Prayer, Peace & Song to Start the Day

world-peaceOK, this is San Francisco: love and peace reign. But it’s also Thanksgiving: gratitude and community. Celebrations of love, peace, gratitude and community are taking place not just on the left coast but across the country, as we begin to exhale after a bitterly troubled few months. Exhalation in community can be a great way to start the day.

“Hope,” said one speaker at the recent Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Breakfast, “is right there where it’s always been, between faith and love.” There was plenty of all three. Some 385 early-risers were gathered for the event, sponsored by the San Francisco Interfaith Council and billed as “The Soul of the City: Faith and Social Justice in San Francisco.”

Marsha Attie

Marsha Attie

It all began with the sounding of a Buddhist Ceremonial In Kin Bell – a successful attempt to bring a little quietude into the amiable masses – followed by Pacifica Institute’s Fatih Ferdi Ates’ recitation of the Muslim Call to Prayer, in a voice that certainly reaches to the heavens. Brahma Kumaris Sr. Sukanya Belsare read the interfaith statement of the sponsoring SFIC, which is read at all board meetings and events and says, in effect, “Whatever your faith or faith tradition, it’s okay. We’re here to learn, and understand.”

Led by Cantor Marsha Attie of Congregation Emanu-El, the crowd then launched into a rousing rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Throughout the two-hour scrambled-eggs-&-mixed-fruit breakfast there were songs, honors, laughs and commentaries. Not to mention prayers in virtually every known faith tradition. A few highlights are encapsulated below:

SFIC Executive Director Michael Pappas: “The interfaith community will always stand for human rights, social justice and equality for all.”

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee (to a standing ovation): “San Francisco will remain a sanctuary city.”

Kat Taylor & Tom Steyer

Kat Taylor & Tom Steyer

Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus, Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of California, introducing event honorees Kat Taylor and Tom Steyer to the audience and audience to the honorees (loosely paraphrased): “Bringing the mind effectively into the heart to do good works can result in reverence, compassion, forgiveness and courage.” Andrus then did a warm-up exercise, reciting a litany of actions such as feeding the hungry, protecting the oppressed and helping the poor, to an enthusiastic audience response of “We’re Still In!”

Honoree Tom Steyer, Founder and President, NextGen Climate (and major donor to progressive political causes – San Francisco is still San Francisco): “Troubled times give everyone a chance to lead a meaningful life. (A) challenge is to embrace our full humanity. The. U.S. didn’t start with full humanity for everyone.” Steyer then deferred to the co-honoree, his wife Kat Taylor, Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Beneficial State Bank and a ferocious advocate for changing the food and banking systems for good through business models and philanthropy.

Mark Leno

Mark Leno

Honoree Taylor: “You knew I would sing” – launching into the Christian hymn standard “Here I Am, Lord,” with several hundred of the guests joining in.

Presented a proclamation by SFIC Board Chair G. L. Hodge – who said he relished the opportunity, since the recipient was famous for issuing proclamations himself, termed-out California State Senator Mark Leno: “I recognize this frame, from something I sent earlier. But I always say, ‘Reuse, Recycle, Re-elect.’”

Nancy Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, after leading the crowd in reciting “The Prayer of St. Francis”: “Ministering to God’s creation is an act of worship. We must affirm the dignity and worth of every person, and we all have to be instruments of God’s peace.”

 

 

 

Sewing Seeds of Peace & Justice

Rally 7.10.16-crowd

I have always drawn the line at public demonstrations. Writing letters to editors or legislators, signing petitions, calling representatives, even publishing blogs & the occasional tweet – those   reasonable, genteel efforts in behalf of justice – have satisfied my self-righteousness self-image just fine. Marching, picketing, that sort of in-your-face activity I have happily left to other more courageous friends.

Rally 7.10.16-G.L.

But now? Mass shootings, killings of seemingly innocent African Americans by police, sniper killings of police “in retaliation”? A dangerously polarized country facing a presidential choice between the two most unpopular candidates in history – one a widely mistrusted history-making woman and the other a scary narcissist egomaniac (IMHO)? No peace, little justice.

What can you do?

