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story.lead_photo.caption Interfaith Center executive director Sophia Said (second from left) and others take part in a past Love Thy Neithbor service. This year’s event will be held Thursday at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in Little Rock.

The sounding of the shofar, the ram's horn blown during the Jewish High Holidays, can signal joy, triumph, lamentation or sorrow.

It has become a traditional part of the opening ceremonies of Love Thy Neighbor, the Little Rock event held at Saint Mark's Episcopal Church each September that is dedicated to bringing together people from different religions, including those who don't claim any particular faith.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, attendees will hear the shofar once again but also will hear the azan, or Muslim call to prayer; the shankha, a conch shell symbolic in Hindu religious tradition; and other treats as this year's gathering devotes itself to honoring and celebrating the sounds inextricably linked to faith.

Muslim scholar Dr. Muhammad Ninowy, founder of the global Madina Institute, headquartered in Duluth, Ga., will discuss during the hourlong service how sounds recognizable in spirituality bring people together. Washington-based vocalist and composer-arranger Dr. Ysaye Barnwell -- a former member of the black women's a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock for more than 30 years -- will engage the congregation in a vocal community workshop. The River City Men's Chorus, which performs secular and faith-based music, will sing tunes focused on bringing people together.

The event has been hosted for the past five years at Saint Mark's and was created after the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It was originally founded as a way to commemorate the day, according to Sophia Said, founder of the Madina Institute's Little Rock campus.

"The memories of what happened that day, that evokes a certain kind of fear," said Said, executive director of the Interfaith Center. "I remember thinking, 'We need to change that. We need to have a different narrative. It's 10 years since 9/11. It's time that our communities need to move forward and there's no way to [do that], except to learn how to co-exist and how to cooperate across different kinds of faith.'"

That idea was brought to fruition in 2012, and through the years has embraced themes related to unity, letting go of fear and sharing experiences in an interfaith setting. John Willis, a music leader at two area churches, said the decision of the Love Thy Neighbor committee to focus on faith-related sounds stemmed from witnessing how past congregations at the event have responded to opportunities for call-and-response activities, and singing together.

Barnwell and Ninowy's appearances, he said, bring this year's event to new levels.

"I don't think any of us ever dreamed that we would be bringing these two giant international, spiritual and cultural luminaries to preside in the same event, but somehow the roof just opened up and [Barnwell and Ninowy] are going to fit inside with all of us central Arkansas people [who] are there to learn and listen and sing together."

Barnwell's experiences with creating vocal community workshops trace to her time singing in a Unitarian church choir and getting members to sing who were hesitant because they did not read music, leading with the belief that everyone can sing in some form.

"It's not about how well somebody sings. It's the fact that we sing, and why we sing, and when we sing," Barnwell said. "That's really what it's about, so hopefully the pressure of 'singing well' doesn't even exist."

Ninowy has been one of Said's spiritual teachers and is the author of the recently released book The Power of Love, copies of which will be available at the event. Dialogue, he said, is critical to building the understanding and unity among members of differing faiths and is part of the idea behind the Madina Institute.

"The idea was really basics: God loves people," Ninowy said. "And to focus less on the micromechanics of the rituals of the [Islamic] faith and to go back to the basics of unconditional compassion, love and opportunity to connect to all people through compassionate work and helping [others].

"The only way [to better our communities] is not to talk about each other, but to talk to each other -- not with the sense of trying to convert you ... but rather that I understand where you come from and you understand where I come from theologically, and this way we celebrate diversity, and in that sense we're united."

Said noted that although Ninowy and Barnwell come from different backgrounds, the goal attained by featuring each of them at the Love Thy Neighbor service is the same.

"[We] bring different faith groups into the same room and give them the experience of bringing them together and saying, yes, we can stand together and pray together, no matter how different our religions are ... we can stand shoulder to shoulder with each other and pray with each other, and we can listen to each other.

"It's a way for people to pray together, no matter how different they are."

The congregation also will find community in food at the annual interfaith food festival that will be held immediately after the service.

Barnwell said sound has a quality that people physically internalize, and that when it's sung in community, music itself has a power that brings people together.

"Music is kind of a way in which we honor the activity that we're engaged in," Barnwell said. "If music isn't the sole activity, then the music is the way in which we honor and participate in the activity of the whole, and that's very powerful. A lot of people haven't had the experience of being in a large group of people. Maybe this is the first time they've ever joined their voices with other people.

"It's a good thing."

Photo by Nikki Dawes

Religion on 08/31/2019

Print Headline: Different voices: Diverse religious groups come together for Love Thy Neighbor event in Little Rock


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