Finding common ground in sound; Religious groups jam together for one love

It was an open-and-shut case: The Bhakti Center laid down a mesmerizing beat.
It was an open-and-shut case: The Bhakti Center laid down a mesmerizing beat.

BY ZACH WILLIAMS  |  Religious groups agree that through the music of their respective faiths a certain harmony prevailed on Jan. 25 at the sixth annual Spiritual Sounds of the East Village.

Buddhists, Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Hindus congregated that night at the Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection on E. Second St. to exhibit the sounds of their faiths, as well as tolerance for all people. Local Muslims had to cancel at the last moment, but 11 other ensembles performed music from persuasions as diverse as the Bhakti Center — Hare Krishnas — to The Catholic Worker with The Filthy Rotten System Band.

A lama tooted his own horn at Spiritual Sounds.
A lama tooted his own horn at Spiritual Sounds.

The event exemplified the possibility for unity among all people just as terrorism and war threaten to further divide people of different religions worldwide, according to organizer Anthony Donovan, who began life as a Catholic but now identifies as nondemoninational.

Though “Kumbaya” was heard at the event, the roughly 100 people in attendance are not pining away about lofty ideals, he added in an interview.

“This is not a naive notion that we have here,” Donovan explained. “This really is people standing up and saying, ‘No we know another way.’”

In recent years the event has inspired greater dialogue among the groups, resulting in other joint-community events, he added. Local Jews and Muslims celebrated the end of religious fasts together following the outbreak of war in Gaza last year. That idea came from the Holy Land itself; but in New York City a local imam and rabbi knew how to work together after meeting at Spiritual Sounds in prior years, according to Larry Sebert, the rabbi at Town & Village Synagogue.

The Catholic Worker and The Filthy Rotten System Band got...filthy!   Photos by William Alatriste / NYC Council
The Catholic Worker and The Filthy Rotten System Band got…filthy! Photos by Zach Williams

A Buddhist monk from the Tibetan Nechung Foundation at the Jan. 25 event displayed additional eagerness for affiliation as he took a selfie in front of the synagogue’s choir as they sang.

Though each religion began in a different place, the East Village is a place where they must cooperate in order to ensure a livable neighborhood for all, especially with the ongoing economic revitalization there, said Father Christopher Calin of Holy Virgin Protection.

Like many longtime residents of the neighborhood, he has seen plenty of change as the drug addicts and punks gave way to the forces of gentrification. Though his cathedral has had its ups and downs in attendance over the last two decades, he expressed confidence that religions of all types will remain a powerful influence in the local community in the 21st century, just as in centuries past.

A flautist from the Sufi Center hit all the right notes.
A flautist from the Sufi Center hit all the right notes.

“We’re the constant,” he said. “We’re going to be here. We’ve been here. You know what I mean? And everything has changed around us.”

Seven years ago a “weird” visitor — Donovan — came to the cathedral saying that he wanted to promote greater unity among religious groups in the area, Calin said. At first he seemed like just another character from the East Village. But once Calin listened more closely to Donovan, he grew more enthusiastic about the idea of an interfaith happening.

But it took some thought to determine just what type of event would work for people of all religions. Dietary restrictions precluded a group meal, Calin noted. The idea of a religious-tinged event with no specific references to an individual religion seemed to him and others as inviting as a “bland stew,” he said. Then the notion arose to promote unity through music from people of each religion or no religion at all.

It’s a space for humans rather than dogma, participants explained.

Other groups performing at the event included Middle Collegiate Church, Most-Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, The Sufi Center, St. Mark’s In-the-Bowery, Iglesia Alianza Cristiana y Misionera, and Sixth St. Synagogue.

As the crowd dispersed afterward, smiles were visible all around. Hearing the musical sounds of different religions also inspired a certain eagerness among some that there need to be more events such as Spiritual Sounds.

“It’s just very beautiful. I can say, ‘moving, awe-inspiring,’ ” said Susan Schiffman, a member of the Town & Village choir. “The time goes so fast.”

On Tuesday, Donovan reported that he went to talk to Imam AbuSufian of the Medina Masjid — whom, he noted has “never missed a gathering or event” in the past — to ask what happened Sunday.

“He was sincerely shocked,” Donovan said. “He had misplaced the date and told his folks that it was the next Sunday. Recently returning from pilgrimage in Mecca, he turns his texting off some days. So he didn’t get my reminding texts till the following morning.

“He deeply apologized to all. We are planning a lunch gathering of faith leaders soon, further discussing ways to gather our youth together. He’s onboard.”