Monday, September 13, 2010

Liberty walks

So, about the inspiring speeches at Liberty Walk: An Interfaith Rally for Religious Freedom. I'm not going to recap everything we heard, just some highlights. (And read to the end, as I'm saving the best for last, though it happened first.)

Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanovsky of Congregation Ansche Chesed recited the lines from the 23rd Psalm about going through the valley of the shadow of death and yet not being afraid your You are with me: here, so close by Ground Zero, we really are in the valley of the shadow of death. And yet we fear not. Like the Psalm, the Constitution ('which does not stop at Canal Street" - applause!) is not afraid by confident and wise, and an inspiration to us as "we labor to bring warmth to a cold city." He mentioned that this was a day when many Jews fast, in memory of a political assassination 2600 years ago by an extremist who was afraid, not confident, not wise.

Frank Fredericks, one of the 24-year-old organizers, identified himself as a born-again Christian, a small town conservative. It's not everyday someone like him gets together with a rabbinical student in a Catholic church to lend support to a Muslim center, he quipped! But it is time for "a conversation we never had after 9/11," a conversation about Muslims' place in America - they should be welcomed like every other group, for "religious freedom isn't just a constitutional right but the ethos of America." The interfaith movement has aimed too low, focusing on mere tolerance, policy and photo-ops rather than engaging popular, non-academic and younger audiences. Young people, you are not the future; you are the now.

Charles Wolf, a 9/11 widower, a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a Republican and an Episcopalian, lampooned the "manufactured controversy" about Park51 through an elaborate analogy with "The Music Man." He deplored the way a project welcomed by all at the time it was proposed had been politicized by the "far right," but also tried to understand how Cheney types have been able to succeed in this politicization, starting with the general ignorance of Islam in most of the US. His own grief was folded delicately into it: as the anniversary of the attacks approaches each year, families of the victims become anxious and sensitive. It's shameful to play on this sensitivity as the controversy manufacturers have.

Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, part of the Muslim wing of an African American family of both Christians and Muslims, invoked the memory of Harry Belafonte, who was inspired by Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois, in turn drew strength from the examples of Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman. Abolition was the original interfaith movement! And to those who say you can't build a mosque somewhere, he recalled the words of Prophet Muhammad: the earth is a mosque. So pray everywhere!

Joshua Stanton, the other organizer (the rabbinical student), told of his grandmother. In her nineties, she still remembers a time when she was girl, living very near to where we all were. A mob passed through the street below shouting "Death to the Jews!" Doors were bolted and windows shuttered, and nobody was hurt, but the memory stays with her to this day. Many of us are here because of experiences of being bullied for our beliefs, he said, but all of us are here for our faith in America.

The Reverent Katharine Henderson, President of Auburn Theological Seminar wrapped up, invoking her own grandparents - her father saw an African American man dragged behind a truck until he was dead, and her mother (in the church with us!) had marched in the Civil Rights movement - and added to "pray everywhere" her own tradition's "pray without ceasing!" And she recalled the "unity, compassion, the sweetness" of the time after 9/11 in New York, when was concerned about and wanted to learn about others. Could we bring that back?

Finally, the words that most moved me, Father Kevin Madigan's opening remarks, as he welcomed us to his church, St. Peter's. Only just reopened after an extended period of restoration, made necessary on 9/11 when an engine from an exploding aircraft crashed through its ceiling (another engine from the same craft destroyed the roof of the building where Park51 is planned), St. Peter's is the city's oldest Catholic church. He's noticed in the anti-Islamic frenzy the same sorts of arguments that were made against Catholics long ago right in this very part of town - and not so long ago. There followed an exquisite chain of parallels. Just last week was the fiftieth anniversary of a meeting between presidential candidate John F. Kennedy and skeptics from Protestant Seminaries, he told us. At Notre Dame, the anniversary had been marked by a talk called something like "Why did it matter that JFK was Catholic?" At this very moment, he continued, a young Muhammad or Fatima may be dreaming of becoming president. Perhaps in years to come she or he will have to face some analog to the seminaries. But a few decades after that, they'll be saying "Why did it matter...?"

Together, these wonderful talks gave a real sense of the interfaith struggle in place and time - both long-term and right-here-right-now. We are the now, a now in a place with a long history of interfaith encounters (happy and unhappy). A now already big (as Leibniz said in the Monadology) with the future. Feel the momentum!

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