The last day of the year once again found Great Performances and me at the New York Public Library for the Mayors annual Interfaith Breakfast. It is a mayoral tradition; a gathering of clergy and spiritual leaders from a broad range of religious communities; an assortment of faiths as colorful and diverse as some of the distinctive clothing that filled the Bartos Forum.
There are many reasons I love attending this breakfast despite the very early morning arrival time on a day where everyone else is either out of town, slowing the work pace down or getting a jump on the evening's impending festivities. From a practical standpoint, what better way to end the year then in an environment laden with blessings from all faiths - a cover your bases sort of guarantee to carry over into the unknown of the new year, especially for the less observant.
And as the library podium becomes a pulpit for the morning, the Mayor always transforms it further into a bully pulpit for a message that bridges the ecumenical with the political be it an aggressive message about gun control, issues of health or safety or political hot potatoes like immigration reform - the focal point for the 2010 message. Naturally, a reference to divine intervention with either budgetary matters or acts of Nature, was extremely appropriate if not anticipated this year.
Representatives of six faiths spoke briefly, each denomination's clergy member highlighting a slightly different core value and message. A traditional Catholic convocation from Father Lorenzo Ato, praising God, evoking a very traditional blessing and ending with a plea for greater justice and peace was followed by Buddhist Reverand Doyeon Park's call for meditation and silence to 'know ourselves completely' and discover 'inner strength and joy...compassion and wisdom for all living things.' The Imam Rafeek Mohamed entreated God for love, kindness, and compassion for all creations; a safe, secure and clean environment; comfort for the suffering, while calling on us to recognize, embrace and celebrate our differences. Presbyterian Reverend Timothy Keller called to the ideal of justice in our city 'where men and women of all classes flourish - a community of justice, a city where no one is penalized for belief and love their neighbors regardless of their belief.' Baptist Pastor Mullery Jean-Pierre thanked and prayed for the Mayor, asking God to give him mercy and guidance; grateful for this city where so many 'tribes and tongues' could flourish in a 'city of love with love and respect for each other.' Before concluding, he asked for 'a special prayer for Haiti, the poorest country in our hemisphere.' Rabbi Shlomo Nisanov closed with what sounded like a Rosh Hashannah (Jewish New Year's) reprise - a petition for 'joy and blessings in the year ahead, sustenance, piety, free from shame, abundance and fulfillment.' (Those were familiar words though oddly out of context!)
Were they all addressing the same God, each with a slightly different agenda and tone? Were they not, at the end of the day, united in their wishes for peace, justice, harmony and love? I think so, but their different perspectives and priorities speak to the differences that separate our communities and the aspirations that are unique to different groups. The different ways to celebrate spirituality was uniquely a New York experience. Hallelujah for our wonderful diversity.
In any case, the room was united in their support for the Mayor, who received a standing ovation - undoubtedly a warm feeling at the end of a rough week. And then, in true Mayor Michael Bloomberg tradition, he turned to his political agenda and asked for support and mobilization for 'immigration reform as the cornerstone of America, freedom and democracy. A nation of immigrants needs reform to honor its values.' That 'future prosperity lies in attracting people from around the world.' He then thanked everyone who worked hard this past week, keeping our city safe and secure. And his closing words to us, and perhaps to himself: 'We must continue to hold ourselves accountable and do better.' And with that, the spirited group of young singers (Rosie's Theatre Kids) took to the stage for an encore.
It has been 7 years now that we have been involved with the Interfaith Breakfast. It is arguably one of the most interesting mornings of our year as politics and religion converge in a genuine love fest that enriches all attendees, even the waiters and waitresses who serve the array of attendees. Entering the Bartos Forum, year after year, during the final stages of set up has become a seminal 'Groundhog Day' moment - when on one hand, it feels like we have never left the room yet on the other hand, 364 days have flown by (and I mean flown by, because it truly feels like a blink of an eye since we were there last.) There are conversations that pick up exactly where they left off a year ago. There are friendships that are rekindled for those few brief hours, year after year. It is a reunion but also a reaffirmation of our love for this great, glorious city - and for the brave warriors who lead us.
It is the perfect ending to the outgoing year and a unique launch of a new one. The messages - varied, nuanced and warmly spiritual - remind me of the value of public service and the multitude of blessings we have despite all the challenges of the year behind us.
Only 364 days till the next breakfast. Happy New Year!
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