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Walk Stresses Peace, Unity and Caring
The pews were full at St. Vincent de Paul Church, in East Germantown, but it wasn't a typical Sunday-morning mass.
Instead, those who gathered under the soaring cathedral ceiling wore hijabs, prayer beads and kipot; they practiced, among other religions, Buddhism, Judaism, Unitarianism, Quakerism and Islam; they represented every age and color.
And yet all of those who attended this service -- one of five that took place during the fourth-annual Philadelphia Interfaith Walk for Peace and Reconciliation -- came with the same objective in mind: peace.
Despite sporadic rain showers, several hundred community members participated in the 3.1-mile walk, which began in Germantown and wound its way into Mount Airy, stopping at two mosques, two churches -- including St. Vincent de Paul -- and a synagogue along the way.
This year's theme centered around ending violence in Philadelphia. At one point, the participants -- who wore white as a symbol of peace and unity -- walked in silence as a shofar blast commemorated those killed in the city this year; to date, 169.
Meanwhile, at each house of worship, religious and community leaders led participants in prayer and song, and spoke to the assembled about the need for global unity and understanding.
For members of Al Aqsa Islamic Society Mosque, these public reaffirmations were particularly important; the Kensington-based religious institution -- the first stop on the peace walk -- is still reeling from its association with four young men involved in the recent Fort Dix terror plot.
According to media reports, Mohamad Ibrahim Shnewer, a 22- year-old taxi-cab driver originally from Jordan, had spent time worshipping at the mosque, while three other suspects -- brothers Eljvir, Dritan and Shain Duka -- had together repaired the building's roof.
The men, who have been described as "radical Islamists" by federal authorities, are being held without bail, according to news reports.
Addressing the crowd, Rev. Ernest Flores, of Second Baptist Church in Germantown, pointed out that "there are radical extremists in each of our traditions."
Standing outside the mosque earlier in the day, Peter Handler, a member of Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Manayunk and part of the walk's organizing committee, begged to differ: He stressed that such ideologies are not widespread inside the walls of Al Aqsa.
"I mean, we know the mosque really well -- the people of the mosque -- and that's not them," said Handler, who said he attends monthly gatherings there.
"Every interaction we've had with the mosque over three years of meeting there, we've seen that this is a group of people dedicated to peace," he offered.
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, who first originated this type of peace walk in Albuquerque, N.M. -- which Philadelphia used as a model -- agreed with Handler's comments, calling Al Aqsa "so community-minded."
"The only way it impacts the event is in the sense that the Muslim community feels vulnerable to hostilities from non-Muslims," she said. "But we are here in solidarity with our brothers and sisters at the mosque to say we stand with them."
'Get to Know Each Other'
Gottlieb, who flew in from her current home in California for the local walk, said that she and Imam Abdul Rauf Campos-Marquetti began the project shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., because of a need for immediate outreach to the Muslim community.
"Since the religious community is based on values of compassion and justice and peace, it provided us with a good vehicle for creating opportunities for people to come together," she explained.
The idea of a pilgrimage, said Gottlieb, seemed appropriate, since the concept is so important to the Muslim tradition. It also provided a chance for interaction and relationship-building, said the rabbi.
"[With] so many interfaith events, you're sitting and listening -- I wanted people to be able to walk and talk, and get to know each other."
The idea then gained credence right here in Philadelphia in 2004, when a group of Jews, Muslims and Christians formed their own peace walk in Center City.
Since then, the event has expanded to include participants of every faith; this year's program included a meditation guided by members of the Philadelphia Buddhist Association, a prayer by a Sikh believer and a choir performance by the Unitarian Society of Germantown, among other presentations.
The example has caught on in other cities as well -- there are now 16 similar walks in places like Vancouver, British Columbia; Tucson, Ariz.; Brooklyn, N.Y.; and in Manhattan proper.
Gottlieb said that that she is even planning an international peace-walk conference to bolster the "movement," and added that it, too, will be held next year in Philadelphia.
As she emphasized, "We can't make peace if we don't know each other."