This Sunday, September 11, Washingtonians and visitors to the capital marked the 10th anniversary of the infamous 9/11 attacks that had stunned the world in 2001. Ten years ago, over a period of 102 minutes, the country and the world watched in shock and horror as the terrorist attack unfolded and the destiny of millions around the world changed forever.
I work in Washington DC and on the fateful 9/11 day, I vividly remember seeing the spiraling column of smoke from the Pentagon attack. Since the White House was considered to be a possible target and our offices are only a few blocks away, there was an urgent request for us to evacuate. Indeed the fourth flight that crashed into a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania was thought to have been targeting the White House.
In the ensuing exodus from the city, all roads were clogged, cell phones jammed and I spend several hours on the road while friends and family frantically tried to contact me. Fear and despair were the dominant prevailing mood.
But humans as a race are resilient and optimistic. Even before the dust had literally settled down there was an outpouring of love and compassion. Certainly there was anger and rage, but the stories that caught the collective consciousness were that of forgiveness, mercy and heroism. In the face of such adversity, people dug in came up with courage and fortitude. In this deep darkness of despair came a collective turning towards the glimmer of hope of a world with peace and without hatred.
Mahamantra das distributes chanting beads to the assembled audience
Expanding on this mood, the 911 Unity walk was started seven years ago by Kyle Poole with a mission to help bring “together people of all ages, backgrounds and faiths to learn to respect each other through a framework of experiential education, compassionate leadership and intentional service. The Unity Walk seeks to create a world where we are united rather than divided by our many faiths.”
Today, ten years after the incident, the American flags fly half mast to remind us of all the lives that were lost. Commenting on the current walk, Rizwan Jaka of Purcellville, Va., a board member of the ADAMS mosque who leads the group’s interfaith initiatives, said they helped organize the Unity Walk seven years ago to help foster more interaction.
According to Jaka, this anniversary is a major milestone, because of the death of Osama bin Laden this year. “We all welcome that justice is served … And that symbol of hate and terrorism is gone,” he said.
Central to the Unity Walk were the expressions of love, optimism and, above all, tolerance by religious leaders and musicians from across the spectrum of faiths. They stood together to reject the hatred that brought about those attacks. They stood against the divisions, mistrust and religious bigotry that have threatened to become the event’s greatest legacy. The volunteers represented a wide spectrum of religious affiliations and ethnicity, united by a firm conviction that love is much more powerful than hate and good will always triumph over evil.
Participants hear and read the chanting flyer
Indeed, the 911 Unity Walk was truly the first time so many different houses of worship opened their doors collectively during the same one-day event; especially here in the beltway of Washington DC.
It is a testimony to the efforts of Anuttama and Rukimi Prabhus in reaching out to leaders of other faiths and the positive impressions they have created, that ISKCON was asked to represent the Hindu community in the Unity March in a significant manner. The organizers provided three key slots to ISKCON, at the inauguration, in the middle and at the end.
The ceremony started at the Washington Hebrew Congregation with 20 minutes of Hare Krishna kirtan. Lakshmivan dasa shares, “The participation from the crowd was really enthusiastic. Many people were actively chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra with us and several others were smiling and swaying to the beat. Later on many came to personally thank me and provide words of encouragement. The entire mood was wonderfully open, receptive and participative.”
He estimated about 500 people were present at the ceremony. Many people joined later and the organizers estimate the peak participation to be about 1000 people.
Following the opening ceremony there were talks by prominent members of various faith. The participants then dispersed into the “walk.” There were several break-out areas within a few blocks of starting point. ISKCON had been given the scenic Khalil Gibran Memorial park at 3300 Mass Ave (popularly known as the embassy row) as a site to host “Experience Mantra Mediation.”
Unlike other break-outs that were inside churches or synagogues, this event out in the open and attracted quite a few participants. There was also strung a wide banner announcing “Mantra Meditation.” Given the nature of the setting, people were coming and going, but conservatively about 50 people had assembled to participate.
The event began at 3:45PM with a lively kirtan and the assembled people were soon tapping and swaying to the lilting beats of the Hare Krishna mantra. The kirtan was especially attractive since it was performed by two teenagers, dressed in Vaishnava attire, using the traditional harmonium and mrdangam. People were fascinated by the music as well as the performers.
Dhruv and Panchu perform kirtan to appreciative audiences
This was followed by a short speech by on Mantra Meditation and then beads were distributed. The process of how to chant was demonstrated and everyone experientially chanted together. The chanting went on for about 5 minutes and it was interesting to see participants focusing on the sound of the chants and immersing themselves in the whole experience.
When the meditation ended at the allotted time of 4:15PM several participants came forward with a request to continue with the kirtan. The kirtan continued for another 30 minutes till 4:45 PM when the closing ceremony commenced in the nearby Islamic Center of Washington.
Indulekha Devi Dasi shares, “The mood was really positive. Everyone was smiling and beaming. They listened attentively to the talk and when the beads were handed out many chanted attentively. At the end of the session some of them had become so attached to the beads that they wanted to keep it! Even though we are perennially short of beads, on the request of Ananda Vrindavaneshwari Mataji, our temple president, we let them keep the beads. The gratitude of the recipients’ face certainly made it worthwhile. When we were preparing to go, many people came forward and requested us continue with the singing and we happily compiled. Later several participants approached me to appreciate the experience and thank me for making it happen. The mood was so sweet!”
At the request of the organizers we blew the conch shell three times to herald the closing ceremony. Mahamantra Prabhu shares, “I was walking back to my car and heard the resounding sound of the conch. I felt I was transported back to Vrindavana for a moment!”
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Archbishop Eric Escala, Continuing Anglican Church
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Sunanda Das, Temple of the Vedic Planetarium