Walking for peace

Spring is often noted for a time of renewal and reemergence, making it the perfect time to strengthen communal bonds – and the Philadelphia Interfaith Walk for Peace and Reconciliation.

This year’s walk kicks off at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 27 at Al-Aqsa Islamic Society, 1501 Germantown Ave. and will end at 6 p.m. at West Kensington Ministry, 2140 N. Hancock St.

In its 11th year, the ecumenical event draws hundreds of Philadelphians from an array of faith traditions and invites them to transform themselves from strangers to neighbors through conversation during a serene stroll with multiple stops at various houses of worship.

While synagogues, mosques and churches along with faith leaders feature prominently throughout the event, conversion does not. All faiths – even those questioning the concept – are welcome. The agenda is squarely fixed on considering new ways to achieve peace, starting one neighbor and one neighborhood at a time. PCHR is a longtime supporter of this event.

“People can look at this as ‘hippy trippy,’ but what are the options? What we’re seeking is to be a part of society in an active way,” said Lance Laver, one of the co-founders of the walk and member of Mishkan Shalom Synagogue. “That’s peace work. And we’re enlarging the community that’s doing this work.”

Participants are encouraged to wear white, as a show of unity. All ages are welcome and a bus will be available for those unable to walk the distance.

Peace Walk

The 2014 Interfaith Peace Walk

The walk emerged from the confusing, even dangerous, early days after 9/11 – when anyone seen as “other” automatically drew suspicion. It was an atmosphere that threatened to poison the American ideal. Building on earlier interfaith efforts by Pennsylvania native Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, a band of thoughtful people gathered to replicate peace walks that were budding throughout the country, many inspired by Buddhist monks trekking across America.

“It has exceeded our earlier vision,” said Vic Compher, a member of Tabernacle United Church and another one of the co-founders of the local faith walk. “But that’s the nature of an adventure, going to where you don’t know where you’re going to end up . . . really being side-by-side with the people in these communities and the sacred ground they’ve created.”

What Compher and his compatriots have witnessed flourishing from that ground is hope – in the form of constant work toward improving communities from the ground up. The walk continues to travel to various corners of the city, from Germantown to West Philadelphia and this year in Kensington.

Yet the movement extends beyond just the walk.

A core group gathers monthly at the Al Aqsa Islamic Society, where the idea was hatched among members of the three Abrahamic traditions – Jewish, Islamic and Christian. It has since grown to include Buddhists, secular humanists, Sikhs, Hindus, Baha’i and others to exchange insights, discuss concerns, and, more importantly, viable solutions.

Topics may be the latest developments in Syria or a shooting in Olney, as every ripple can impact the world, Haver said.

During its 11-year history, some three dozen houses of worship have engaged directly, along with a growing list of community organizations that share common goals for creating more peaceful environments, groups as diverse as Mothers in Charge to Heeding God’s Call to the Ethical Society of Philadelphia. Initiatives such as the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia’s Zones of Peace have arisen. And the numbers of people lacing their sneaks has swollen to some 1,000 in some years.

April 2014 has some 20 religious and spiritual observances – from the birth of Lord Swaminarayan for followers of that Hindu tradition to the birth of Guru Nanak for Sikhs to Passover for Jews and Easter for Christians.

In fact, April 27 also serves the Jewish Holocaust Memorial Day, a time when people of all backgrounds reflect on the evil that can come when good people do nothing to stop it.

It’s contemplating scenarios such as these and many others that are the real drivers for organizers, not necessarily tallying a huge number of participants, said Linda Toia, who heads the program committee.

“My hope would be that we provide a place and a time of trust, where people feel safe to have the opportunity to interact with each other as human beings, to get underneath some of our distances and see each other as individuals,” Toia said. “We’re all here on this earth at the same time, living together.

“It’s not just about the differences. It’s about finding the commonalities we have with each other.”