A Day of Oneness offers prayers of hope for peace and unity

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
The Kids’ Peace Band performs a song of unity. From left are John Hilton, Lia Davis, Nico and Roman Lattanzio, and Monica Hilton.

BERNE — Harmony came from more than the music at Camp Givah on Sunday.

The camp, owned by Temple Israel, was a gathering place for people of different religions and different ethnicities to share A Day of Oneness, as organizer Karol Harlow described it.

A follower of the Bahá’í Faith, Harlow lives on the camp road. Baháʼí, a religion founded in Persia  in the mid-19th Century, emphasizes the spiritual unity of all humankind.

“It seems like the world’s in chaos, the world’s at odds,” said Harlow on Sunday, explaining that the day was a chance for people to come together in prayer and share spiritual food.

The day also involved swimming in the camp’s pool, boating on the camp’s lake, and playing games on the camp’s lawn.

But first, the two score people gathered under two maple trees, shaded against the sweltering heat, to sing and chant and pray. They wore name tags that identified each as a “world citizen” and they wore bracelets that said, “Peace be with you.”

Harlow noted people from a number of different religions were present but declined to name them so as not to “point out differences.” She also said microphones would be used so as not to shush the children at play.

The session opened with a Prayer for Unity, created by the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, Baháʼu'lláh, and delivered on Sunday by Rick Tocco.

“O, my God,” he prayed, “unite the hearts of Thy servants and reveal to them Thy great purpose …. Guide their steps by the light of Thy knowledge and cheer their hearts by Thy love.”

The next blessing was spoken in Thai by a Buddhist monk dressed in a saffron robe. Phra Pronsawan came to the gathering from the Thai Meditation Center in Delanson.

“He has to sit to do this pray,” said a woman who served as his translator.

His words were translated in a flier created by Harlow: “May all living beings be free from animosity. May all living beings be free from oppression …. May all living beings be the owners of their actions, heir to their actions, born of their actions ….”

At one point, those assembled were asked to put the palms of their hands together in prayer as the monk chanted; at another point, they were asked to quietly meditate.

Leaves rustled. A baby cried.

When the monk had finished, he handed out red string bracelets. A little girl rushed to get one. After he tied it on her wrist, she proudly displayed it.

Harlow instructed, “When you get it tied on, you are to let it fall off naturally.”

Phra Pronsawan then posed for pictures, with Harlow at first standing by his side but, as one of the women translating for him explained, he is not to touch a woman so then a man stood beside the monk instead as the pictures were taken.

Next, a statement submitted by Rabbi Paul Silton was read, based on the work of Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish-born American rabbi. Heschel’s mother was murdered by Nazis and two of his sisters died in Nazi concentraion capms; a third sister was killed in a German bombing.

“No religion is an island; we share the kinship of humanity, the capacity for compassion …. No one can claim: My ancestry is nobler than yours,” Heschel wrote. “There is no monopoly on holiness. There is no truth without humility …. Are we not all God’s children?”

Igor Kouzine then read, in Ukrainian, the Bahá’í Prayer for Aid and Assistance.

Kouzine said he came to Albany from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. “This is my home away from home,” he told the gathering.

Although he considers himself a global citizen, Kouzine said, “I’m from Ukraine. What goes on there is close to my heart …. They’re suffering.”

“O, God,” Kouzine prayed in Ukrainian, “recompense those who endure patiently in Thy days, and strengthen their hearts to walk undeviatingly in the path of truth.”

Debra Burger brought her guitar and had the group sing along with two songs she had written.

The first she wrote after hearing a radio announcement during the Gulf War, indicating “it was good other people died, not our people,” she said.

“For some the love of country excuses all they do,” Burger sang in one verse. “But those who live in other lands love their countries too.”

The group joined in the chorus: “There’s no boundary between us. We’re children of one light.”

Harlow had a similar impulse as United States troops fought in the Middle East. Now a retired school administrator, she was at the time a member of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board. She objected then when the school posted a sign out front saying, “God bless our soldiers,” raising the question about soldiers on the other side.

Burger’s second song was one she wrote to honor her retiring rabbi, incorporating Hebrew words for “I am here,” “Together we are strong,” and “It would have been enough.”

“It would have been enough,” sang Burger, “if all you shared was wisdom … yet you brought us such compassion.”

Jacquie Donahoe, a woodcarver, described how her heart was broken on May 24 when she learned of the schoolhouse slaughter in Uvalde, Texas.

Donahoe had spent 38 years working with children as an occupational therapist.

“I went from heartbreak to anger to depression and finally I went to hopelessness,” she said. “I knew our politicians would send thoughts and prayers. I wanted to send more.”

She came up with the “off the wall” idea of carving “comfort birds” to help the bereaved families. Usually, she carves the birds for patients on dialysis or undergoing chemotherapy treatments for cancer.

Donahoe passed around sample birds so people could feel the comforting smoothness of the wood creations.

After many hang-ups as she tried to offer her birds to Uvalde, she came across a woman who understood their worth as a tent to provide mental-health services was being set up in Uvalde.

Other woodcarvers joined her. “We now have 365 comfort birds down there and counting,” said Donahoe.

Other prayers followed. Mwaka Nachi offered a prayer for peace in an African language.

Luke Chmielinski provided a prayer from the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso: “We are visitors on this planet. We are here for 90 or 100 years at the most. During that period, we must try to do something good, something useful, with our lives. If you contribute to other people’s happiness you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life.”

Bahá’í prayers were read by Faramarz Monzavi and Marziea Monzavi — one in English and the other in Persian.

Barbara Sinecore, in her prayer, said, “The times are scary.” She quoted from local singer Ruth Pelham: “We’re all a family under one sky.”

Sinecore said she heard God telling her, “You are a Quaker. Quakers ask probing questions of themselves.”

And so she asked what would happen if we patterned our lives after holy people and learned how they dealt with suffering and joy.

“Would we feel less alone today?” she asked.

Sinecore then sang, “We all are doors if we choose to be …. One of these doors is you and me.”

She provided a basket full of colorful paper “doors” and urged those at the gathering, “Find new and creative ways to be doors.”

Among the devotional offerings, the heart-stopper was a steel-drum band, called the Kids’ Peace Band. Each of their matching blue T-shirts was centered with a peace sign.

They performed a stirring rendition of Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me”: Lean on me when you’re not strong and I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on.  For it won’t be long till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.”

The Peace Band closed out the morning with: “We are drops of one ocean, we are waves of one sea. Come and join us in our quest for unity.”

Harlow thanked them for “music to my ears.”

More Hilltowns News

  • Electric bills from National Grid obtained by The Enterprise show that the town of Berne frequently underpaid for its services — while some months not paying at all — and accumulated late fees and disconnection notices throughout 2021 and up to the present.

  • At a lightly-attended annual meeting held at the Berne Town Hall last week, Kenneth’s Army members defended their group against accusations of financial misdealings and disregard for the sisters of the group’s namesake — providing key evidence when it could — while non-members criticized The Enterprise for its coverage of those issues.

  • The Knox Conservation Advisory Council has tapped a local group of nature walkers, the Thursday Naturalists, to develop a species list for the wetland area where the town had once installed a public boardwalk that has since fallen into disrepair. The chairman of the council has said that he hopes to rehabilitate the boardwalk. 

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