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Columnist Andrea Ayvazian: Interfaith service creates a miracle

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Friday, June 16, 2017

We were fearful that weather predictions of 90-plus degree heat would keep people from attending our outdoor, Interfaith Service scheduled for June 11.

The worker bees who had been organizing the service since January were worried that people would not wander over with sunglasses and water bottles to sit under a big tent in the field behind Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton on such a hot afternoon.

Stepping out on faith, a hearty crew arrived at the synagogue early Sunday morning and started hauling 350 chairs out of the cool of the building and into the heat of the tent. When set up was completed, we briefly rested. The chairs were empty, the air was still, and we wondered what would unfold in the hours ahead.

To our delight, shortly before 2 p.m., people started to arrive — and they kept coming and coming. When the chairs under the tent were full, people sat on the grass, and on nearby steps in the shade.

We began the service with the Amherst Gospel Choir singing and processing down the center aisle. I exhaled a great sigh of relief. The service had started! All those months of preparation were beginning to bear fruit. The choir’s voices were beautiful and powerful. My heart quickened as the choir shifted to South African freedom songs and the congregation rose to sing along.

Following the freedom songs, Sister Clare Carter from the Peace Pagoda began drumming and walking slowly from the back of the tent up the center aisle. As she continued drumming and chanting on stage, the group fell into what Quakers call a “gathered silence.”

Rabbi Justin David then offered a formal welcome. His loving words seemed to expand the walls of the big tent as all were invited to bring our whole selves to this Interfaith Service lifting up the sacredness of the natural world and our resolve to protect it.

The Rev. Dr. Jacquelyn Smith-Crooks’ beautiful invocation extended this message of gratitude for the good green Earth and for community and connection.

After Annie Patterson and Peter Blood led the congregation in a stirring Pete Seeger song, the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas shared a life-giving litany in praise of God’s creation.

When Quaker climate change activist Jay O’Hara spoke in his soft tones with profoundly moving words, he outlined the dangers we are facing and the urgency of the climate crisis. In order to keep global temperatures below a killing level, he said, “We need a miracle.”

As we pondered Jay’s stunning message, Sarah Metcalf led us in “Mother Earth,” a Neil Young song that reflected Jay’s words and imprinted his message on our minds. Youth climate change activist Madeleine Lombard then shared a prayer by Chief John Yellow Lark, of the Ute tribe. Her sweet, strong energy was just what we needed. The crowd was riveted.

Rabbi Jacob Fine and Rabbi David Seidenberg offered a beautiful prayer in both English and Hebrew and took our hearts to a place of deep thanksgiving.

Naz Mohammed, observing Ramadan and not consuming water during that hot afternoon, read from the Quran and called our attention to the love of the Earth found in the teachings of the prophet Mohammed. Her powerful witness was deeply moving.

The Amherst Gospel Choir then sang “I Need You to Survive,” by David Frazier. Although the entire service was stirring and is difficult to capture in words, the impact of the song is almost impossible to convey. The words, the rhythm, the repetition, the song leader moving through the congregation, the power of the whole experience had many of us in tears. We sang together, strong and clear: “I pray for you, you pray for me. I love you, I need you to survive. I won’t harm you with words from my mouth. I love you, I need you to survive.” The tent was song-filled, spirit-filled, love-filled, and the air crackled with energy.

Our keynote speaker, the Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, minister for ecological justice at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain, then took to the stage and built on the words we had just sung and on our feelings of connection and resolve. Reflecting on a passage from 1 Kings in the Hebrew scriptures, White-Hammond spoke about love and loss, and about seeking ways to bind community in the face of danger and fear. She spoke about having enough, experiencing abundance, and uniting to combat a threat that needs everyone’s contribution of work, devotion, and care.

Interrupted by shouts of “Yes!,” “Amen!,” and “All right!,” as well as by applause, White-Hammond spoke from a deep well of conviction, faith, experience, and power. Her message of reweaving community was just what we needed to steady our frightened hearts and to inspire us to acts of faith and courage in the fight for a just and sustainable future.

Near the end of the service, two Catholic leaders, Mary McMahon and Mary Jo Maffei, read from the landmark encyclical by Pope Francis, with words that reinforced what we had heard throughout the service: “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.”

Jeff Olmsted and I then led the congregation in a rousing rendition of what has emerged as the theme song of the climate justice movement, “The Tide is Rising.” The song brought all of us to our feet, with much clapping and dancing, despite the punishing heat. Episcopal Bishop Doug Fisher shared a litany of recommitment and blessing that sent us — grateful and empowered — on our way.

The June 11 service reminded us of many simple life lessons. We realized again that every faith has teachings and passages in its holy texts that affirm our love of creation and our call to be good stewards of the Earth and to create just societies. The service showed us again that we can bring our whole selves to the struggle to protect the planet — no one diluted their contribution. We were fully Jewish, fully Buddhist, fully Christian, fully Muslim, fully Unitarian … and the list goes on.

We were also reminded that — in the face of dire news about the climate crisis and in the midst of the grinding struggle of ongoing activism — we need to come together to rest, renew, rejuvenate, sing, pray, listen, weep, sway and shout Amen.

On June 11 during a poignant interfaith service, we were reminded that we are distinct, yet also united in a common struggle; separate, yet also connected by love and a shared commitment to work together; both alone and together, all at once.

Jay O’Hara was right: To save this planet, we need a miracle. On June 11, together under a hot tent on a bright afternoon, we created one.

The Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian, of Northampton, is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She writes a monthly column on the intersection of faith, culture and politics.