Interfaith Assembly: ‘We Are Family’

The 9th Annual World Interfaith Harmony Assembly in Syracuse on the theme “We Are Family” took place on Feb. 4 at the Southern Missionary Baptist Church in Syracuse. Fourteen local faith communities presented at the program.

Read Betty Lamb’s commentary in the Post-Standard on the theme, “We Are Family.” For photos from the Post-Standard, click here.

An enthusiastic and diverse crowd gathered in Southern Missionary Baptist Church on Midland Avenue for the 9th Annual World Harmony Assembly. Sponsored by InterFaith Works of Central New York and Women Transcending Boundaries, this anticipated annual event is part of the United Nations’ World Interfaith Harmony Week. As we celebrate our individual traditions, we learn that our common values outweigh our differences.  

Southern Missionary Baptist hosts graciously greeted us and made each feel like family as we entered the bright, spacious sanctuary. “We are Family” –the theme of this event–is inscribed above a Bible verse over the church altar. Dr. Joan Hillsman’s gospel group greeted us with joyful music as we gathered.

Anna Wright Doughty of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church welcomed us on behalf of the World Interfaith Harmony Assembly Planning Committee. Rabbi Andrew Pepperstone, representing last year’s host Congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas, passed the torch to Rev. Sharon M. Perry of Southern Missionary Baptist Church. She received it on behalf of Rev Shawn Robinson, unable to be present this evening, and in the name of the power of diversity and the “flames of love that can unify our hearts.” Rabbi Pepperstone and Rev. Perry were Masters of Ceremony for the event. Rev. Perry offered a lovely prayer celebrating “this rainbow of religions” and asserting we will find unity in faith because we have love in our individual traditions.

The Plymouth Bells from the Plymouth Congregational Church began the evening on a perfect note as they performed a hymn, their gleaming handbells sounding a full range of ringing tones.

InterFaith Works Round Table of Faith Leaders came forward. Currently representing 30 faith traditions, this group has been meeting for 43 years and serves as a moral compass in our community. As each member of the Round Table was introduced, he/she lit a candle. Flames were lit on behalf of Sikh Foundation, Christians, Tibetan Buddhist, Zen Center, Unity, Syracuse Jewish Community, Rescue Mission, Quakers, Unitarian, Women Transcending Boundaries, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Islamic Society of Central New York, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. Chaplain Matt Waldby of the Rescue Mission led a brief centering activity.

Praise Dancers from Southern Missionary Baptist Church proved to be one of the highlights of the evening. Three young ladies, dressed in white with iridescent trains that formed expressive wings, interpreted a prerecorded poem. “There’s a blessing in room tonight, Lord…someone will have a break through…Is it you?”

Dr. Joan Hillsman and several of the 35 members of the Syracuse Chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America had us on our feet and clapping to the inspiring song Dr. Hillsman had written for the occasion: “Love, peace and joy…that’s what the whole world needs today…”

The Three Cantors—a singing group comprised of members of Congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas, Temple Adeth Yeshurun and Temple Concord—sang a Jewish Eastern European song accompanied by resonant percussion instruments. This song has a repetitive, alliterative refrain and Cantor Paula Pepperstone encouraged the audience to join in the chorus.

Namaste” is a Hindu greeting meaning “the God in me greets the God in you.” Representing All World Gayatri Pariwar Hindusim, Dr. Rochna Zirath introduced us to some basic principles and beliefs in her Hindu tradition; slides projected on a large screen helped us follow her thoughts. One concept she spoke about was Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, meaning “earth family.” Hinduism revolves around treating the whole world as a family; we all share the responsibility to care for all beings. We are all spiritual beings in a human soul. All follow the law of karma—what we are doing comes back to us—and thus we should respect each other and engage in selfless service.

A group of families from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints radiated the love families share as they sang a lovely hymn from their tradition: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”

Representing the Islamic Society of Central New York and CNY Rise, a talented young man named Saad Bukhari accompanied himself on keyboard as he sang a song he had written called “I Promise.” It included the phrases: “Cherish what you have and don’t try to control others…I promise I’ll provide…Promise to support each other.” He received an especially enthusiastic response from the gathering.

A diverse group of individuals from May Memorial and First Unitarian Universalist Societies each spoke a few words explaining some symbols and beliefs of Unitarianism. Unitarians light a chalice at the beginning of their services; its flames represent Jews fleeing Nazis and also strength, justice, and compassion. The Five Stones (recalling those David used when he slew the giant Goliath) are part of their living traditions: 1) freedom to search for truth and meaning; 2) freely choose community and justice and understand yourself in the web of existence; 3) moral obligation to a just and living community; 4) good things happen as a result of human effort; and 5) divine and human capacities for change are a reason for optimism.

A large group of all ages from Destiny African Nations Church came forward. Speaking through a translator, Pastor Emmanuel Seruhungu shared that war had forced these people to flee their country, Burundi, 25 years ago; most have lived many years in refugee camps; they are happy now to be here. Moving in rhythm together, they performed a song based on Psalm 23 in an African language, their voices uplifting our hearts.

The Trinity Women’s Poetry Group from Trinity Episcopal Church in Fayetteville meets to read, write and discuss poetry. Each member introduced herself and shared a short poem she had written themed around “We are family.” Each was unique and moving. The final poem seemed to resonate through the room and went something like: “See me. Hear me. Know me. I matter, and if I matter…so do you.”

Representatives of the Zen Center of Syracuse, Rangrig Yeshe, and Thekchen Choling Buddhist Temple presented teachings Buddha left us about how to be with each other. From the Zen Center we heard from the Dhammapada, path of wisdom, which says that we become what we think. Hatred can never put an end to hatred—only love can. From Rangrig Yeshe we heard the story of the Bamboo Acrobat that illustrates the truth of our interdependence: the self and others are really the same. You must mindfully care for yourself as you care for others. You must turn away from always wanting more in order to realize the preciousness of life. From Thekchen Choling we listened to “A Bodhisattava’s Prayer” written in the 7th century and printed with our programs. “For as long as space remains….may I too remain…to dispel the misery of the world.”

The last two presenters finished the evening on notes of joy. World Parish Amahoro, comprised of two singers, a guitarist, and two interpretive dancers, performed “Testify to love.” Amahoro is an African word similar to shalom: peace bringing the world to wholeness. “For as long as I shall live I will testify to love.”

The Congolese choir at All Saints Parish, a multi-aged group of new Americans from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, continued the theme of love and family. They spent ten years in refugee camps, many losing hope and asking “Why us?” Now they have found a good family here in Syracuse and the conviction that God is love. They sang part of the mass, Deo Sanctus, in their native style in their native language.

Rabbi Pepperstone ended with a blessing: a prayer to “the Eternal One” to instill a desire in us to understand each other, to give us confidence in our own traditions, and to “bring us together in peace–one big, beautiful, diverse human family.”

Dr. Hillsman led an enthusiastic reprise of “Love, Peace and Joy” before we adjourned to the downstairs recreation hall for refreshments and conversation–a “family” of neighbors gathering to learn, celebrate, share, and enjoy.

NOTE: Established in 2010 by the United Nations General Assembly, the annual week of World Interfaith Harmony (the first week of February each year) promotes mutual understanding and interfaith dialogue as important dimensions of a culture of peace. In places where these dialogues occur, people witness greater community cohesion and develop better connections for addressing serious societal issues. InterFaith Works of Central New York and Women Transcending Boundaries have been sponsoring local assemblies each year since 2011.