Rally 7.10.16-Do Justice

When a couple of guys who have become unlikely close friends decide to put together a rally on the steps of City Hall, you show up. One leads a mostly white, fairly traditional Presbyterian church in an upscale neighborhood, the other leads an African American Pentecostal congregation in a depressed area across town. Within a few days, at the end of a week that saw the shooting of an African American man in Minnesota and the killing of five policemen in Dallas, the two friends arranged an event to argue for sanity:

FAITH COMMUNITIES UNITED FOR JUSTICE AND PEACE. Nothing big, nothing political, nothing advertised as changing the world. A chance, though, for people from across the spectrums of race, politics and religion to show up and share their hope for a better world. For this writer, and strangers of assorted skin colors and garb (yarmulkes, hoodies, religious robes, flip flops) it was a chance to stand shoulder to shoulder, sign to sign, and catch one’s breath after recent weeks of tragedy and horror.

Rally 7.10.16-David Chiu

One of the ministers in attendance, who happens also to be a professionally trained singer, warmed up the crowd (which grew incrementally as the hour progressed) with a group sing-along to an old spiritual: I feel like going on. Though trials mount on every hand, I feel like going on.

An Asian American legislator told the crowd he had brought along his 4-month-old son. He and his wife have just bought a home in the depressed area. “so that my son can grow up,” he said, “with Black and Latino friends. I hope they will all be judged by their character.”

An interfaith leader quoted Martin Luther King, Jr’s phrase, “Returning violence for violence multiples violence.” He argued for turning this trend around – and drew applause when he said, “We need to support gun laws.”

A tall, young African American man holding an orange sign that read “LOVE & PEACE” spoke of his own father being shot by a policeman when the son was 16.

Rally 7.10.16-2 signs

 

A public official told of an incident several days earlier in which an armed man had been talked down from a threatening situation, “and no one was injured or killed.”

A rabbi quoted a Jewish prayer from Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice shall you pursue . . .”

One of the leaders of a Muslim organization that promotes interfaith cooperation and understanding spoke of the message of peace which is central to Islam.

Signs were waved – they carried words and phrases like: Walk Humbly. All Lives Matter. Light Overcomes Darkness. – and – Imagine all the people living life in peace.

Rally 7.10.16-Keith

 

When the crowd disbursed, stepping out of the shadow of the City Hall steps and back into the summer sunshine, there was a demonstrable sense of light overcoming darkness. The word is that rallies and demonstrations for peace were taking place across the country on the same day. Out of them all, perhaps, will emerge a few seeds of justice and compassion to push back against the anger and hostility that has claimed every news cycle of recent months.

Because, as another widely quoted saying also heard from the rally lectern goes, You have to give them something to hope for.

A Ramadan Birthday Dinner

Ramadan - dinner crowd

Dates, rice and eggplant moussaka for birthday dinner? It works.

A recent birthday of mine happened to coincide with a long-planned Ramadan Interfaith Iftar Dinner co-hosted by Pacifica Institute and Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. Since I was minimally involved in the planning and execution of the event, and maximally involved in the birthday, it made sense to combine the two. Plus, I got a lot of mileage out of responding to questions about birthday plans with news we were expecting 225 or so friends for dinner.

The eventual total number of guests will remain a mystery, because so many kept showing up without reservations and we were simply told not to turn anyone away. Attendees were Muslim and non-Muslim, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Buddhists. (“You know the difference between a Buddhist and a non-Buddhist?” quipped Rev. Ron Kobata of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco; “The non-Buddhist thinks there is a difference.”)

This was not just a celebratory dinner, it was an Iftar dinner, the sunset meal at which Muslims break the fast they have observed since sunrise. To be clear about it, sunrise on June 8th in San Francisco was at 5:48 AM, and sunset was at 8:37. That is considerably longer than this weak-willed Christian generally goes without sustenance. Having had a perfectly good lunch, and  swiped a half-dozen or so dates while putting bowls on the tables, I still had to sneak a glass of milk from the kitchen to keep from fainting away at the welcome table.

Given that dinner would not be served until after the call to prayer at 8:37, the program preceded the meal. It included a video about Pacifica Institute, which was founded in 2003 by a group of Turkish Muslims dedicated to social justice, interfaith cooperation, relationship-building and partnership for the common good – any tiny advancement of which would make a pretty fine birthday present for anybody. Pacifica is aligned with the worldwide Hizmet Movement (“the Service”) which promotes service to humanity regardless of faith, tradition, gender or ethnicity.

