Journey to the Tent of Abraham: The Second Step

In 2007, we organized a Sunday afternoon walk taking us to various places of worship near the Syracuse University campus as a symbolic “Journey to the Tent of Abraham,” which according to tradition was open on all four sides, welcoming everyone. On April 28, 2013 we embarked on a second journey, visiting the same places of worship, learning about their history and traditions.

A symbolic tent of Abraham open on all sides to welcome everyone

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To download an illustrated .pdf report, click here.

1st Stop: University United Methodist Church (UUMC)

Here, our assembled group was greeted by WTB co-founder Danya Wellmon. Danya described the sites to be visited, explained that bus service was available for anyone unable to walk the distance, and encouraged all of us to pick up maps, water bottles, and “Journey to the Tent of Abraham” T-shirts.

Pastor Craig French then welcomed everyone to UUMC. He noted, with appreciation, the diversity of the group sitting before him, and he asked us to look around at each other and consider new ways of living together in harmony.

He spoke briefly about the history of UUMC. The building was erected in 1871, with the cornerstone of the church being laid on the same day as the cornerstone of the nearby Hall of Languages on the Syracuse University campus. The sanctuary was destroyed by fire in 1914, and for the next nine months, until it could be rebuilt, the congregation worshiped, free of charge, at Temple Society of Concord across the street.

Pastor French explained the heritage of the Methodist church, which began in England as a separate denomination growing out of the Episcopal tradition. John Wesley, one of the co-founders of the Methodist movement, had been expelled from the Episcopal church because of his teachings, which focused on our inward and outward journeys and on the way God moves in, with, and through all of us. Wesley’s work was marked by simple acts of charity and by advocacy for social justice during an era in which there was a great divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in England.

Pastor French asked us to turn our attention to the sanctuary’s beautiful stained-glass windows that tell the story of Jesus from birth through crucifixion to resurrection. Stained-glass windows in churches have been functioning, since preliterate times, as a way for people to follow Jesus’ life and teachings.

Pastor French encouraged us to think of today’s journey as a pilgrimage. Pilgrimages have historically been distinguished from tourism, in that they are much more involved with what people are experiencing on the inside, through their eyes and spirits, in pursuit of a deep hunger for God in their life. He spoke about the Book of Genesis, of Abraham and Sarah providing hospitality to strangers. He challenged us to think of new possibilities for appreciating the richness of diversity in our own understanding of God. He said a pilgrimage is “feet-on-the-ground spirituality.” He welcomed people to come forward and get pamphlets and blessings before leaving UUMC.

2nd Stop: Grace Episcopal Church

Reverend Johanna Marcure offered a brief welcome at the second stop on today’s journey and then introduced our very diverse group to Ernestine Patterson, who provided an overview of the Episcopal faith.

Ernestine explained that the Episcopal Church in America stemmed from the Church of England and began after the Revolutionary War. Colonists in the newly independent colonies were quite divided in their opinions about the separation of the two churches.

The Episcopal Church in America is recognized as a designated church by the Book of Common Prayer, and all its ministers are ordained within the apostolic tradition. A U.S. Book of Common Prayer was compiled in 1789 and updated in 1976; the 1976 version is still in use today.

During the 20th and 21st centuries, the Episcopal church was split many times by diverse ideas and opinions. Ernestine pointed out that the church has apologized for the part it played in contributing to the slave trade. She also described other forward-looking movements that Grace Episcopal Church itself has embraced, including the ordination of women and the full inclusion of gays and lesbians. She drew our attention to the symbolism of the altar standing in the center (rather than at one end) of the church: as rows of parishioners surround all sides of the altar, they are well placed to look upon each other, offer peace to one another, and hopefully see the face of God in each person they see.

At this point, Rosa Clark was introduced and proceeded to offer a storied history of church activism. She shared how unsettled she felt, upon her initial visit to Grace, to see the pews arranged in a circle. Then someone said, “Come on in! The pews here are free!”

Grace was founded in 1871. The beautiful edifice we are visiting today was designed by Horatio Nelson White in 1876 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Among the church’s magnificent stained-glass windows are one commemorating the death of three small children and another celebrating the life of the first Episcopal Native-American saint, St. David Pendleton Oakerhater.

Grace has a long history of social activism. During the 1950s, the raging social issue was racial justice. Although segregation was outlawed in schools in 1954, it remained legal in other places, including churches. At that time, most black Episcopalians in Syracuse were attending St. Philips Church. When St. Philips’ vicar left and the church was closed, Father Welch of Grace Church invited St. Philips’ parishioners to attend services at Grace. In this way, in 1957, Grace became the most fully integrated church in the northeastern United States.

