911 Unity Walk promotes peace


[Washington Window] On a saffron September afternoon, a multi-cultural crowd of around 2,000 set forth from the Washington Hebrew Congregation to take part in the 9/11 Unity Walk.

In the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi’s exhortation, “You must be the change you want to see in the world,” they gathered on the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on America and the centenary of Gandhi’s satyagraha campaign of nonviolent resistance in South Africa to send the world a message of peace, compassion and unity.

Strung out like prayer flags along Massachusetts Avenue, the walkers, wearing saris and hijabs, clerical collars and Chinese straw hats, kafiyas, kippas and kofi caps streamed toward their first stop, Washington National Cathedral.

Spreading out across the grass, they rocked to a remake of Sister Sledge’s 1979 hit, “We are Family,” performed by members of the National Association of Former Foster Care Children of America.

“Regardless of our tribe, regardless of our ethnic origin, regardless of our religious affiliation, we are family,” said the Rev. Robert K. Goodwin, president of the Points of Light Foundation, punching the air after the performance.

“Can everybody say, ‘We are family?'”

The walk, now in its second year, grew out of a need “to confront our differences and foster a greater understanding” following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, according to its Web site, 911unitywalk.org. It is a way for people of all faith traditions and none to walk together, “demonstrating a collective refusal to be divided on the basis of religion or by those seeking to divide.”

First time participants included prominent religious leaders such as Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and the Rev. Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals.

A Unity Walk also took place in New York this year. Organizers have set a goal of starting annual walks in 40 countries by 2010.

In Washington, the walk’s route – and natural home – is the mile and a half stretch of Massachusetts Ave., “Embassy Row,” from the synagogue to the Gandhi Memorial.

Leaving the cathedral after a word from Bishop John B. Chane – “The opportunity to create a new world depends on each one of you and it must be a journey that begins with prayer” – walkers began the gentle downhill stroll to the Islamic Center.

They carried with them panels from the Children’s Cloth of Many Colors, a quilt created by children to show their hopes and dreams for peace in the world.

A joyful spirit was evident en route to the mosque: Members of the Community of Christ dressed as clowns handed out lollipops and Buddhist Culture Center volunteers distributed sunflower buttons emblazoned with the words “Choose Hope.” Church bells chimed, and black-clad clergy from the Vatican Embassy, including Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal nuncio, came out to shake hands.

Arriving at the Islamic Center just before Asr, the Muslim afternoon prayers, the walkers were offered dates and Arabic sweets from large trays.

Extending a greeting, assalam wa alaikum, peace be upon you, the center’s director Abdullah M. Khouj pointed out that the word Islam means peace.

“Peace is an essential element of the human being’s life,” he said. “Without peace, we would not enjoy life or freedom at all.”

Standing beside Khouj as the afternoon sun slanted onto the arches of the mosque, Cizik, the Evangelical, and Wuerl, the Roman Catholic Archbishop, seconded his message.

After two Jewish cantors sang “Ose Shalom,” the Hebrew prayer for peace, the walkers filed out of the compound to continue their procession, passing a group singing the Latin round “Dona Nobis Pachem” – grant us peace – outside the gates.

Reaching their destination, the walkers were greeted with the sound of the Hare Krishna mantra, chanted by four devotees sitting on a raised platform at Gandhi’s feet.

Tables set up on the surrounding streets were laden with small boxes of triangular samosas and round syrupy sweets that filled the air with the smell of spices. And when the throng had gathered, eaten and staked out a place, Gandhi’s grandson—Arun Gandhi—stepped up to the platform to share some of his memories.

He remembered his grandfather telling him, as a 12-year-old boy, that it was the “sacred duty” of all people to learn about each others’ faiths and to build bridges, he said. Gandhi used the story of six blind men describing an elephant to explain how all religions see a piece of God, but none can see the whole.

“They were not wrong, but they were not entirely right, either,” he said. “The only way we can come close to the truth is by sharing our understanding and our truths with each other.”

Bemoaning the lack of a leader like Gandhi in the world today, Lodi Gyari, special envoy of the Dalai Llama, said it was important that religious leaders speak up to promote unity.

“Just don’t criticize the politicians,” he said. “They are politicians. But people who are religious leaders, they have a moral responsibility [to promote peace].”

Looking out at the children’s quilt, at the globes cut from felt and the circles of small hand-prints, he reflected on the real value of the walk: “The most important thing is that young children who walked with us see that we can do this – we can walk together.”

As the curry-colored sun slipped down behind Gandhi’s memorial, the Rev. Mpho Tutu, director of the Tutu Institute for Prayer and Pilgrimage, offered a final blessing, her baby daughter strapped to her back.

“We pray most deeply that we may be the peace that we pray to see,” she said. And the ensuing murmur meant, in the language of all faiths, “Amen.”

First appeared in Washington Window Vol. 75 No. 10, Oct 2006 as

United in Faith

911 Unity Walk Promotes Peace