Every year the Interfaith Mission Service (IMS) here in Huntsville sponsors a Hometown Pilgrimage with the express purpose of celebrating and embracing the religious diversity of the City of Huntsville. This year’s Hometown Pilgrimage is co-sponsored by the University of Alabama-Huntsville Office of Diversity and the City of Huntsville’s Office of Multicultural Affairs. The Hometown Pilgrimage began on 2 September 2014 and runs until 2 November. This year the Pilgrimage has included a number of different events all aimed at recognizing the multitude of cultures, nationalities, and faiths that make up our community and at ways that we can use the diversity of our community as a source of strength to deal with issues of social justice, community building and outreach, and religious tolerance.
My first stop on my personal pilgrimage this year was the 5th annual International Festival run by the International Society of Huntsville and hosted on the campus of the University of Alabama-Huntsville. The festival included a plethora of booths staffed by volunteers, often wearing their native costumes, who happily shared stories about the history and cultures of their various countries. In addition to the informational programs there were performances of dance and music by a wide variety of groups and individuals from all over the world. There was also the opportunity to sample international foods from a variety of vendors. It was a fun and entertaining way to spend the day, but more, it was an eye-opening look at the cultural diversity present in the Huntsville metropolitan area. Such moments of openness and sharing are important in understanding the makeup of our city and in encouraging different groups to work together to create a more inclusive city.
One Huntsville holds a presentation on various community issues each month. In September the presentation was on the Etowah Project. This project is the work of individuals from many faiths who are trying to bring some comfort and human contact to those incarcerated at the Etowah County Detention Center. Those held there are not criminals, but rather they are those who have been detained over immigration issues. Since they are not convicted felons with a specific sentence, they can be held indefinitely. Many are far from their homes and loved ones. Nor are they allowed face-to-face meetings should a family member manage to come to the Center to see them. It is the work of the Etowah Project to provide them with human contact and with small gifts to help them keep up their spirits while they are incarcerated.
On September 28th I attended the first of three sessions on “Ideals, Realities and Perceptions of Islam” taught by Dr. Noor Gillani, a member of One Huntsville and the Interfaith Mission Service. During this, and during the subsequent two sessions, Dr. Gallani addressed many of the misconceptions about Islam including the question of terrorism. He pointed out that the terrorists of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS make up no more than 0.01% of the followers of Islam and that they are actually anti-Islamic in that they violate many of the tenets of faith in the Koran. Dr. Gillani then went on to expound upon ways in which the breach between the West and the Islamic world might be healed, thus preventing further cycles of violence and hatred.
My husband and I attended a drum circle, religious service, and potluck with the Light of Christ Center, a metaphysical Christian Church. At times the chants and words of the service seemed very familiar in a Pagan context, and at other times they seemed quite similar to the Christian services of my childhood. Following the service we gathered around the Peace Stone outside of the center to offer words of healing for our community and of wishes for peace across the world.
As I have mentioned in an earlier Wild Garden post, my husband and I have been at the center of a controversy with the City of Huntsville regarding religious discrimination against Wicca and other minority religions. On 21 October 2014, we were given the opportunity to offer the monthly presentation at One Huntsville on the topic of the beliefs and practices of Wicca. We drew quite a large crowd for our presentation and it was very well received. As I pointed out at the end of our talk, we did not wish to try to convert any who came to hear us speak; however, it was out devout hope that through open discussions we could go a long way towards dispelling the fear and misconceptions about Wicca and towards a recognition that Wiccans and other Pagans are citizens of this community with the same hopes and dreams for a better future for all of us.
And on November 2-3, 2014 I will be attending a program on Faith Intersections which emphasizes how our various faith groups can come together in more productive ways to address the sorts of issues that cause division and strife in our communities and work to resolve them.
It has been an amazing two months of learning about others and about sharing our own beliefs, all in an atmosphere of tolerance and understanding. In addition, I offered a suggestion for next year’s pilgrimage which One Huntsville and the Interfaith Mission Service are going to explore. I had suggested holding something along the line of the International Festival, but with the emphasis being on religion rather than culture. I am looking forward to working closely with the committee to see what we might be able to do to present such a program.
I have found great satisfaction in attending the various Pilgrimage programs and I think it goes a long way towards creating a more inclusive atmosphere in our community. I would highly recommend that other communities explore the benefits that such a program might provide to themselves.