(Shawn, foreground, represents at #InterfaithMarchLA)
When I heard that a coalition of faith groups was planning a march down Wilshire Boulevard to proclaim common ground, support religious freedom -- including the rights of Muslims -- and stand against all violence in the name of religion, I knew I wanted Sunday Assembly LA to participate. I wouldn’t blame you for asking why. Historically, organizations of non-believers haven't always been keen on doing “interfaith,” for a variety of reasons. And they often haven’t been invited. In part, I think this is because atheists and humanists have occupied a relative blip on the cultural landscape for some time, seldom visible in their communities unless they were protesting something related to the separation of church and state.
But times have changed. The fastest growing religious demographic in America is the group of us not affiliated with any religion, and newer orgs like Sunday Assembly LA are staking out uncharted territory in creating community for these “nones.” With an emphasis on celebration and community service, I understand SALA to be different from traditional atheist and humanist organizations -- more interested in building bridges than walls, as the saying goes.
And as humanists, especially, I thought many of us could support the broad intent and message of an interfaith peace march, even if we weren’t technically a “faith” community. We live in contentious times. Ugly, even racist political rhetoric has become a recurring feature of the current political cycle, and it has consequences. As demonization of minorities has increased from some quarters, for instance, we’ve seen an increase in hate crimes, especially against people who are or are perceived to be Muslim (more examples here and here). This is something that should be deeply troubling in any free society, and is certainly counter to everything Humanism is about.
Furthermore, many non-religious people also know what it’s like to be demonized and to have beliefs and values misrepresented. We’re seldom violently attacked for our beliefs in this country (it does happen elsewhere), but some of us (especially coming from certain families or communities) do know what it’s like to live with a social stigma. And while Sunday Assemblers wouldn't share some of the beliefs of most of the march’s participants, the tolerance and spirit of pluralism motivating this event had to be appreciated. A diverse array of traditions and denominations were coming together *despite* their theological differences, on the basis of what they have in common, in the name of peace and freedom -- two values that are vitally important to secular folks as well. To me, this was an opportunity for us to affirm those values.
And if we generated a little bit of good PR, that wouldn't hurt, right?
Still, I wasn’t sure how it would go. The event’s title, “In the Path of the Prophet Abraham,” strategically emphasized the common origins of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It included a mention of “other faiths,” but didn’t specifically reference the non-religious. Would some Sunday Assemblers turn out for what was chiefly billed as a gathering of the Abrahamic faiths? If so, would we be truly welcome? A number of SALA friends were encouraging. But doubts, as well, came in via social media from other commenters in our online community. They didn’t see the point, and questioned my plan. They suggested we were not wanted, that the event was only for “people of faith” -- especially particular faiths. I understood the concerns. But I hoped to prove them wrong.
(The final turnout for the march was estimated at close to 300)
We met at the march’s starting place, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a huge Reform congregation in the heart of Koreatown that I’m told is LA’s oldest synagogue. It was a bright and crisp Sunday afternoon, and a very large crowd was gathering. About eight people from SALA turned up -- Noah Wiles, Shawn Shih, Maya Zapata, Mollie Knute, Joey Olivas, Leonard Cachola, Russell Orrell and myself. In all, looked like over 250 people had come out from many area congregations -- Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others. There was a large contingent of area Unitarian Universalists in yellow Standing on the Side of Love T-shirts, including two dozen from the UU Community Church of Santa Monica, a congregation of which I’m also a member.
(It’s worth noting here that UU communities, which tend to be big on these kinds of events, always include a significant number of atheist/agnostic/humanists. But that’s not always clear in interfaith settings. As such, I thought the presence of SALA as a secular group explicitly representing the non-religious had particular significance.)
The event began with statements of welcome and gratitude from the organizers, Dr. Arik Greenberg of the Institute for Religious Tolerance, Peace and Justice, and Kristen Stangas of the Islamic Center of Southern California. The crowd then cheerfully started moving East down Wilshire Boulevard. There were chants of solidarity in English and Spanish. I noticed at the outset that most of us seemed to stick with our friends, but a moving throng of this size soon made mingling inevitable. Everyone seemed friendly, and many good vibes were exchanged. We were accompanied by LAPD squad cars, which seemed a wise precaution.
But I also noticed that, despite the potential for controversy raised by a public event related to Islam, there were no news vans. Not even someone who looked like they could be an LA Times photographer. Was the media entirely sitting this out?
We made two stops along the 1.1 mile route to the march’s final destination. At St. Basil’s Catholic Church, we gathered on the steps as a priest with a bullhorn delivered a message of support for all God’s children and a statement against all forms of violence or war in the name of religion. A bit more than a half mile further down, at Immanuel Presbyterian, restroom and water breaks were welcome. We gathered there inside the spectacular gothic sanctuary to listen to more clergy members speak about the interconnectedness of the Abrahamic faiths and the importance of solidarity and peace.
