Swag in hand, we met up with J Street’s contingent to attend the Liberty Walk for Religious Freedom, which started at St. Peter’s Church in Lower Manhattan and continued along the nearby streets, past various houses of worship and by the footprints of the former twin towers. It was a relief to be surrounded by hundreds of other people who wanted to publicly and vocally defend the Islamic cultural center, and the opening speeches — over an hour and a half worth of them — resulted in numerous moments of thunderous clapping and standing ovations for any line that strayed even close to applause-worthy; one could feel the pent up energy.
Some attendees in clerical collars and yarmulkes were close to tears, and throughout the packed pews one could almost sense palpable desperation, as though weeks of anti-“Ground Zero mosque” propaganda and overwrought media debates left audience members craving a little bit of generosity and kindness.
It was a long bill — the organizers did a good job getting people from a wide range of religions and denominations to speak. But not until the end did we hear a female voice (there had been another woman on the bill, but she couldn’t make it) and that’s the voice that stuck with me. Dr. Katharine Henderson, President of Auburn Theological Seminary, talked about how her parents had been extremely close to a Jewish couple, the Goldbergs, growing up — and she told a story about a Muslim friend of hers, a cleric, who had been helped out by a Christian neighbor during an impoverished childhood.
Her point was that people who have been brought close to those from other religions often learn to reject extremism because they can’t wrap their minds around these beloved friends being excluded from paradise or salvation or just being “the good guys.” Her stories brought the larger political and social issues discussed by others earlier in the program down to a human level. But what made this point even more touching was when she began to talk about Daisy Khan, one of the founders of Park51, and the wife of its imam. “I love Daisy Khan!” she said. This personal affirmation of affection and respect between two women of different religions poignantly underscored not just the fact that Park51 should be “tolerated,” but that it would be a welcome addition to the New York community.
The one thing that disappointed me about the rally was that we weren’t allowed to carry signs when we walked the streets, all fired up from the speakers. I saw a Hasidic guy talking to the cops as we walked by in silence, covered by umbrellas. “They’re for the mosque?” he asked. I imagine about half the onlookers saw a largely Jewish and Christian crowd and thought we were on the other team, and my PR-focused side was very disgruntled with that. But beyond the public message, hopefully the folks behind “Religious Freedom USA” were successful in sowing the seeds of a movement that will last beyond the Park51 controversy — a movement of people who believe in different conceptions of the divine (or in my case, none at all) and follow different rules, but nonetheless view each other warmly, and with welcome. It certainly felt that way on Sunday.