Begun more than a decade ago to bring people of various faiths together and to commemorate the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a local tradition continued Sunday, Sept. 8 as participants looked to the future – to a time when people of all faiths would live as neighbors.

“The history is a proud one,” Archbishop Wilton Gregory said referring to the 14th annual Unity Walk sponsored by the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington and held each year on the Sunday closest to Sept. 11.

Attending the walk for the first time since being installed in May as archbishop of Washington, the prelate said he understood that “the walk began in response to violence. However, it is no longer a response to violence – it is the hope for tomorrow.” Following a performance by Kol Sasson, a Jewish a cappella group from the University of Maryland, Archbishop Gregory noted the benefits of sharing the journey with one another.

“There are so many forces in American society, in human society actually, that simply tell us we were not intended to live together in peace or in harmony,” Archbishop Gregory said. “This celebration is the antivenom to that thinking – not only were we intended to walk together, we are intended to live together in harmony. We were intended to walk together into the future.”

Speaking during the opening ceremony at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, Archbishop Gregory described the many college, high school and younger student participants in the group of about 500 as “energizing. It signifies the future is a bright one indeed. The future is hopeful. It is bright. It belongs to God,” he added.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory speaks at the Washington Hebrew Congregation Sept. 8 during the opening ceremony of the 14th annual Unity Walk. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)Image caption

The Rev. Cornell Brooks, a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, spoke of the need to come together as a community to show others who promote hatred that “the beloved community exists. We are dedicated in bringing our communities together. We will not give in, and we will not give up.” 

Ward 3 D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh urged participants to rebuke the negativity and hatred in society. Cheh said the Unity Walk reminded participants “we are walking every day. If you want to be generous, then act generously; if you want to be kind then show kindness.” She urged the walkers to “keep walking every day and realize the values that we cherish every day.”

Before heading out into the neighborhood to walk together, Ervad Kurush Dastur – a mobed, or cleric, from the Zoroastrian community – prayed and demonstrated a handshake used to show two people united in strength of goodness. “Once we start loving God … seeing God in creation, it will be very difficult to hate anyone,” Dastur said. “God Himself is love.”

Dastur told participants to share their strengths and find their commonalities. “The goal of all religion is to lead people to the same supreme being,” he added. “All human beings stand equal in God’s sight.” 

The cleric advised the audience to begin loving family and friends and expanding their love to larger and larger groups until it encompasses the world. “We have to start learning to love in concentric circles,” Dastur added.

Walking out to a drum performance by Batala Washington -- an all female Afro-Brazilian percussion band -- and accompanied by large colorful puppets from the One Journey Festival, walk participants set out into the street and processed from the Washington Hebrew Congregation. Cell phones came out to capture the festive nature of the walk as participants begin their visits to 10 sacred spaces – places of worship along Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. 

This year, as part of the “Embracing the Stranger” theme of the event, organizers provided the walkers with posters featuring quotes of welcoming taken from the sacred scriptures of the faiths represented by the interfaith council. This year’s event was scheduled to end at the Mahatma Gandhi Statue on Q Street in honor of the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth.

About 60 students and four teachers from Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Maryland, attended the walk this year as part of their class on world religions. Junior Brendan Dunn said he learned a lot about different religions for a class project that included going to a sacred worship space different from his own tradition. His classmate, Tristan Johnson agreed adding, “If everyone is together, it makes the world better.”

Lynnly Tydings, a teacher at Good Counsel, said the Unity Walk helps make the lessons from class “present to the students.” She said she hopes the students recognize people of other faiths “are our neighbors, and we are called to be welcoming to all faiths.”

Before the Sept. 8 Unity Walk began, Archbishop Gregory posed for a photo with a group of students from Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney who were participating in the event. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

Visiting the area from Jamaica, Ashley Livingston attended the Unity Walk to “experience different religious beliefs and learn about different cultures.”

Jennifer Castro came to the walk from Alexandria, Virginia, after seeing the event advertised on Facebook. “I really wanted to see other churches,” Castro said. “It’s nice to spend the whole day around people who want to be unified.”

Castro and her friend Gina Mortensen were participating in their first Unity Walk and on their way to see Annunciation Church, the second stop on the map. “I love learning about other religions,” said Mortensen, a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. “I wanted to be here to support unity and learn,” she said adding, “there’s so much I don’t know.”

Tony Quainton, a parishioner at Annunciation for more than 50 years, agreed that most “people are ignorant of one another.” Quainton, who has participated in many walks over the years, described the event as “the beginning of introducing people to places of worship of others – it’s really a great idea.”  

He added there was enough common ground in all religions. “People want peace. They want mutual understanding,” Quainton said. The Annunciation parishioner warmly greeted Jim Tate, a bishop and friend from the Church of Latter Day Saints. “There is only one way to whip the devil – and the only way is love,” Tate said.

Up half a block from Annunciation Church, Sikh Gurdwara DC opened its doors and their kitchen providing free food for all participants. One volunteer at the worship space remarked, “It’s free food for everybody – for the love of humanity.” 

Across the street outside of Embassy Church, staff members from Interfaith Power and Light invited participants to water two newly planted trees on the church’s property. Joelle Novey, director of the program that was supported by the Interfaith Council, said the walk helps them connect various faiths with stewardship of the earth. 

Novey said she wanted to remind the faithful “how their faith calls them to address climate change.” The program works closely with parishes and congregations in helping find ways to care for the planet. Novey said in recent years Catholic parishes have been looking for ways to respond to Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ and its call for ecological conservation. She noted this year the organization would focus on better transportation solutions for the environment and would be reaching out to parishes soon.

Back at Annunciation, Msgr. Mike Mellone, pastor, said the annual walk “is a great day. We get to see other houses of worship expressing their faith.” The pastor took some time to greet all the visitors to the church and answer questions. 

Rabbi Gerald Serotta, executive director of the Interfaith Council, speaks with Buddhist monks during the Sept. 8 Unity Walk sponsored by the council that he heads. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

Rabbi Gerald Serotta, executive director of the Interfaith Council, greeted Msgr. Mellone and said the unity walk has transformed from looking back to “now looking forward to the world we imagine it could be.” 

He said the unity walk allows participants a foretaste of the prophet Isaiah’s vision of God on his throne. Through the walk, Rabbi Serotta said, “we learn a little bit of what all the other rooms of the temple will look like besides our own.”