United we stand
From Oak Park housing to Egyptian television, SN&R’s A Call for Unity shows it’s a small world after all
On Saturday night, a crowd gathered at the Mondavi Center for SN&R’s second annual A Call for Unity event, featuring religious leaders and musicians from more than a dozen faiths: A Jewish cantor sang in Hebrew; Mary Youngblood, a Grammy-winning American Indian flutist, performed on some of the 125 native flutes in her personal collection; more than 100 singing children from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came dressed in international costumes like dolls from Disney’s “It’s a Small World"; and the Spiritual Life Center Choir sang praises to its nondenominational God, whom choir members referred to sometimes as “he” and sometimes as “she.”
Interspersed between the musicians (see “A Call for Unity,") were speeches from Sacramento’s political and religious luminaries.
Rabbi Brad Bloom, from Congregation B’nai Israel, read a poem about his recent trip to the sanitized site of the World Trade Center attacks. “Return? I shall not return. Hate? I shall not hate. Forget? I shall not forget. Remember? I shall remember,” he read. But most speakers concentrated not so much on the anniversary of September 11 but on the success of Sacramento’s interfaith activities since then.
This year was the first in which SN&R offered the Building Unity Award, which went to Professor Metwalli Amer, founder, executive director and imam [spiritual leader] of the Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims (SALAM).
Bloom presented the award to Amer “for his dedication to the cause of peace and ecumenical dialogue” and ended his presentation with the line, “A rabbi presenting a Building Unity Award to the imam—there is hope.”
Amer accepted the award demurely. “With a deep feeling of humility and a profound feeling of appreciation, I accept the honor of receiving such a dear award,” he began. “When my friend Jeff vonKaenel [president and chief executive officer of SN&R] approached me to convey the decision to give to me the award, I initially declined. … He convinced me when he said, ‘Metwalli, this is a commendation for the Muslim community through you.’ It’s a testimony that the Muslim community is getting involved as an active partner in the Sacramento region.” Amer was lauded by supporters in a special VIP event before the concert. In toasts kept to a tight one-minute timeline, he was called a great teacher, a respected leader and a man with a history of supporting other faiths.
David Wagner, dean of faculty and staff affairs at California State University, Sacramento, wished Amer long life so that “he’s able to see the harvest of tolerance his seeds of understanding have sown.”
Professor Ayad Al-Qazzaz, also of CSUS, praised him for his discipline and open-mindedness. “To be effective and have a voice in American politics, you have to be organized and be a member of a group. This is why Metwalli invested tremendous amounts of his time and energy making SALAM an effective organization.”
California first lady Sharon Davis also spoke, but she focused her comments on the benefits of living in what she referred to as “the most diverse place on the planet.” She praised the interfaith community for promoting unity as a response to September 11.
“These are extraordinary times,” said Davis. “In extraordinary times, we look for extraordinary people, and that’s this group gathered tonight.”
The Building Unity Award not only captured the attention and support of local leaders but also became a story in the international media.
VonKaenel began his speech to the Call for Unity audience by saying, “Given the state that the world is in now, that we here in Sacramento decided to give an award to an American Muslim was news. … News of this event has already been broadcast on three different Egyptian television stations.”
The television stations, which will receive a tape of the Call for Unity concert, were interested primarily in Amer, who is Egyptian. But Melissa Patrice, executive assistant to vonKaenel, speculated that Muslims also are “hungry to see a face of America that is more humanitarian, more open and welcoming to those of different religions.”
“Let us extend out a bridge,” vonKaenel told both the live and televised audiences, “a bridge of peace and understanding from our city to your cities throughout the Arab world.” With the houselights up, the sold-out crowd stood and applauded, waving to the audiences in Egypt.
VonKaenel also explained that the Call for Unity event had been born out of a desire not just to honor the memory of September 11, 2001, but “rather to have a night when we come together as a community and share each other’s religious music.”
The emphasis on religion colored the choices of performers. Rondalla de Guadalupe, close to 20 singers with stringed instruments, joined by one wheelchair-bound tambourine player, sang three songs in Spanish, including Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.” Amer sang the call to prayer in Arabic, and the Schola Cantorum sang “A Celtic Prayer.”
VonKaenel told audiences that one of the most important results of the first Call for Unity event was the formation of Building Unity, a housing project supported by partners such as Habitat for Humanity, Rebuilding Together, the Interfaith Service Bureau, local politicians and local business leaders.
According to Rebuilding Together representative Cecilia Macdonald, Building Unity was instrumental in funding and contracting for the rehabilitation of 20 homes in Oak Park. VonKaenel said the goal was to rehabilitate at least 60 in the coming year.
Judee Daniels, executive director of community partnerships for Sacramento’s Habitat for Humanity, said Building Unity also helped fund and plan the construction of 15 new homes in Oak Park.
Both Davis and state Health and Human Services Secretary Grantland Johnson spoke of Habitat for Humanity’s home-building efforts as opportunities for people to break down social barriers.
“I got involved with Habitat for Humanity before I was first lady,” Davis told the audience in her speech, “and once you’ve been involved, you are hooked.”
And proving how far the Building Unity concept had grown, Johnson mentioned that even the Legislature was working in a bipartisan fashion to build a house together. "It won’t have a center," he joked, "just a right wing and a left wing."