The 1960s was another turbulent era. Following Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech in 1963, Grace received a bomb threat. In an immediate response to the threat, all the children were evacuated from Sunday school. However, most of the congregants remained in church throughout the service: they believed in social justice and were not easily deterred by a bomb threat. In the decades since then, Grace has been home to Head Start activities, to Peace Corps and VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) training programs, and to meetings held by CORE (Congress of Racial Equality).

During the 1970s, the issue of the ordination of women was at the forefront. Betty Bone Schiess was one of eleven women ordained in Philadelphia. When the bishop here in Syracuse would not give her permission to preach, she sued him. Within three years she went on to become the associate rector of Grace Episcopal Church.

The ordination of gays and lesbians was a focus of controversy in the 1980s. Today, thankfully, everyone can participate fully in all areas of life within the Episcopal Church.

We were sent on our way with the following prayer, which is said at the end of each service: “May we see the face of God in all people, and may they see it in us.’

3rd Stop: Temple Society of Concord

Our group crossed the street and climbed a very impressive, grand stairway leading to the front entrance of Temple Concord, where we were greeted by Rabbi Daniel Fellman, who invited us into the main sanctuary. After all of us were seated, Rabbi Fellman introduced himself and told a brief history of the temple.

The congregation was founded in 1839 by a group of German Jews. They hired Rabbi Abraham Guzenhauser as their first rabbi. Among their first acts of business was acquiring land for a cemetery.

Rabbi Fellman explained that the current structure was built 102 years ago, in 1911. He brought an interesting and thoughtful perspective to the building by inviting us to look around and asking, “What is new? What is different today than 102 years ago?” Our responses traveled from electric lighting to the stained-glass windows to the sprinklers.

Rabbi Fellman pointed out several things we had missed: One was the wall plaques showing the names of deceased loved ones; an orange light next to each name is lit on the anniversary of that person’s death. A second was the organ, which is only 50 years old and replaced the original one.

A third was Rabbi Fellman himself, who is also quite new to this temple. In the 102 years it has been on this site, Temple Concord has been blessed to have had only five rabbis: Rabbi Adolph Guttman, an Austrian, was the first, followed by Rabbi Milton Friedman, Rabbi Theodore Levy, Rabbi Sheldon Ezring, and now Rabbi Fellman.

A fourth thing that has changed is the languages spoken during services: the original German, Hebrew, and English have evolved into the Hebrew and English of today.

Rabbi Fellman briefly discussed Judaism’s Reform movement and its place in the modern world. He explained that the Torah, the first Five Books of Moses, is written, without vowels, on a scroll made of parchment. He opened the Holy Ark and removed one of the Torah scrolls: a “Holocaust Torah” from Czechoslovakia. He pointed out the crowns, breast plate, and mantle covering the scroll and showed us the yad, or pointer, that is used by the reader to follow the text. After the coverings were removed, he read from the Torah in Hebrew, then translated into English, while Fran Volinsky and Rosalie Young held up the scroll in front of the Ark for all of us to see. He then invited everyone to come forward, look more closely at the Torah, and “follow along” as he continued reading from it.

Rabbi Fellman concluded by thanking everyone for attending today’s “Journey” and invited us to attend future services at any time.

4th Stop: Winnick Hillel Center for Jewish Life at Syracuse University

We exited the grand staircase and walked two blocks. Brian Small, the center’s director, described the Winnick Hillel Center’s goal as providing an opportunity for university students to connect with each other and to engage in Jewish life and culture through social and cultural activities. These activities include Fresh Fest for incoming students, Passover seders, Shabbat dinners and services, dances, Purim celebrations, Holocaust commemorations, and interfaith programming. Activities are held in the center’s beautiful, modern, 10-year-old building. The center strives to meet the needs of about 3000 Jewish students—2500 undergraduate and 500 graduate—and their peers.

Brian noted that the students are great leaders; they run the services and most of the Hillel programs. The center’s president, Zak Goldberg, and intern Sidney Lampe described Hillel’s activities and their own efforts to involve Jewish students. A highlight of our visit today (as it was during our visit in 2007) was a performance by Oy Cappella, the Hillel student a cappella group.

5th Stop: St. Thomas More Campus Ministry at the Alibrandi Center at Syracuse University

A few buildings up the street we were welcomed by Maggie Byrnes, campus minister. Maggie introduced her co-presenter, Ronnie Liou, a student from Shanghai, China. Maggie told us that the Alibrandi Center serves as an activities home and worship center for Catholic students who attend Syracuse University or the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF).

Maggie explained that the Catholic Mass involves a lot of physical movement (for those who are physically able). She and Ronnie then gave us a brief recap of what they, tongue in cheek, called “Catholic acrobatics.” With Maggie calling out the various postures, Ronnie humorously demonstrated them. The postures included multiple sequences of “dip,” “sit,” “stand,” “kneel,” “shake hands,” and “walk”—concluding with, at the end of the service. “run”! It was a light-hearted introduction to a serious presentation about the meaning of the Mass.

