L.A. Interfaith Gathering Commemorates 9/11 Victims
Religious leaders of a variety of faith groups honored the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in a Saturday-evening ceremony at Los Angeles City Hall with the aim of fostering interfaith activity for peace.
About 900 people, representing at least 218 Los Angeles-area congregations, gathered “not just to memorialize our victims,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in his opening remarks, but also to recognize the differences and similarities among religions, and pray for peace.
Music set the tone with an interfaith choir singing an adaption of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights as the sky darkened on the night before the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
After remarks from Villaraigosa and City Council President Eric Garcetti, interfaith youth leaders lit a central flame, illuminating the archways at the entrance of City Hall. The event’s theme was “One light, One Peace, One World.”
Rabbi Mark S. Diamond of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California blew a Shofar, or ram’s horn, as Cantor Aviva Rosenbloom of Temple Israel of Hollywood sung Psalm 23 in Hebrew.
“Make me an instrument of your peace,” the group prayed along with Christian leaders in the words of St. Francis of Assisi.
“God guides whomever God wills to divine light,” read the translation of the Quranic passage recited in Arabic, the chant echoing off the concrete tower of City Hall and neighboring buildings.
The ceremony wrapped up with the lighting of candles held in fishbowl-like vases. Each of the 800 participants in a cordoned-off seating area held the candles up while religious leaders read off the names of Southern Californians who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As the crowd dispersed, the youth choir of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church and School in Compton sang, “Hold the Light.”
The audience was instructed to take their candles back to their congregation and light them as a symbol of unity and peace.
“It is, in fact, our desire on the council to broaden and deepen this message through this symbol,” said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council and a member of the Los Angeles Council of Religious Leaders, which hosted the event.
“Light is a common denominator,” says Robert Williams, who as canon for community relations for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles helped put together the event. “It is a metaphor for guidance in all the faith traditions and also for people without a faith tradition. So coming together around one light is a hopeful experience.”
Controversy and responsibility
While Los Angeles’ diverse religious community gathered with civic leaders and citizens under the 20 American flags waving at City Hall, other cities debated the role of faith in 9/11 remembrances.
Evangelicals complained of being excluded from a high-profile National Cathedral ceremony. In New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided that religious leaders would not have a role in the city’s memorial service.
“I can’t speak to anybody else’s decision but here in Los Angeles it was very important to have all faiths,” said Garcetti, whose father was Catholic and mother was Jewish. Garcetti quoted from a prayer from St. Patrick in the ceremony. “This is who we are…. The face of L.A. is reflected here on these steps.”
Both Bloomberg and L.A.’s interfaith leaders want to reduce the idea “that religion is responsible for the hatred,” said Rabbi Steven Jacobs, founder of Progressive Faith Foundation. But Jacobs thinks that involving the interfaith community is a more effective way to reach that goal.
“People in America want faith leaders to stand up and do exactly what we were doing here tonight,” Jacobs said. “Had [Bloomberg] seen this, I think he would have had a change of heart.”
A number of audience members said they came to confront religious bigotry, particularly against Muslims.
“9/11 gave religion a bad name,” said Michael Witmer, an Episcopalian member of Interfaith Witnesses. “It was an expression of the dark side of religion. And people of faith need to rescue religion from the people who distort it.”
Shamshad Muscati drove 40 miles west from Rancho Cucamonga not only to support her two daughters who were a part of the service, but because she felt a responsibility to come. “As a Muslim I had to be involved,” she said. “We are just as saddened by what happened and I just feel we should be represented in the events that are going on” for the anniversary of 9/11.
“This year, the 10th anniversary, I really wanted to be part of something,” said Ajarat Bada, who came with Muscati. But Bada also wanted something more.
“I personally shy away from interfaith events just for show,” Bada said. “I like an event that can showcase that we can come together, but I also like an avenue for us to actually talk to each other.”
Bada started The Missing Millennium Development Goal to mobilize interfaith energy behind the United Nation’s efforts to reduce extreme poverty. She came to the 9/11 event hoping to meet people she can work with.
Allowing organic relationships to form was another goal of the event, Syed said. Representatives of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have been meeting monthly for more than 25 years through the Council of Religious Leaders.
“This relationship is built over a number of years, and it’s based on trust, it’s based on mutual understanding,” Syed said. “What you have seen today is a culmination of that.”
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