NEW YORK (RNS) — Minister Onleilove Chika Alston went to high school right across from the Twin Towers. September 11, 2001, changed her life — it changed the shape of her school neighborhood, destroyed the mall in which she would hang out during school days — but even more so, she said, it changed the life of her best friends. Her Mali-American Muslim friend “began to be bullied in the city that she loved,” said Alston.
Alston was one of more than 15 faith leaders who spoke Thursday night (Sept. 9) at a prayer walk sponsored by the Interfaith Center of New York City. The walk, which one cleric described as a pilgrimage, started at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue and stopped at four other houses of prayer.
At each stop, faith leaders and commissioners from New York City offices for social justice and human rights offered prayers and short sermons on uniting in love in response to acts of hatred.
A group of Ghanaian drummers and Archbishop Timothy Dolan blessed the walkers at their starting point at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Although the gloomy evening threatened rain, a crowd of around 40 at the Cathedral grew throughout the night to more than 50.
Faith leaders — among them Sikh, Muslim and Jewish leaders — called for unity and peace in response to the divisions of hate. They and their partners in city government reflected on the work toward peace over the past two decades.
“No one is born hating,” said Deborah Lauter of the New York City Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes. “Hatred is learned and can be unlearned,” she added. The office was established two years ago this week, said Lauter, in response to a rash of antisemitic attacks. “We’re setting a standard for communities around the world,” she added.
Nancy Pascal, director of New York City’s Office of Faith and Community Partnerships, urged faith leaders to witness to their faith with their social justice ministries.
“Through your work is where we see God,” said Pascal. “The work you do every day is universal — it touches people who are atheist, who are homeless,” she said.
Pascal highlighted the power faith communities have together rather than “doing their work in silos.”
Hanadi Doleh, director for community partnerships at the Interfaith Center, echoed Pascal’s words. Doleh said she was touched by the witness of so many faith communities gathered together. “It’s beautiful to see everyone here all together, standing in solidarity in unity against hate,” said Doleh.
Doleh told Religion News Service the original idea for an interfaith walk against hate was sparked by a hate crime in Brooklyn in May. On Eid al-Fitr, the final night of Ramadan, Tayba Islamic Center in Brooklyn was tagged with anti-Muslim graffiti.
When community leaders gathered to discuss the idea for the walk, they decided to wait for the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. “We came together and said, ‘Why don’t we just do something for 9/11?’ We can do something bigger,” said Doleh.
Faith leaders called upon their shared solidarity as lovers of peace but also as citizens of “the greatest city in the world.” Pastor Drew Hyun led the crowd in singing “Amazing Grace” in front of the Salvation Army’s Social Justice Commission building. Then the crowd pivoted to secular “hymns” celebrating the city, including “Empire State of Mind” and Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.”
To be a New Yorker is an interfaith state of mind, according to many of the speakers. Despite her parents in the suburbs wondering why she chooses to live in a harsh city, Carmelyn Malalis, chair of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, said nights like this one demonstrated the richness of the city’s faith community.
“This is exactly why I continue to live in New York City,” said Malalis.