Maggie said that Catholics “celebrate their beliefs through the Mass, and their spiritual life shapes the way they live in the world.” She explained that basic Catholic doctrine includes a belief in the Trinity as (1) Creator God, (2) Jesus Christ (Image of Invisible God, Example of Holy Life, and Sacrificial Actions to bring people back to God), and (3) the Holy Spirit, which lives in every person and changes people from the inside out.

Ronnie described students coming to Mass for “spiritual food.” He said that during Mass, there is a blessing of bread and wine which symbolize, respectively, the body and the blood of Christ. Catholics regard the bread and the wine as both spiritual and physical food, and when they leave the service, they live with Jesus in them to nourish them. Ronnie also talked about the importance of the teachings in the scriptures, including seeing God in themselves and each other through the Holy Spirit.

Maggie summarized some of the many Alibrandi Center activities in which students participate: faith-sharing groups, Bible study, vegetarian dinners on Thursday evenings, “TGIF” Friday evening fun activities, and community-service projects. Some of the latter include baking and cooking in the Alibrandi kitchen for the Samaritan Center (an interfaith effort to feed people who are homeless and in need), working at the Rescue Mission, and helping at L’Arche Syracuse (a community of people with and without disabilities).

6th Stop: Islamic Society of Central New York (ISCNY)

At the front entrance of the mosque several blocks up the hill, we were welcomed by several members of the congregation. As we entered the building, we removed our shoes and placed them in a special holding area. We were then greeted by Mohammed Khater, ISCNY’s current president, who invited us to walk up a few steps and enter the men’s musella, or prayer space. It is here that prayer takes place five times a day and the weekly worship service, called Jummah, is held on Friday afternoons from 1:00 to 2:00.

Next we were given a warm welcome by Mohammed Khater’s wife, Magda Bayoumi, who is a longtime friend of WTB and a current member of the Shura, ISCNY’s governing board. Magda explained that prayers are in Arabic. Women do have leadership roles, including leading prayer services attended by women only. (Prayer services attended by men only, or by men and women together, are conducted by men.) Sermons are given only by the imam. The dress code during prayer services is modest and, for many women, includes cultural garments such as the hijab, a head scarf that complies with the Koranic instruction that women should cover their hair.

Magda then turned the program back over to her husband, who thanked WTB for the opportunity to host this event and invited us downstairs to a comfortable meeting room with seating for everyone.

There, he led a lively discussion about Islam and its relationship with Christianity and Judaism. He emphasized that we are all the descendants of Abraham and hold a belief in one God. We are brothers and sisters connected through God and created, in our diversity, by God. During the lively question-and-answer session that ensued, he shared some of the beliefs of Islam and its peaceful middle way between Christianity and Judaism. We heard about the types of jihad, or struggle. We were encouraged to share, with the community and the news media, the truths of our faiths.

The well-attended discussion ended on a positive, peaceful note, with much hope being expressed for the future of our faith communities to improve dialogue with each other.

Despite everyone’s intense interest in learning more about Islam and continuing our conversation, we needed to keep to the day’s schedule, so we “journeyed” onward.

7th Stop: Pagan Gathering

On the quad near Hendricks Chapel, we formed a circle around the Pagan celebrants. Mary Hudson, the Pagan chaplain of Hendricks Chapel, welcomed us to this site where Pagan students on campus routinely have their sacred ceremonies. She gave a brief explanation of the events that were about to unfold.

The term pagan religions includes a wide array of earth-centered faith systems and practices that are based on ancient cultural and spiritual traditions. Today we were to witness ceremonies from five of those traditions. A celebrant from four of the traditions was situated in the four cardinal directions—east, south, west, north—and Mary herself was in the center. Each celebrant, in turn, would “call” to his or her direction. Following the ceremonies we would be welcome to visit the five altars, ask questions of celebrants, and inspect the ritual tools displayed on the altars.

The Eastern Gate – Eclectic Gypsy (Michelle McCann): Michelle led us in experiencing air as a life-giving force by asking us to slowly take in a deep breath and then slowly let it out. She shared a reading that focused on the sacredness of air, and she described some of the numerous symbols and characteristics associated with air. Air has a profound effect on life and is elemental to the existence of life on earth. It can symbolize to us the concept of duality: from gentle to forceful, from sounds that are positive to those that are negative. On Michelle’s altar, incense was burning.

The Southern Gate – Huna (Barry Canning): Huna is the Polynesian tradition of aloha. The focus at the Southern Gate was on fire. Barry offered a prayer of welcome to Pele, the goddess of fire, lightning, wind, and volcanoes, asking for her gentle blessing at this ceremonial site.

