Interfaith Assembly: ‘Voices in Harmony’

Congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas, a Conservative synagogue, hosted Syracuse’s eighth annual World Interfaith Harmony Assembly on Feb. 5, 2018, organized by Women Transcending Boundaries and InterFaith Works of Central New York.

The event began at 6:45 pm with Dr. Joan Hillsman leading six members of the Syracuse Chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop of American singing “If I can help somebody…then my living shall not be in vain.” Dr. Hillsman then introduced “It’s a New Season,” a song she composed for tonight’s event, and we all joined in, hands clapping.

Beth Broadway, President/CEO of InterFaith Works, welcomed us all to the 8th annual Harmony Assembly, part of a worldwide Interfaith Harmony Week designated by the UN. Beth thanked co-chairs Danya Wellmon and Simone Montgomery, the event committee, our host Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas, and the other seven congregations that have hosted previous harmony assemblies. She urged us to openly hear and experience the traditions presented tonight, noting our understanding will be deepened, not diminished, by experiencing the different ways in which humans meet and praise the “Great Mystery.” Beth also urged us to keep the current situation of refugees in our hearts. The travel ban is having a very negative impact on refugees, especially those from Muslim nations. She asked us to affirm the dignity of every faith tradition and pledge to speak out for each other.

Sue Savion, President of Women Transcending Boundaries, welcomed everyone and commented on the wonderfully diverse environment we are blessed to have in Syracuse. She focused on a recent positive news story in which many different denominations came together to help rebuild a mosque in Texas: we too will rebuild this world with love.

Pastor Alicia Wood from University United Methodist Church, last year’s host congregation, passed an imaginary torch to Norma S. Feldman, President of Congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas. They served as the evening’s MCs.

Before beginning the program, Norma Feldman described the sanctuary for those not familiar with Judaism pointing out the ark containing the sacred Torah, the eternal light hanging above the bimah (raised platform) symbolizing that God is always with us, and verses from Deuteronomy to the right and left of the altar: “Hear O Israel, our God is one” and “Teach our children,” respectively.

Cantor Paula Pepperstone offered an opening prayer: may we always dwell together in our sacred spaces hearing each other.

Mike Greenlar of the Post Standard was acknowledged and thanked for his newspaper coverage of all eight Interfaith Harmony Assemblies.

The InterFairth Works Round Table of Faith Leaders came forward. Edith Washington (Unity) and Shinge Sherry Chayat  (Zen Buddhist) spoke to “Voices in Harmony”—all our faiths mingle in harmony, compassion and peace. Candles were lit to represent our differences, our commonalities, and our commitment to unity.

A combined group from May Memorial Unitarian Universalist and First Unitarian Universalist Societies of Syracuse performed a song written by Fred Fiske. Unitarian Universalists are not required to believe in a specific creed, but they make a covenant to behave toward each other and the world according to their seven guiding principles. The song they performed put these principles to music.

Tim Saka from CNY Rise spoke about the Prophet Mohammed’s flight from Mecca to Medina and how Mohammed settled on the human voice as the perfect instrument to call the faithful to prayer. Cihad Sigindere turned to face Mecca and his voice rang out in the call to prayer. Tim then translated the Arabic words.

Destiny African Nations Church shared a moving song accompanied by drums and keyboard. A large group made up of people who have come here from many of the 53 countries of Africa musically offered “thanks to God for the great thing he has done in our life.” Many have been traumatized by strife, but now have a chance at a new life in America. About a dozen people sang and danced the background, with two soloists singing the verses in an African language.

Cantors from Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas, Temple Adath Yeshurun, and Temple Concord joined by some dozen members of these congregations of all ages and accompanied by guitar, violin, and drum, offered an inspiring song by contemporary Jewish composer Jerry Weinberg. Led by Cantor Paula Pepperstone, the entire audience joined them in singing the “Hallelujah” refrain.

Next, young women of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints performed a skit which they had written. In the skit, Cinderella’s Guardian Angel quotes scripture to teach Cinderella’s misguided stepmother that we are all children of the Heavenly Father and we should all love one another. Families from the church then joined them, and young and old sang a verse of the hymn I Am a Child of God.

Representing Hopps Memorial CME Church, three compelling gospel singers accompanied by piano sang a moving praise hymn to God “You are holy…it is a privilege and honor to worship at your throne.”

Wearing the University United Methodist Church’s rainbow stole which symbolizes the congregation’s acceptance of all people, Ted Finlayson-Schueler had the audience laughing as he recited Jeff Foxworthy’s humorous reflection “You might be a Methodist if…”  He also reflected on Methodist founder John Wesley’s 1755 Service of Commitment prayer: “I am no longer my own but Yours.”

Led by their director and accompanied on piano, choir members from the United Church of Fayetteville sang a soft and lovely “Thou shalt know Him when He comes.” The words of the hymn were signed, which added to the beauty of the selection.

Next, three men from the Sikh community spoke, observing that humans have great capacity for both compassion and hate, peace and war. Yet beyond our differences in culture and beliefs, we are all one, children of one God. They challenged each of us to take this message back to our communities. Hope and compassion starts with each of us: we are the hope.

Unity of Syracuse continued this message with a rousing hymn about the power of one person. Led by their music director, accompanied by piano and two drums, a multi-generational choir of a dozen people sang out “it all begins with one…believe we can change the world”; the younger singers enhanced the words with choreographed movements.

Two Buddhist traditions presented together. In the Tibetan tradition, two women from Thekchen Choling Buddhist Temple chanted a “short passage of refuge and great compassion” punctuated by a clear bell. They translated the words: “I go for refuge until I am Enlightened.” Members of the Zen Center of Syracuse shared a chant which Shinge Sherry Chayat explained was based the Buddha’s final words. As he was about to pass away, the Buddha told his disciples: “You are the Light. You are already capable of doing everything that the world needs. “

Father Fred Daley from All Saints Catholic Church introduced the President of the Congolese Community that worships at All Saints. The president explained that Congo is the second most diverse country in Africa; many refugees arrived in this country with these ethnic divisions still between them. These differences no longer divide them: “where there is love there is hope.” A group from this community raised rich voices as they sang part of the Catholic mass, the Sanctus, in Swahili.

Madalyn Smith, representing Tibetan Buddhist Rangrig Yeshe and Dzogchen Ati Ling Center, offered the closing blessing. In her Tibetan tradition, at the end of doing anything good, you give it away. She offered a prayer for the Earth’s abundance as the New Year begins (Feb 16th).

Norma Feldman eloquently thanked all those who shared their faith traditions this evening. She invited everyone to partake of kosher refreshments immediately following program. Baskets were provided for a free-will offering, donations to be used to defray the costs incurred by this year’s hosts and provide seed money for next year’s gathering.

Dr. Joan Hillsman led us all in a chorus of “We Can Live in Harmony” before reprising “It’s a New Season” –leaving us all on a note of harmony and hope.

It’s a new season
It’s a new day
A fresh anointing is coming my way
It’s a season of power and prosperity
It’s a new season coming to me.

For a report in the Post-Standard, click here.