Interfaith Walk for Peace and Reconciliation

William Penn, a Quaker and founder of Philadelphia, created the city’s grid street system and fostered a foundation of religious tolerance in “the City of Brotherly Love.”   Today, Philadelphians are embracing and building upon Penn’s contributions to the city’s infrastructure through the Philadelphia Interfaith Walk for Peace and Reconciliation.  Founded by Vic Compher, Lance Laver and Adab Ibrahim, the Philadelphia Interfaith Walk for Peace and Reconciliation (“The Peace Walk”) was inspired by similar efforts in Albuquerque, New Mexico of Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb and Imam Abdul Rauf Campos-Marquetti, whom Compher met during a peace delegation to Israel/Palestine in 2003. Later that year, Compher, Laver and Ibrahim brought together colleagues and friends to plan Philadelphia’s first Interfaith Walk for Peace and Reconciliation.  From the beginning, organizers were encouraged to share with one another both the foundational teachings within their traditions that affirmed the work toward peace and their individual hopes for the impact of their work together.  The minutes from the first two meetings read in part: “Seek peace and pursue it”; “God wants us to bring about shalom to heal the brokenness of the world; and God knows that humans are needed for this task”; “In a troubled world, we need to seek peace.”  In the spring of 2004, after months of planning, the first Philadelphia Interfaith Walk for Peace and Reconciliation began walking the talk, taking its message of peace to the streets—and religious centers—of Philadelphia.

Since 2004, the annual Interfaith Walk for Peace and Reconciliation has drawn crowds ranging from 500 to 1,000 participants—an even more impressive feat given that The Peace Walk is completely a grassroots initiative.  The group operates without paid staff and on a budget of less than $10,000 a year; funds are raised through selling interfaith calendars and collecting individual and congregational offerings and donations.  Every year, The Peace Walk lasts four to five hours and includes stops at mosques, churches, synagogues and parks in Philadelphia.  Each stop includes a brief program consisting of some combination of prayers, chanting, peace talks, music, poetry, liturgical dance and moments of silence.  The Walk route is rotated each year so that congregations in different neighborhoods may host the event.  In addition to attracting a growing number of young people, the leadership of The Peace Walk has expanded from the founding cohort, comprised of representatives from the three Abrahamic traditions, and now includes Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus, and other religious and secular representatives.  Rugiatu Conteh, who works with the Philadelphia office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), is one of the youngest planning team members for The Peace Walk.  She describes the group’s structure as “a combination of individuals, some representing houses of worship, others representing groups dedicated to interfaith work.”  Compher notes that even he is surprised by the sense of community that has built up around The Peace Walk.   He explains that during the monthly steering committee meetings, newcomers are asked to introduce themselves and their organizational affiliation, if any.  An increasingly common response has been, “Well, I am associated with the Peace Walk… and I also attend such and such a congregation.”  After the introductions, there is a period of reflection and dialogue followed by a planning session.

Collaboration lies at the heart of The Philadelphia Interfaith Walk for Peace and Reconciliation, and this value permeates all aspects of the group’s initiatives. Speakers, readers, and performers are paired with stops along the walk representing different religious traditions from their own.   Leaders within the group make it a point to assemble a religiously diverse delegation to speak to the media, congregations or anyone who wants to know more about The Peace Walk.  The group navigates away from partisan political conversations, but does not shy away from speaking out on behalf of religious or ethnic groups faced with prejudicial policies or statements.  When the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began requiring Sikhs to remove their turbans during airport security checks (a violation of the Sikh faith), the group mobilized.  The organizers of The Peace Walk set up a meeting between TSA officials, the State Department and the Philadelphia Human Rights Commission, and the policy was reversed soon thereafter.  In 2011, a bill was introduced into the Pennsylvania state legislature that would ban the use of foreign laws in the court system, a policy that would affect Muslim, Amish, Orthodox Jewish, Catholic and other religious communities who use principles defined by their faith in legal proceedings.  Leaders within The Peace Walk community rallied in support of CAIR and others opposed to the bill.  Preventing gun violence in Philadelphia and supporting other grassroots initiatives also have been priorities for the group, who see The Peace Walk as embodying “mutual accompaniment.”  The Peace Walk organizers understand the physical Walk as a further chance to provide each other with “emotional support, spiritual support, and to learn from each other.”

The group’s engagement with one another is not limited to one annual event. In addition to monthly planning meetings—held at Al-Aqsa Islamic Center since the initial gathering in 2003—the group also sponsors opportunities for dialogue on challenging topics, service opportunities and congregational outreach programs.  From the beginning of The Peace Walk, the Muslim community set a challenge for the group.  “…Our Muslim brothers and sisters said they would participate but they didn’t want something where we show up once a year and are nice to each other and that’s it.  They kind of challenged us to have ongoing presence and to develop relationships,” noted Compher.   The group seeks to look beyond commonalities and engage with their differences through dialogue on topics such as the conflict in the Middle East, the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy, environmental stewardship and “spirituality and sensual love.” 

Organizers of The Peace Walk strive “to nurture a transformative process of reflection, relationship-building and action among faith and secular groups working toward peace and justice.”[1] The fruits of these efforts are sometimes spontaneous and surprising.  During an Interfaith Peace Walk program at a local synagogue, an imam and a rabbi found themselves sharing the bimah.  When the two men spontaneously turned to hug one another, the crowd erupted in cheers: their enthusiasm for peace and reconciliation could not be contained.

[1] Interfaith Walk for Peace and Reconciliation. Vision Statement. Adopted 2011.