We were expecting a good deal of Judeo-Christian theology to be espoused on this day, of course, and we got it. But despite the fact that the religious language didn’t resonate with us, I think we were able to appreciate that it was framed in a context of commonality and tolerance. There’s still so much conflict among the Abrahamic traditions throughout the world, and the harmonious vision of coexistence expressed here, writ large, is far from coming true tomorrow. I know many of us would welcome a more secular and humanistic planet Earth, but I have to believe we stand the best chance of getting there through reform and evolution in the existing traditions. As JFK famously declared in a speech at the height of the Cold War: “If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.”
(A T-shirt worn by many marchers expressing the same greeting in Arabic, Hebrew and English.)
Noah was working social media throughout the march, tweeting and Instagramming with the day’s designated #InterfaithMarchLA hashtag. In many of his posts he included the following statement: “We atheists are about the peace as well. We believe in freedom of religion as much as freedom from religion.” It was a good way to make our presence visible to the media savvy, and demonstrate both authentic identity and support for the event. And Noah connected with one or two other atheists online who were also at the march. He remarked at how friendly everyone was in person, and that he enjoyed many conversations with strangers he met during the afternoon. He was especially pleased that he didn’t get any negative reactions when he explained Sunday Assembly. A few people even said they wanted to look us up online to learn more about it.
As usual, Russell studiously followed the action with his camera lenses, capturing most of the images included here as he does at other SALA events.
Mollie brought a mostly-completed sign promoting interfaith tolerance, and put the finishing touches on it as we paused to listen to speakers at stopping points along the route. Her final additions were an array of symbols representing major religious traditions: a cross, an Islamic crescent, a Star of David, a Buddhist wheel, and a Happy Human (the closest thing to a universal symbol for Humanism). As she was shading in that last figure, a boy of about 10 approached her to ask what it meant. She replied that it represented people who don’t believe in God but still want to be good and support freedom for everyone. The boy seemed satisfied with the answer and ran back to tell his curious parents.
(Mollie's completed sign.)
At last, more than two hours after we had begun, the marchers arrived at the day’s final destination, the Islamic Center of Southern California on Vermont. Many smiling faces and outstretched hands hands awaited as we entered the building -- the sense of gratitude for our presence here was palpable. Once we were seated, member Kristen Stangas again expressed profound thanks. Other speakers, including a representative from the LAPD and a Muslim member of the LA County Sheriff’s department, spoke about the importance of interfaith unity in the city and thanked us for standing with the Muslim community. Another noted the aforementioned lack of media presence. Why no reporters or TV cameras when religious communities walk together in peace? Because conflict sells in the profit-driven 24-hour news cycle, he said. Peace, understanding and reconciliation: not so much.
I took particular note of the words of Soraya Deen, who represented a group called the Muslim Women Speakers Movement. She shared a reformist message about the importance of women being empowered to lead mixed gender groups in Islamic prayer, and went on to make a statement that struck a more humanistic chord. She called for a “human theology” -- not one that is Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Rather than basing one’s values and actions on a particular faith, she said, we should say: "I do this because I am human. There are no chosen children of God, there is no one way to God, we are all one. Not just when we are prostrated and praying to our Gods, but in all our interactions with our fellow human beings."
Afterward, we gathered in the Islamic Center’s social hall for coffee, refreshments, and more conversations. Members of the Center passed around puff pastries and posed for photos. Before our SALA group departed and regrouped for Korean food nearby, I got a chance to speak with Dr. Greenburg, founder of the Institute for Religious Tolerance. I introduced myself and the other Sunday Assemblers, thanking him for organizing the event and noting that our group was glad to have represented Secular Humanists and the non-religious at the event. He enthusiastically thanked us for our presence and was curious to learn more about Sunday Assembly. He even said he’d like to visit us at an assembly sometime soon. We exchanged cards.
In the end, we Assemblers felt that our presence was indeed welcome and appreciated. We agreed that our participation had been worthwhile. Good will was exchanged, bridges were built. I wonder what might come next?
For a final thought on the day, I’ll close with what Maya shared with me:
“As a secular humanist, I don't have a personal affiliation with any one religion. I guess you could say that instead of believing in deities, I just believe in people... I attended the Interfaith March because I recognize that Islamophobia is not only harmful to Muslim Americans, but harmful to the integrity of our national character. The United States is a country built on the backs of immigrants. A basic tenet of our democracy is religious freedom, but fear has a way of making people act out in ways that are in direct contrast to those beliefs. [The March] was a way to stand with a community of people of all different faiths (or no faith) and profess our shared belief that peace is possible and necessary.”
(SALAers and friends from UU Santa Monica at Wilshire Blvd. Temple, the march's starting point.)