A group of Elk Grove and Sacramento faith leaders gathered on Aug. 4 around a table at the Fo Guang Shan Bodhi Buddhist temple on Calvine Road.
Representing eight religions and denominations, they had arrived for the city’s Interfaith Prayer for Peace, Justice and Unity.
The call to prayer was organized by the city’s newly formed Diversity and Inclusion Commission as part of Elk Grove’s Diversity Awareness Month.
“I thought that perhaps the best place for us to start would be moral leaders,” said R. Ashok Shankar, who chairs the committee in charge of Diversity Awareness Month.
Shankar said in an interview that the idea came to him in 2017, when the Elk Grove City Council declared the city “No Place for Hate,” and it was finally coming to fruition.
Faith groups represented included the Bahá’í Faith, Buddhism, the Catholic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Episcopal Church, Islam, the Methodist Church, and Sikhism. Two interfaith leaders were also present.
By holding the prayer, Shankar hoped “to showcase and to educate us about how rich our faith communities are, and at the same time hopefully we can honor, respect and appreciate the differences in our belief systems.”
The ceremony began as the spiritual leaders processed out of the temple, led by Elk Grove Mayor Steve Ly, while an audience of a couple dozen community members looked on.
Everyone joined in a Buddhist song and a prayer for world peace, and then the faith leaders placed lotus flower-shaped lights on a small fountain.
In his opening remarks, Shankar invoked the victims of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Both massacres occurred that weekend.
“Let us pause for a moment of silence to remember all who have been victimized by man’s inhumanity to man,” he said.
The leaders’ speeches shared a theme of celebrating differences. The Rev. Anne Smith of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Sacramento recalled moving to Elk Grove and seeing the diverse student body at her daughters’ new school.
“I want to do more than teach my daughters to accept those differences,” Smith said. “Often that’s what we hear about. We talk about tolerating differences, tolerating other people. But my faith tells me that those differences are there on purpose, that God delights in the infinite variety present in creation.”
Imam Sayed Waheed Ahmadzada, who leads Masjid al-Tawheed in Elk Grove, expressed his gratitude that Muslims “are an integral part of this community.”
“We have this concept in Islam that we all are brothers and sisters,” Ahmadzada noted. “So our brotherhood and sisterhood is deeply rooted.”
The afternoon included musical performances. Thirteen-year-old Neil Nayyar played multiple songs, including the national anthem and The Beatles’ “Imagine,” on a sitar and a steel drum-like instrument called a handpan.
Alisa Wesson, musical director of Vesna Folk LA, sang a Belarusian folk song “about a mother who is trying to protect her daughter from being persecuted.”
After sharing a meal, many of the attendees took turns ringing the temple bell, as a symbol of world peace.
Interfaith minister Jacquelyn Sneed told the Citizen that working together can make the community more “creative” and “expansive.”
“And I think that we need to show harmony, and peace and cooperation, and expansion,” Sneed continued, “expansion of consciousness and creative ways to use the resources of the natural world. It’s just so needed right now.”
Diversity Awareness Month continues Sunday, Aug. 18, with a guided prayer walk of Morse Community Park’s labyrinth at 5540 Bellaterra Drive.