September 29, 2017
Author: Phil Dignan
Photos by Dr. Kirk VanGilder. From left: VanGilder, Heath Hampton, Tyresha Collins, Brandon Upchurch, and Allison Laszczynski.
On a beautiful Sunday in Washington, D.C., a group of Gallaudet students joined hundreds of people representing many faiths, as well as those who identify themselves as non-religious, for an interfaith walk to celebrate solidarity and inclusion.
Drs. Kirk VanGilder, assistant professor of religion, and Lillie Ransom, special assistant to the provost, helped organize the student's participation in the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington's 2017 Unity Walk, held September 10, along D.C.'s Embassy Row.
The walk, which drew over 1,300 participants, featured an opening ceremony at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, open houses at various denominational churches and religious centers, two service projects, prayer, and musical performances. A closing ceremony was held at The Islamic Center of Washington, D.C. Prior to the walk, an Interfaith Picnic was held at the Washington National Cathedral, complete with music, art, and activities.
VanGilder, who teaches GSR 300: Beyond Tolerance: Interfaith and Secular Engagement, first attended Unity Walk in 2014. He brought students in 2015; students missed the walk last year as they were preparing to host last year's President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.
"Unity Walk exposes our students to a variety of religious traditions in a single afternoon and allows us to experience the diversity of religious traditions in DC as well as the unity generated by a common concern for understanding and cooperation among them," said VanGilder. "Because it is an experiential and visual learning opportunity, it's a fantastic way to introduce the concept of interfaith understanding and engagement."
Students participating this year embraced the walk, which carried the theme "Lift UP Your Neighbor."
"The Unity Walk is to get us to still love one another no matter what we believe," said Tyresha Collins. "I've learned how to work with a large group in getting everyone to participate and be prepared ahead of time. It's helped me to be a lot more patient with people."
"Events like this allow people from different religious and nonreligious backgrounds to go to other religions they do not know about and see how they worship, what they value, what their buildings look like, and understand what is important to them," said Allison Laszczynski. "I found this very valuable because I am a visual learner and being able to see everything for myself really helped me fully understand and grasp concepts I wasn't sure about."
"I learned to be a team player and get involved in something I normally wouldn't involve myself with," said Brandan Upchurch. "This experience was very valuable because it helped me grow as a person and be more tolerant and accepting of other people's beliefs."
"I learned a better understanding of other faiths," said Heath Hampton. "By talking and learning from others about their God or Gods, I learned that Mormons, Sikhs, Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians are all beautiful faiths. I learned to have an open mind about the world."
A highlight of the walk was the stop at the Sikh Gurdwara D.C. temple, where participants enjoyed a lunch of Indian food while learning more about Sikhism.
"One of our students is active with this community and was there all day to help with the cooking and the serving, so he was able to show his faith community to his deaf community as well," said VanGilder.
Looking toward the future, Gallaudet community members plan to work with the Interfaith Conference to further increase deaf community awareness.
Symi Rom-Rymer, the conference's lead organizer, has expressed interest in making Unity Walk more inclusive by providing interpreters throughout the walk, and inviting Gallaudet students to participate in programs such as the Washington Interfaith Response and Outreach Coalition and the D.C. Interfaith Leadership Summit, to be held early in 2018.
From left: Students Emma Fitzhugh, Starr Portman, Daniel Carson, and Nikolas Carapellatti pose at the Islamic Center after completing the Unity Walk.
Students Starr Portman and Daniel Carson wear some very fine turbans while visiting the Sikh Gurdwara. When you enter, you are required to remove your shoes and cover your hair for cleanliness in the prayer room of a Gurdwara.
Students converse outside the Sikh Gurdwara.
Student Rebecca C. H. Hasbrouck interprets for students at the opening ceremony, located at the Washington Hebrew Congregation.