With a week to go before Christmas, the president of Georgetown University, John DeGioia, decided to make a contribution to countering the rising tide of tension and fear in the world and the country by bringing together an Interfaith Gathering for Solidarity, Understanding and Peace.
The event brought together members of the Washington, D.C. community to hear reflections from faith leaders across traditions — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, Bah’ai, Latter Day Saints — and to join together in music and prayer.
In his welcoming remarks, DeGioia said, “At this moment when acts of fear and violence threaten to divide us, we are called to bring the resources of our faiths: a responsibility to work for justice, to serve our communities, to work for the common good. What we share across our traditions is what is needed most in this moment.”
DeGioia noted how “this coming together is the story of our nation, of showing who we are: a deeply religious country, a very pluralistic country and an extraordinarily tolerant people guided by the values of interior freedom, human dignity, human flourishing and the common good. We are all responsible for all. This is our work: to build solidarity, to work together for the common good. To harness the spirit of togetherness, to realize the shared resources of our traditions and to be united in a spirit of compassion and of service to our world.”
Rev. Cheryl Sanders, a professor of Christian Ethics at Howard University School of Divinity, read Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan from Luke’s gospel (10:29-37) in which a Samaritan traveller comes upon a victim, bandages his wounds, and takes him to a nearby inn to be cared for, putting down his own money to cover the expenses. “Go, and do likewise,” says Jesus to his listeners.
Following the reading, the Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, shared that during Pope Francis’ September visit, “I said to him . . . ‘Holy Father, when you get on the platform for mass, you are going to see the face of our nation.’ And as we stood there looking out over that vast sea of faces, what we encountered was a reflection of ethnic traditions and heritage found all over the globe.”
Wuerl told the audience of about 400 that “all of us are one nation of people and our diversity is expressed in the religious pluralism of our land. E pluribus unum (from the many, one). How we see one another is at the heart of how we treat one another. The actions of a few must never change all of us. Acts of evil, acts of terror happen because there are those who do them. And then there are those who are silent. We are addressing that silence by our gathering and speaking out today. We know how to answer the question: Who is my neighbour? Let us never forget: We are each other’s neighbour.”
After a reading of verses from the Quran (49:1-13) that instructed those of belief not to let one people ridicule another people, nor to insult one another by offensive names, the Imam and president of The Nation’s Mosque, Talib Shareef, said, “Adam’s identity was not a racial identity nor an ethnic identity nor a national identity. The primary identity given by he who created him was human identity. There are not two types of humans. There is only one type. We have all come from Adam. Our primary identity is human. If you begin to call each other names and do violence to one another, you have lost your identity. All of the prophets are given family names. God calls us to be a family. To work together for a better world. We are one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Rabbi Batya Steinlauf read from the Book of Genesis (1:26-27) “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness. In the image of God, God created humanity, male and female God created them.”
Then the Senior Rabbi of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, Bruce Lustig, reflected on the responsibility that is ours to make choices that glorify God. “We have free will. We are masters of our own destiny. If religion can be taught to engender hate, it can also be taught to engender love. We often don’t create our circumstance in this world but we do fashion our response. A self is formed from effort and from faith. At each moment we make a moral choice. Let this gathering be our promise that we will choose love over hate, peace over violence. That we will endeavour to live as God’s children, bringing compassion and tolerance, and building a better world for our children and our children’s children. May we act as if we were worthy of being created in God’s image.”
Laila Brothers, a Muslim Georgetown University student, reaffirmed Rabbi Lustig’s message with her own: “In these times of turmoil it is easy to lose sight of the good in the world. To be divided along political and religious lines. To stay silent and not to speak up. We must stand by each other as writers of history, as architects of our children’s future, as collective caretakers of this world.”
When Vice-President Joe Biden took to the podium, he turned to the diverse set of leaders on stage in the university’s Gaston Hall, many of whom were dressed in religious wear, and said: “This is America.”
“I believe faith is a gift,” Biden said, after lamenting what he called hate speech and phobia following the recent terrorist attacks. “It’s a gift that should be embraced, and it embodies not just what we believe, but it dictates what we must do. We must demonstrate our faith in actions.”
Four days later, on Sunday afternoon, Dec. 20, people from all faith communities joined together in a three-kilometre walking pilgrimage from the Washington Hebrew Synagogue to the National Cathedral to the Islamic Centre offering prayers at each one under the banner of Faith Over Fear: Choosing Unity Over Extremism.
Ryan directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C. (www.tomryancsp.org)