Fatih Ferdi Ates giving the call to prayer

Fatih Ferdi Ates giving the call to prayer

We also saw a video about how fasting strengthens one’s spirituality in multiple ways. Muslims observe the fast – abstaining from food, drink, smoking, sexual activity and bad behavior including lying or cursing – every day during the month of Ramadan; which does not exactly compare with giving up chocolate for Lent.

Keynote speaker Dr. Scott Alexander, Assistant Professor of Muslim Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, spoke to the evening’s theme: The Art of Living Together. “Sharing the joy of fasting,” he said, “fills us all with hope. It stands in opposition to the strident voices of hatred that want us to believe our troubles are the fault of others.” Alexander ended with a prayer that “God will allow others different from ourselves in all ways to touch our hearts.”

One of the co-leaders of the event, who served as MC along with Pacifica Institute’s Fatih Ferdi Ates, was Calvary member Robin Morjikian, whose father is Armenian. Ates, when thanking her, noted that the evening involved the daughter of an Armenian working with a group of Turkish Muslims on an event held at a Presbyterian church and featuring a keynote speech by a professor from a Catholic University. Buddhist Rev. Kobata presented awards to three honorees.

In lieu of birthday cake, dessert consisted of mixed fruit and baklava. I’m not sure how next year’s birthday will stack up.

On Light Overcoming Darkness

MLK on darkness

While governments talked of war and security last week, and innocents in Lebanon, Kenya, France, Afghanistan and elsewhere buried their dead, faith communities around the globe struggled to find ways to make sense of it all. Or at least to respond. Places of worship opened their doors, labyrinths were crowded with walkers, friends called friends.

One response in one corner of the world came on Sunday, November 15 in the form of a service of words and music by Muslims, Christians and Jews at San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church which this writer was fortunate to attend. It is, in all probability, exemplary of other responses across the planet.

Calvary pastor John Weems noted, in welcoming a sanctuary filled with visitors and regulars, that ever since the beginning of history there have been times when it seemed the world would end, “that darkness would overcome. But in fact death and darkness do not get the last word.”

And the next word came from Fatih Ates, San Francisco & East Bay Director of Pacifica Institute: “Peace and blessings on us all.” Ates gave the Adhan, or Muslim Call to Prayer. Conveniently for the non-Arabic speaking members of the congregation, an English translation of the Adhan was published in the bulletin. (It begins with repetitions of “God is Greater,” continues through bearing witness to core precepts and ends with “There is no god except the One God.” Believers and nonbelievers alike might embrace the notion that Somebody Else is still in control.)

Later in the service, Ates spoke of his deep faith, and of how that faith – Islam – “strongly condemns acts of violence. Every terrorist act,” he said, “is against universal values and human values.” He emphasized these truths with quotations from the Qur’an. (Chapter 5, verse 32; Chapter 4, v 93, and Chapter 49 v 13; readers are invited to look them up.) “Terrorism has no religion, no faith” Ates said; “we must fight against extremism.”

Among other messages:

Rabbi Lawrence Raphael of Congregation Sherith Israel referred to the last line of the Kaddish, the prayer said at Jewish funerals and occasionally at other times: “May God who makes peace in heaven . . . make peace upon us.”

Calvary pastor Joann Lee, speaking to the children, suggested that in scary times they “look for the helper;” because there are always helpers, something borne out by both scriptural references and secular reality.

San Francisco Interfaith Council Executive Director Michael Pappas spoke of the “solidarity and prayers of people of many faiths” (locally including 800 San Francisco congregations) that would ultimately overcome darkness.

And for the prayer, another Calvary pastor, Victor Floyd, sang the “Kyrie Eleison” (Lord have mercy) familiar to Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox and other Christians — in Urdu, the language of Fatih Ates’ native Turkey.

Finally, there was a moving moment of light. California Assemblymember David Chiu, a member of Calvary who went from social justice work into politics a few years ago, explained the Presbyterian custom of “passing the peace,” greeting friends and strangers. candlesChiu spoke of San Francisco as being a city on a hill, a city of light, and everyone, having been given candles on entering the sanctuary, raised their lighted candles in a room in which the light until that moment was dim.

The act of raising a candle into the gloom, lifting some light of hope, making one small statement against injustice may be primarily symbolic, but it’s a start.

And proof that light can drive out darkness.