Roughly 250 people and several dozen religious leaders attended the interfaith service -- the first in a series of public events connected to Mayor Michael Nutter's inauguration. It also served as the debut program organized by the Religious Leaders Council of Greater Philadelphia, a body formed in 2006.
"We have much in common," Cardinal Justin Rigali, leader of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, told the audience before offering an opening prayer. "We come as a people of faith to pray for our mayor, our region and our city."
Rigali acted as a co-convener for the program, along with Rabbi David E. Straus of Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood and immediate past president of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis, and Imam Anwar Muhaimin of International Muslim Brotherhood, a congregation based in West Philadelphia and comprised largely of African-Americans.
The council is made up of more than 20 Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy members and religious leaders. It is an independent body that receives logistical support from the Interfaith Center, a West Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization founded in 2004 to foster inter-religious dialogue and cooperation.
Jewish members of the council include Straus; Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, director of the Pennsylvania Council for the Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbi Leonard Gordon, representing the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly; Rabbi Richard Hirsh of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association; Rabbi David Gutterman, executive director of the Vaad; and Rabbi Ira F. Stone, current Vaad president.
Straus said for now, the body has chosen to focus on relationship-building and local issues, rather than engage in deep discussion on theology or world affairs.
"I believe that as religious leaders, the power that we have is symbolic power. But that is real power and can make a huge difference," said Straus in an interview after the Jan. 3 event. "Until 2006, there had not been, on a regional level, a place for religious leaders to be able to come together and build relationships."
The council drafted a pledge for peace and nonviolence that is being circulated to congregations and religious organizations throughout the city. The council then extended an invitation to Nutter -- who was sworn in as mayor on Monday -- to take part in the pre-inaugural service.
Ever since the number of homicides exceeded 400 in 2006 -- it dipped slightly in 2007 -- violent crime has been a major political issue in Philadelphia. Nutter is taking office with the hope that he can bring the violence under control, something many believe former Mayor John F. Street had failed to do.
Nutter and his wife, Lisa, joined in a procession with most of the members of the council. During the service, the Rev. Luis Cortés Jr. and Rev. James Moore Sr. called Nutter to the altar to lead a "pledge to promote peace."
"We pledge to make our homes and neighborhoods zones of peace, free from fear, filled with respect and marked by deeds of kindness," Nutter stated along with the audience, the words reverberating throughout the cavernous cathedral.
The service also featured readers from the New Testament, the Koran and Pirkei Avot, a section of the Mishnah.
Afterward, Nutter told reporters that the service struck a chord during a particularly emotional time following a long campaign, and especially, as he prepared to take over as the city's chief executive.
Father Gregory Fairbanks, director of ecumenical and inter-religious affairs for the archdiocese, stated that the hope is that, at some point, the council will expand beyond the three largest Abrahamic faiths to include other traditions as well, including Buddhism and Hinduism.