Multifaith March for Peace in Gaza Launches From Philadelphia - Word&Way

Multifaith March for Peace in Gaza Launches From Philadelphia

“Let’s proceed from the seat of independence to the seat of political power, lifting our voices all the way,” said Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, president and general secretary of the National Council of Churches, at an event on Wednesday (Feb. 14) launching a “peace pilgrimage” from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. Religious leaders, activists, and artists from various Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish traditions embarked on this eight-day walking journey to bring attention to their calls for the release of all hostages, a ceasefire in Gaza, and unrestricted humanitarian aid to save lives.

Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, President and General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, speaks to those gathered at Mother Bethel AME Church on Feb. 14, 2024. (Joe Piette/National Council of Churches)

This event’s primary focus is on getting President Biden and members of the U.S. Congress to take action. Rev. Nicolas O’Rourke of the Philadelphia City Council told those gathered, “As you begin to embark on what is truly a righteous journey, if there ever was one, down to what’s felt like, for some time for many of us — maybe more acutely now for some of us — a house of injustice, dare we say a house of incompetence … we hope and pray that your travels are safe, that your burdens are made light, and that the steps that you all take in search of peace and justice are reflected in the choices that decision makers in Washington will make.”

Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church where the march began, welcomed everyone by discussing the history of both the building and of his denomination: “In addition to Valentine’s Day and Frederick Douglass’s birthday, this is also the day that we celebrate the birth of Bishop Richard Allen, the founder of the AME Church.”

Tyler linked the current struggle for peace and justice to the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was formed as a breakaway denomination after White Methodists routinely made Black members feel unwelcome in what is today the United Methodist Church. Mother Bethel, completed in 1890, is built on the oldest parcel of land continuously held by African Americans.

“Whenever there are people who are innocent, whose lives are in danger, whether they be in Palestine, whether they be in Ukraine, whether they be in north or west Philadelphia, wherever they might be, we have to be on the side of right, because God still sides with the oppressed,” he added.

“If I was preaching, and I’m not, I’d simply remind us that the Jesus of this church was born homeless. Oh, in Palestine!” said Rev. Dr. Frederick Haynes, the freshly appointed president and CEO of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. “The Jesus of this church found himself under a death sentence of genocide. Practiced by Herod. Herod has descendants, descendants running Israel — I think his name is Netanyahu. But then Herod also has supporters named Biden. Herod is still engaging in genocide.”

“You can’t have security in Israel if there was no justice in Palestine,” he concluded. “What we are doing in this march is saying damn the consequences, we’re going to do the right thing.”

Palestinian American political activist Linda Sarsour also delivered a passionate plea for peace, noting that while she is known for being longwinded, she is currently often at a loss for words. She explained, “I find myself horrified that I live in a country that is aiding and abetting the genocide of my people. We live in a country where, during a genocide, our president bypassed Congress twice to sell weapons to the state of Israel.”

“Our Senate passed the bill yesterday to send 14.8 billion more dollars to the State of Israel,” she added, her voice wavering as she fought to hold back tears. “I’m horrified that I live in a country where people decide whether or not they want to speak up during the genocide. In a country where you could lose your job — in a democracy — for standing up and saying that a people deserve to be free.”

Ariel Gold of the Fellowship of Reconciliation drew upon her roots in Judaism to explain why she was proudly part of this event: “War, violence, and death is an abomination in the eyes of God. And the use of our holy scripture, the times that Netanyahu has invoked the story of Amalek saying that all Palestinians must be wiped from the earth, is an abomination in the eyes of God. The support for this war by evangelical Zionists is an abomination in the eyes of God. The sending of weapons by our government, by our Congress, is an abomination in the eyes of God.”

Rabbi Alissa Wise of Rabbis for Ceasefire added to this sentiment, comparing this peace pilgrimage to the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was after this event, she pointed out, that Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote that he felt that his legs were praying.

“Today it is our turn to pray with our legs. We will march and pray in memory of the over 27,000 Palestinians — including more than 12,000 children — who have been killed by Israel since October. An unfathomable number, each one an entire world,” she said.

The first day of the Pilgrimage for Peace as marchers walk through downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Feb. 14, 2024. (Joe Piette/National Council of Churches)

Lisa Sharon Harper of Gaza Ceasefire Pilgrimage spoke about how what started as a group of only six people getting together to discuss how they could address this issue has turned into more than 97 cities around the world declaring that they are going to do a ceasefire march, each about the length of Gaza itself.

She and Shane Claiborne, executive director of Red Letter Christians, are also putting together a second Philadelphia Gaza ceasefire pilgrimage, which will occur throughout the entirety of Holy Week and end at Lockheed Martin, which is the largest supplier of all of the planes and bombs that are being dropped on people in Gaza right now.

Among a long list of over 60 co-sponsors that features numerous major religious organizations such as the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Showing Up for Racial Justice, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the primary partnering organizations for this march include Faith for Black Lives, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, Rabbis for Ceasefire, Hindus for Human Rights, and the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The event concluded with Rev. Stephen A. Green of Faith for Black Lives inviting the more than 300 people in attendance who wish to receive Ash Wednesday ashes on the forehead as part of the Christian tradition to do so before setting out on their journey. Then, everyone joined in singing the 1960s freedom song “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind Stayed On Freedom)” with the word “freedom” swapped out for “ceasefire.”