Undaunted by strict restrictions on physical gathering due to the global coronavirus pandemic, participants of the annual Unity Walk on Sept. 13, 2020 instead logged on to the Internet to not only cross the divisions of faith but also distance. The annual gathering is organized by the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington.

“Although separated by social distancing, the Unity Walk gives us a chance to be joined with our neighbors – both old and new neighbors,” said Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory in a pre-recorded message. “This Unity Walk is the collective testimonial of our resolve to do our part to work toward peace and justice in our communities.”

During a broadcast of the welcoming message over Zoom, Archbishop Gregory urged participants to continue dialogue of unity and shared experiences especially during the current climate in the country. “Your presence today is the sign of hope for a better future,” Archbishop Gregory added. The prelate also said he was thankful for the youth involvement in the walk because they teach by example. “Our youth connect us in this tangible expression of solidarity of our shared goal to be living witnesses against the division and hostility that is seen every day in our society.”

The annual Unity Walk grew from the desire to bring people of different faiths from the District, Maryland and Virginia together following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Over the past 15 years, participants met at the Washington Hebrew Congregation and spent the afternoon visiting neighboring houses of worship and sharing traditions in a festival atmosphere. Even though this year’s theme focused on the local neighborhoods, “Build a Loving and Just DMV,” the walk moved from Massachusetts Avenue to YouTube allowing people from across the country to participate.

“People of good will anywhere and everywhere can give a powerful witness to the value of interfaith collaboration and cooperation to benefit all in our area and our nation,” Archbishop Gregory said.

During the opening ceremony, more than 180 participants signed on to the Zoom call including Rev. Dr. Carol Flett, retired ecumenical and interreligious officer for the Episcopal diocese of Washington. “Although I have moved to Lewes, Delaware, I can still participate in the IFC’s Unity Walk. I miss all of you, but am glad we can all be together in unity of spirit,” she wrote in the chat box.

Later Rev. Platt told the Catholic Standard, “It has been personally inspiring and rewarding for me to participate in the Unity Walk for many years, and as an Episcopal priest, I represented the Episcopal diocese of Washington on the Board of the IFC for many years. The IFC is a beacon of hope in realizing the unity of all faiths in seeking equity and social justice.”

The kick-off message included two performances by Mosaic Harmony, an interfaith community choir and messages from local civic leaders as well. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser provided a greeting on behalf of 706,000 Washingtonians. “I applaud the IFC for going virtual with this year’s walk while still making it a priority to bring people together,” the mayor said. She thanked everyone for spending time at the Unity Walk as a way to connect and support one another with compassion and love. “Thank you for representing and living our DC values of unity, acceptance and faith,” Mayer Bowser said. “Together we walk on in unity and strength.”

Eileen Filler-Corn, Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates said she hoped the day’s events helped foster fun, learning and community. “As the first Jewish Speaker of the House in Virginia’s 400-plus year history, I also know just how long it takes to create understanding and trust among faith groups,” Del. Filler-Corn said. “Events like this truly help bring that understanding and trust.”

Once organizers of the Unity Walk realized the event would have to be virtual in order to keep people safe, Symi Rom-Ryner, outreach director of the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington, began planning ways to make the day meaningful online. “The Unity Walk is really an opportunity for people to get to know different faith traditions in a way that is accessible,” Rom-Ryner said.

She said the main goals of helping others engage in learning about different faiths while feeling comfortable remained the same even though the day looked different. In fact participants could virtually tour 20 places of worship, visit the resource fair by clicking on different tabs, and attend live workshops all the while increasing their knowledge of the 11 faith traditions represented in the IFC. IFC organizers also encouraged everyone to complete an act of service and submit of photo of themselves reaching out and helping a neighbor.

In one tour video, Seminarian Louis McHale, who is on assignment at Annunciation Parish in Washington, led a camera through the church beginning outside in the newly built Mary garden and opening the doors of the building while explaining aspects of the Catholic faith such as the sacraments of Confession and Baptism. 

“He was so thrilled, -- his excitement just came through the screen,” noted Rev. Dr. David B. Lindsey, executive director of the Interfaith Council. Rev. Lindsey said many of the videos showed the faith leaders -- both from more traditional practices to the more diverse ones -- enthusiastically shared in this new format. But among his favorite parts of the day were participating in the live cooking demonstrations. “I found it really touching,” Rev. Lindsey said describing when the presenters shared their love of cooking while telling stories about their faith.

Capuchin Franciscan Brother Andrew Corriente, a winner in the Great American Baking Show, started the afternoon presentations with a demonstration of his recipe for Almond Cookies. 

“It is said St. Francis of Assisi loved almond cookies,” Brother Andrew said. The baking friar added that he was especially glad to share a gluten-free treat with viewers. He explained to participants that he used three almond slices on top of the cookies for presentation and as a reminder of the Holy Trinity. 

Brother Andrew described cooking as “a beautiful moment for me. My day is so busy, some days I can’t catch my breath,” but he added, cooking allows time to live in the moment, to enjoy the smell of baking and sharing the food once it is prepared. “I bake a lot of cookies – I live with about 20 men,” he noted. 

Other guest chefs shared special recipes from their home kitchens prompting one participant to comment that it felt like a friend inviting another friend to spend time with and watch them cook. Another participant could not wait to try the recipe out for Yom Kippur and another commenter wanted to make the gluten-free cookies for his wife. Rom-Ryner said that because of the dietary restrictions of some faith traditions, a cooking demonstration would be logistically difficult to plan for an in-person Unity Walk but perfectly fit the virtual model. 

Later the workshops moved from shared meals to shared experiences, as a group of young adults gathered for “Interfaith Dialogue: Hearing from the Next Generations of Leaders on Living Faithfully in a Racialized Society.” Ann Delorey, program director at the IFC helped organize the discussion and Amber Khan, host of WAMU’s Interfaith Voices moderated a recorded video to prepare for the dialogue. Delorey said over the summer she saw, “young people were motivated to act and speak out against racial injustice” and wanted to keep the conversation going as they became leaders in their communities. In one segment, a young woman from Suitland, Maryland shared experiences growing up African American and Muslim. The organizer described the video and ensuing dialogue as “fruitful” and said she hoped the conversation would help young people’s “voices be lifted up and heard.”

Although Rev. Lindsey, in his first year as executive director, said the IFC sincerely hopes the Unity Walk can be held in person next year, he expects there will continue to be a virtual component to the event. “This actually exceeded my expectations for what could happen,” Rev. Lindsey said. “And the website didn’t crash.” The director also said the videos from last Sunday’s Unity Walk will remain on the IFC’s website for the rest of the week and that the board is going to explore how to make many of the resources available in the future as there can be several uses such as to welcome new residents to the area or in classrooms.

Rabbi Bruce Lustig, senior rabbi at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, participated in the opening ceremonies and can be seen in a video tour of the synagogue. “My prayer for each of you on this Unity Walk is that your family is safe, that we will come through this pandemic stronger than we were before as a community, and that we will be hand to hand and heart to heart, and that you will come join us at Washington Hebrew where we celebrate the human family.”