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Yes peace is possible

by Rev. Dr. Thomas Johnson, director, Center for Lutheran Studies at Claremont School of Theology

For the past 10 years the annual Walk for Peace has become tradition for Claremont and surrounding neighborhoods. It has helped to form friendship and cooperation between various faith communities as we work toward the common goal of peacemaking in the world. So how did it get started? Well, let me tell you a story.

As the director of the Center for Lutheran Studies and an adjunct professor at Claremont School of Theology for the past 23 years, I often helped to organize continuing education events.

In 2006 dear friend Rev. Sandy Olewine returned to the US after having served in the Holy Land for 12 years. She helped me put together a conference on peace in the Middle East. We had arranged an impressive list of speakers but the event drew closer something was missing.

It dawned on us that within the immediate Claremont community there was a Jewish synagogue, Temple Beth Israel, and Muslim mosque, Islamic Center of Claremont. I went to visit both locations and found them very eager to provide a representative to be on the planning committee. In fact, the representative from the Islamic Center was born in Palestine, Dr. Ahmed Sobol, and Cantor Paul Buch from the local temple brought an authentic investment. As a result, we had significant participation from members of both religious communities. This, in turn, made the event into a heartfelt conversation. Yes, at times planning the event become more challenging when opposing viewpoints and positions were presented, but certainly it made it more worthwhile.

The event was quite successful in many ways; excellent attendance, a community meal that fostered bridge-building and a wonderful musical presentation that incorporated all three Abrahamic faith traditions. When we held our final evaluation the consensus was clear:?We should continue our efforts to provide educational and interactive opportunities for various faith communities in order to be an example of how mutual respect and peace building is possible.

Our hope was that other communities would catch the same vision that if we could “get along” here we could be united in our efforts to shape US policy in the Middle East and be an inspiration for how peace is possible. We also decided we liked each other and wanted to keep meeting, especially when we always had food at our gatherings.

We decided our next project would be an annual Walk for Peace. We have a “protest walk” for peace from the various houses of worship in our group, i.e., begin at an Islamic school (School of Knowledge on Garey Avenue) then walk to the local mosque nearby (Claremont Islamic Center also on Garey) and then to a Christian church (Good Shepherd, an ELCA congregation on Towne Avenue) and then end at the local Jewish temple with a light meal. (This is the actual route for this year’s Walk for Peace on October 20).

This event proved to be very successful and effective, especially in allowing people to visit places they perhaps had never stepped foot in and were welcomed by the members of that faith tradition and experienced their hospitality firsthand. The event essentially broke down some of the stereotypes about the “other.”

Walking, talking and eating together enabled us to better appreciate each other and our common goal of working for peace. The event was first planned to coincide with September 11 and the hope that this would help to deter some of the animosity people felt toward the Muslim people and to realize not all Muslims were terrorists, but were in fact your neighbors and co-workers.

I will always remember the second year we planned the walk was the same time that a fundamentalist pastor in Florida was going to burn a Quran on September 11.  It was all over the news and the Walk for Peace gave an opportunity for people who were opposed to this pastor’s actions to respond.

Instead of the 300 or 400 we had expected to attend from the previous year, more than 900 people showed up! We had police protection as some anticipated there might be a negative or even violent response. But the walk ended up being very peaceful and a wonderful example of mutual cooperation and support.

The only dilemma we encountered was that the Mosque that was hosting the closing meal ran out of food as they had only prepared for 400. But they anticipated this and had placed an order a local pizza place owned by one of the members of the mosque. More than 100 pizzas appeared and everyone had plenty. Another Manna or Feeding of the Five Thousand story all over again!

This year, the group will be hosting its 11th annual Walk for Peace and the closing meal will be at Temple Beth Israel as we observe Sukkot, a festival to celebrate the harvest. We have moved the walk to October because it was too hot in September and we also change up the walk every year to include new locations and hosts.

You can see videos and photos of past walks and more about this group at its Facebook page, “Inland Valley Working Group for Peace in the Middle East.”

The group also has sponsored Interfaith Seders, Iftars, picnics and an educational event every year. In the past we have had Rick Steves as our guest to watch and then discuss his documentary on the Holy Land. We also have had touring musicians from Israel and Palestine, who not only shared their music but their stories of working for peace and their special relationship.

The relationships that have formed through this interfaith ministry have become very significant in building a deep sense of trust and mutual integrity so we are able to discuss difficult issues related to peacemaking in the Middle East.

At the walk, you are able to witness firsthand the gradual progression of friendship to almost a family reunion, which is why this interfaith group enjoys a remarkable longevity and grows only stronger in quality and quantity.

Please plan to attend this year’s Walk for Peace, Sunday, October 20 at 3 p.m. The walk begins at School of Knowledge on Garey Avenue. Parking is available there or across the street. Congressmember Judy Chu will be our keynote speaker at 3 p.m. There is no cost for the event, but donations and sponsors to help cover the meal at the end are appreciated.

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