By Chriss Williams
The pews of Most Holy Redeemer-Nativity Church in the East Village were packed with Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and the unaffiliated last Sunday, Jan. 26 to listen to the 11th annual “Spiritual Sounds; An Evening of Faith, Recitation and Music.”
The topic of religion and spiritual practice has long been a point of contention for communities inside and outside of New York City but not in this space.
Spiritual Sounds is not political in nature or promoting anything other than unity in diversity. For two hours, attendees witnessed members from a variety of faith communities perform and engage in what the German theologian Rudolf Otto called the ‘numinous,’ communicating with God, others, the universe and themselves through sound.
The event allowed people to witness humanity outside of their social filter bubbles, an experience the event’s creator and organizer Anthony Donovan says is uncommon.
Donovan addressed those gathered inside Most Holy Redeemer- Nativity Church, with awe and praise as their simple act of attending the event demonstrated tremendous strength.
“We all have people in our communities that may not approve of you doing this,” said Donovan.
Religious institutions around the country have witnessed a surge of violence as religious identity is often a motivating factor in hate crimes. According to the NYPD, hate crimes in the city were up 19% in 2019 and anti-Semitic hate crimes increased by 26% with 234 incidents.
Last month, the Orthodox Jewish community experienced several violent attacks including one on Dec. 29, when a machete-wielding man entered the home of a Rockland County Rabbi, hosting a Hanukkah celebration. Five party-goers were stabbed before the assailant fled the scene. He was later arrested by police and pled not-guilty in his arraignment hearing. According to HuffPost, the man’s journal allegedly contained references to Hitler and thoughts of genocide. That same day, a gunman opened fire in a Christian church in Texas, killing two people before being shot and killed by an armed worshiper.
Mayor de Blasio recently asserted its commitment to combating anti-Semitism and hate crimes against religious groups through the establishment of multi-ethnic interfaith neighborhood safety coalitions and working with the NYC Department of Education to create new programming for schools that promote tolerance.
Spiritual Sounds has provided a reflective refuge from oppression and hatred for the past eleven years. A line from their statement of affirmation printed on the evening’s program reads; “We wish to encourage and reflect the greatest shining strength of our city and our nation, the best in us, our unity in our diversity”
“New York City is noisy,” said Father William Elder, whose parish hosted this year’s event. “Our challenge is in the midst of the cacophony around us is to listen to the sounds of the spirit, to listen to spiritual sounds, the sounds of the human heart.”
Alex Seibel of The Bhakti Center, challenged stereotypes of what a “spiritual sound” should be with his performance of an original rap song. “The way we understand Bhakti is that anything can be transformed into a devotional act to God,” Seibel told The Villager.
Other local faith groups participating included; St. Marks Church in the Bowery, The Shul of New York, Light of Guidance Sufi Center, St. Mary’s American Orthodox Church, Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection, Second Avenue Church, Sixth Street Community Synagogue, The Catholic Worker, Most Holy Redeemer-Nativity Church, Nechung Foundation, The Center of Universal Peace, Town & Village synagogue, Medina Masjid Mosque, and Middle Collegiate Church.
Adam Raabe, a former resident of the East Village, attended Spiritual Sounds for the first time. After Middle Collegiate Church’s gospel choir closed the evening with rousing joy-filled number, he mused that the event was everything the world needs in 2020,”a melding of the good things that religions can offer, specifically: community and inspiration. The event is welcoming, diverse, and awe inspiring.”
As people exited the sanctuary, faith leaders gathered to take a group photo. The diverse expressions of Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism standing side-by-side, smiling. If you listened closely you could hear the hope this shared space of sanctuary brings to New York City.