The Western Gate – Esmeraldian Way (Esmerelda Dawn): Esmeralda led the group in an “Esmeraldian” ritual that represents her own personal practice. Her focus was on the elemental energy of water. She called on Father Time and Mother Earth to join our circle. She concentrated on the importance of love and peace.

The Northern Gate – Ásatrú Tradition (Tim Hubbard): Tim called upon Odin, the All Father, to join the circle and give his blessings. The focus was on earth. Symbols were of Northern European origin and beliefs. Ásatrú offerings of liquids represent sacrifice and blessings. Among the symbols on Tim’s altar were an animal horn used for liquids and a hammer representing the god Thor.

The Center – Fey (Mary Hudson): The focus of this ancient Celtic tradition was on spirit. From the center of the circle, Mary called upon the Shining Ones, the Tuatha dé Danann, and asked the fey (“fairy”) people to show us love and gentleness. Fey represents the concepts of the Upper, Middle, and Lower Worlds and the spirit that moves through all places.

Mary concluded the presentations by reiterating that all the Pagan religions are extremely old, are based on ancient traditions, and have been meaningful for thousands of years. She said that Pagan traditions consider the human body, too, to be an altar. She then invited us to come forward to the altars to inspect the artifacts and interact with the celebrants.

8th Stop: Hendricks Chapel

Before ascending the grand staircase leading into Hendricks Chapel, each of walked through a tent, open on all four sides, representing Abraham and Sarah’s desert tent in which they welcomed everyone, even strangers.

As we entered the sanctuary, we received lovely programs distributed by the ushers. At 5 pm, the service began. We were welcomed by Jennifer Roberts Crittenden, the current president of Women Transcending Boundaries.

Jennifer reiterated the concepts of WTB and the interreligious journey we are on. She explained that WTB was founded in Central New York just after 9/11/2001 as an egalitarian community of women who come together to respect and learn more about each other’s spiritual beliefs, cultures, and common concerns and who then share their experiences with the wider community through education and service. Jennifer encouraged everyone interested in WTB to visit the website, attend the Sunday programs and other gatherings, and consider becoming a member. She acknowledged and thanked the Gifford Foundation for its “What If…” mini-grant that made possible many parts of today’s walk.

Dr. Tiffany Steinwert, dean of Hendricks Chapel, then welcomed us and provided a brief history of the building. When Hendricks Chapel was constructed in 1929 and 1930, it was designed to be interfaith, which at that time meant for Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish students and faculty. Now it is home to many more religious traditions, faiths, and non-faiths. Dr. Steinwert called our attention to some of the chapel’s symbols of the original faith traditions as well as its openness to additional ones embraced during the intervening years.

An important part of Hendricks Chapel is its inclusive and welcoming programming. Dr. Steinwert asked us to “drink in the space” and to note the worn pews indicating the generations of people who have found welcome and sustenance here. She told again the story of the Tent of Abraham and Sarah, with her own comments and interpretation, saying that today we are not only celebrating that particular tent but also going out beyond it.

Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner, executive director of the Matilda Joselyn Gage Foundation, told stimulating stories of courage and change in the history of Syracuse. In a presentation entitled With Diversity Comes Freedom, she shared stories of Matilda Joselyn Gage and other women of her generation, as they struggled for freedom in their lives. She described the restrictive way in which 19th-century Syracuse women dressed and lived, contrasting it with the unconfined clothing and more-equitable way of life of the Onondaga Nation women who lived nearby. Encouraged by their knowledge of the Onondaga women, Matilda and her contemporaries (including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton) pushed for changes in their own lives and the lives of others. Dr. Wagner shared stories of the important roles that these women played in Syracuse’s antislavery and abolitionist movement, including the events leading up to the famed Jerry Rescue. She ended her storytelling by reminding us that we stand in the tradition of people who went before us, people who fostered greater understanding, change, justice, and inclusion for all.

Dr. Pamela L. Poulin, soprano and professor emerita at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, and her accompanist, Dr. Stephen Wilson, professor of music at SUNY Cortland, inspired us with a beautiful rendition of You Shall Have a Song by Eugene Butler. Following that, they led us in singing a spirited version of Let There Be Peace on Earth and Let It Begin With Me.

Final blessings were offered by members of two traditions we had not visited today: a Sikh blessing, recited by Dilraj Singh Sekhon; and a Native American blessing, recited by Joseph Campbell.

9th Stop: Fellowship and Food

The tempting scents emanating from a delectable array of ethnic foods, lavishly catered by Tunura Barbour, drew us to the Hendricks Chapel narthex, or foyer. A love of fine cooking is, after all, a common thread that unites us all and transcends all boundaries! As we lingered in the foyer and outside on the stairs, conversations were lively and interactions were free flowing. What a wonderful end to a wonderful day!