Executive Director of InterFaith Works, welcomed us commenting that we build who we are through our faith traditions; Rev. Edith Washington, Vice President of WTB, noted that WTB was formed after 9/11 with a mission to build harmony among women across different traditions. She asked us to think about what it is that we have in common that binds us to each other and to celebrate our oneness. Andrew DeLuca spoke briefly on behalf of Rep. Dan Maffei.
The dual Masters of Ceremonies–Thomas Kerr of the host church and Rev John Werner of John the Baptist/Holy Trinity Parish (last year’s host church)–moved the program along briskly with personal touches. Between presentations high school students from the Syracuse Chapter of Seeds of Peace read versions of the Golden Rule from various faith traditions. They added so much to the theme and helped the program flow smoothly as one group left the stage and another set up.
Fourteen faith traditions shared parts of their culture and beliefs. The Sikh Foundation of Syracuse opened the program presenting a hymn “Ek Pita Ekas Ke Hum Barak” written by their 5th guru. Dressed in traditional clothing, Singh Dhamoon played the harmonium and Baljit Kaur Atwal played the tabla and sang. The audience was given a translation of the hymn which spoke to how to realize and find God.
Next, a combined group from neighboring congregations Pebble Hill Presbyterian Church and Congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Chas sang a song drawn from each tradition. These congregations traditionally celebrate Thanksgiving together, so they sang Psalm 33 “how good it is for brothers to dwell together in peace.” They also did a gentle, prayerful, ecumenical Taize hymn. Taize started after World War II and is about music dissolving barriers. “Where charity and love prevail there is God.”
Next, members and youth from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community spoke about muslimsforpeace.org; they displayed a huge Golden Rule banner “Love for All Hatred for None,” which was greeted with spontaneous applause.
The celebration team of Unity of Syracuse sang some uplifting music. The first song celebrated people who make life a better place for others; the second, Lean on Me, hit a truly responsive note as members of the audience joined in.
Three members of the Bhutanese-Nepali Hindu community performed in traditional dress with harmonium and drums. They have been in this community five years and celebrate their journey. They stressed that we all sit down and look up at the same stars overhead and we are all a product of mother earth as well. Their song was about the love that makes us strong from the inside–the love of God.
Following this, Suzanne Roupas, wearing a long flowing cape and representing the Goddess Path/Wicca, spoke about the close connection between the divine feminine and the cycles of the year. She performed a ceremony that cast a circle of protection and harmony using the four cardinal directions (East: air, renewal, dawn; South: passion, voice, birth, fire; West: ocean, life-giving, blood, compassion, tears; North: place of the ancestors, the wise ones.)
The program continued with a talented girl from Islamic Society of Syracuse performing “Forgotten Promise” sung in Arabic and English.
The Baha’i Faith community of Syracuse spoke of their belief that all religions are divine in origin, and stressed that Baha’is believe that male and female have equal rights and that all humanity is one. A group of children said prayers in both English and Spanish, and their spokesperson led the audience in a song. “So powerful is the life of unity that it can illuminate the whole world.”
Next a representative from Church World Service spoke about its mission to spread the love of God by serving those in need. This group sponsors Crop Hunger Walks and is inspired by the motto “We walk because they walk.”
This theme was mirrored by the three young ladies from the Alleluia Choir of Liverpool 1st United Methodist Church who sang a moving rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Five members of the Zen Center of Syracuse dressed in orange robes recited two Buddhist chants, parts of which were done in English. Buddha said the whole of his teaching is love and compassion, and the chosen readings reflected this.
A large group of students from Syracuse University, Oy Capella Syracuse University Hillel, sang two amazing a capella numbers: The Hope (the Israeli national anthem) and One Day (a day when there will be no wars). A group of 16 young people from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints read one of their 13 articles of faith and sang a hymn.
Rev. Tiffany Steinwert, Dean of Syracuse University Hendricks Chapel, spoke about the 2014 SNAP Challenge. She stressed that 50% of Syracuse children go hungry and the need at local food pantries is rising. The SNAP challenge asks people to try to eat on the $29.40 that food stamps pays a person per week and donate the rest of the money they would have spent on food to a food bank.
After a closing blessing, Dr. Joan Hillsman led the audience in singing “Love, Peace, Joy”; some people joined hands and snaked around the room as they sang.
The warmth of acceptance and fellowship continued as people greeted each other around the refreshment tables, and young people from the host church escorted people to through the snow to help them clear off their cars and head home safely.