By Dominique and Mike Rychlik
The anniversary of 9/11 is a poignant occasion to reflect on why we insist on seeing people of other faiths as fundamentally “other” when there is so much that we share. While great strides have been made in promoting inter-religious understanding, people in the United States and elsewhere are being attacked because of their religion, both verbally and physically. These attacks are often fuelled by fear and misunderstanding.
Just this summer in the United States, we saw the terrible killings of Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, the burning of a mosque in Joplin, Missouri and the terrorising of Jewish children at a summer camp in Pennsylvania. Many more instances of religious bigotry go unpublicised. Now more than ever, people of conscience need to literally stand together, showing the world that people of different faiths can focus on what unites us, rather than what divides us.
In my own life, I have found such an occasion to stand with others by helping to organise and attending the annual 9/11 Unity Walk.
This year the 8th Annual 9/11 Unity Walk, took place on Sunday, 9 September in the heart of Washington, DC.
The 9/11 Unity Walk is a Gandhi-style walk where every church, synagogue, mosque and temple along Washington, DC’s “Embassy Row”, opens its doors, and people of different faiths and cultures come together to build bridges of respect and peace.
The walk was conceived in the years following the attacks of 11 September, partly in response to the growing intolerance, suspicion and fear directed toward Muslims and, more broadly, in response to a general increase in inter-religious tensions.
This year, the Unity Walk’s theme was “From Different Paths, We Walk as One”. During the walk, we were addressed by faith leaders and observed a moment of silence for all victims of religious prejudice and violence.
The most memorable experiences of the walk included hearing the Muslim call to prayer at a synagogue, and being served a meal by the Sikh community during which we experienced the bountiful hospitality traditionally offered to those on a journey.
Numerous Christian churches – Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Evangelical – opened their doors, giving tours showcasing the practices, art and music of their traditions. The Buddhist Temple welcomed visitors, offering them a chance to chant, and a mantra meditation was led at the Khalil Gibran Memorial Garden.
At the Islamic Center of Washington, we listened to the Jewish shofar (a horn traditionally used for religious purposes) and a children’s Gospel choir sang on the steps of the mosque. We sat in awe at the beauty of the mosque and were present as our Muslim brothers and sisters prayed. These reciprocal and radical acts of hospitality between faiths are integral to the Unity Walk and send a powerful message.
But the walk is important not only because it takes place on the anniversary of 9/11, but also because it has propelled those involved to become active on an ongoing basis, and in so doing has taken this unique experience of interfaith camaraderie beyond the anniversary of 9/11.
As a result of their experience on the walk, and inspired by Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago who developed a model of interfaith youth service for young adults, our children have organised an interfaith youth service group along with about 15 other families. Capital Area Interfaith Friends (CAIF) consists of middle and high school youth from different faiths who meet regularly for service projects (such as preparing meals and eating with the homeless), and to learn about each other’s faiths.
Service – feeding the hungry, caring for those who are suffering – is at the heart of all faith traditions, and accordingly students spoke during the walk about what they have learned by engaging in service with friends from different faiths. These students held a workshop for faith communities, schools and families who are interested in starting their own Interfaith Youth Action Groups (IYAGs), in partnership with the Unity Walk.
The 9/11 Unity Walk has had many ripple effects. Organising the walk is an interfaith experience itself, as volunteers of different faiths, as well as those who are not religious, meet to plan an enriching and moving programme, and to explore how to extend the message of the Unity Walk throughout the year. We now believe that interfaith service is one of the most powerful ways we can expand the Unity Walk’s mission, showing that we can be united rather than divided by our many faiths.
As we stand together, at the 9/11 Unity Walk or when doing interfaith service, we illuminate what was formerly mysterious and build relationships. United in our common purpose, we move from fearing the “other” to building a community.
Dominique and Mike Rychlik are Co-Directors of Community Building and Outreach for the 9/11 Unity Walk. Visit the 9/11 Unity Walk website at www.911unitywalk.org.