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The United Nations’ Interfaith Harmony Week 2021: The 17th Annual Inter-Religious Prayer Service in Westchester County, New York

By Qalvy Grainzvolt

This year’s observance of the U.N. Interfaith Harmony Week on February 7, 2021 was the first-time in 17 years that we, the Westchester County, NY cohort, gathered in a virtual space. Normally, every year, a different sacred space or house of worship is selected to host this interreligious prayer service in-person. In 2020, we all gathered at the Purchase Quaker Meeting house in Westchester County, NY. In fact, every year it is one of the bright points of this special gathering when we learn whose “house” we will be visiting the next year.  Every year all attendees have the opportunity to learn more about the spiritual home of our fellow neighbor hosting a given year’s service. Attendees travel from throughout the tri-state region and the Hudson valley, including the New York City area, to be a part of this shared time and space. Last year, for example, I learned that one of George Washington’s scouts in the continental army is buried in the cemetery attached to the Purchase Quaker Meeting space. This brought to mind the deep history often embedded in one another’s sacred spaces. In fact, the county airport is not far away from the Quaker Meeting space so all throughout the service we heard aircraft taking off and landing. It reminded me of the co-founder of Shinnyo-en, Buddhist Master Shinjo Ito, in whose recorded sermons could be heard aircraft from the mid-1900’s taking flight as he spoke and taught about the Shinnyo teachings to the congregation of that era in Japan. Visiting my neighbor’s “home” afforded me a more visceral experience of what it must have been like for those in my own tradition during those times.

Qalvy Grainzvolt

When I offered prayer and chanted sacred mantras from the Shinnyo tradition, I spoke about how these sounds imbued with prayer are meant to uplift. One’s prayer may, in a sense, take flight much like the aircraft, reminding us how faith and harmony should uplift all equally and uplift compassion and care for our neighbors in our own hearts all the more. As mentioned previously, since every year there is a deeper appreciation of not only the spiritual tradition of the location we are hosted by but also the roots of history that are embedded in the geography of the physical gathering space, it made the virtual gathering this year all the more pronounced. With public health and safety in mind, exploring interfaith harmony on virtual terrain felt a bit nomadic at first. I learned that for many attendees navigating the terrain of web-based technology was almost akin to holding this gathering on a remote mountain top, in that many of us are still finding our footing in our use of conferencing technology. Aside from the ever-present importance of remembering proper muting and un-muting etiquette, we did, in fact, settle into a semblance of home by virtue of our sense of community as the service progressed. I think I learned a broader meaning of home and safe space this year. A home is best constructed of walls of mutual trust, respect, harmony and desire to connect as well as mutual understanding as much as that of industrial-grade concrete, steel, and wood. Not having a physical space to gather became a way to deeply reflect on what makes for home and how care, prayer, and harmony truly transcend time and space. I believe this is a concept I will continue to explore every year in this special gathering, whatever form it may be in.

Every year, we close the gathering with indigenous prayer from North America offered by voice and drum by George Stonefish. He mentioned last year that the notion of home is different for everyone, including those indigenous to the very land we were sitting on. I have been reflecting on that since last year. I think he was right even though none of us at that time had any idea about the pandemic and what was to come. This year again, George closed out our prayer gathering with an offering of prayer that he sung as he beat the awakening sound of the drum. I believe that our sharing of virtual space reminds us that interfaith harmony, or any form of harmony for that matter, begins with establishing a foundation of mutual trust, seeing everyone, and continuing to explore what makes for the sacred space of home both on an individual level and as a society where inclusivity and care stand tall.

Guru Dileepji
Yogi and Interfaith Minister from Tripunithura, Kerala, India & President and Founder of the International Gurukula Community Inc.

Dr. Chuck Chesnavage
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Religious Education, Unification Theological Seminary & President of the Westchester Coalition against Islamophobia