Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Jews, children, young parents, seniors and individuals from all points of view came together Tuesday night outside Palo Alto City Hall, where they remembered the lives lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks 17 years ago.
About 170 people joined the 9/11 Multifaith Peace Picnic and Prayers, an annual event founded by Palo Altan Samina Faheem Sundas and the American Muslim Voice Foundation. Event co-sponsor Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice was formed in 2002 out of concern over the negativity and fear that erupted after the attacks.
Tuesday’s gathering in King Plaza was filled with song, joy and reverence for the human spirit. Speakers included Antonio Aversano, whose father was killed on 9/11, and children who spoke about their feelings through poetry and original songs.
Aversano held a photograph of his father.
"Seventeen years ago, my dear dad, Louis Frank Aversano Jr., didn't make it home from work. He was in the south tower, which was the second one hit but the first one to fall. ... He stayed to help. Out of his instinct to help others, he gave his life."
After 9/11, Aversano hoped people could join together and begin to heal. But then he started hearing the call for war and retaliation.
"My heart sunk," he said.
Through an online search, he joined a peace walk held by September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. They hoped to turn their grief into action for peace by developing nonviolent options to break cycles of violence caused by war and terrorism. The group has connected with victims of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Palestine and other countries throughout the world.
"We were broken open," he said.
Attending a gathering like the peace picnic is an act of choosing a more beautiful world, he said.
Jian Yong Shifu, a monk at Chung Tai Zen Center in Sunnyvale, also spoke at the evening, urging people to cleanse themselves of "greed, anger, ignorance, pride and doubt."
"Leave behind the artificial boundaries of discrimination and segregation," he said.
People are capable of transcending the bias, fear and self-righteousness that some try to promote in our society, he said.
He pointed to King Plaza as a metaphor for the kind of place people must create in society and in their hearts and minds -- a place where all can roam freely.
Sundas, who has spoken in the past of the public recrimination she faced as a Muslim after 9/11, said she reached out to the September 11th Families and they graciously accepted her.
"The families, my heart goes out to them. They are the people who have lost someone. If they can be for peace work, then none of us have any excuse. "
Maneesha Munshi attended the peace picnic and said she understands what it is like to come from a place filled with hatred and misunderstanding and the lasting effects of violence. As a child living in Kashmir in northern India, she witnessed ethnic cleansing. It is a place where there has always been a divide between religions, she said. She didn't leave until she was in the third grade.
"I saw people being killed and bombs dropping. When you are really little, it's very difficult to come out of that," she said of the memories. But the peace picnic provides a positive space, one filled with happy, smiling people and hope, she said.
Bill Overton said he had been watching a National Geographic special that played the footage of the 9/11 attacks before he arrived at the picnic.
"I only found out about this a few hours ago. I thought that maybe having a place to be together like this is kind of nice," he said, adding that the experience was awesome.
As people in the crowd held votive candles in memory of those who died, leaders of Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice led prayers of many faiths.
There was the sounding of the shofar and the Jewish call to prayer, in addition to calls to peace from Buddhists, Baha'is, Christians and Muslims.
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hate, only love can do that," said the Rev. Kaloma Smith of University AME Zion Church, quoting Martin Luther King. Jr.
"I just think it's really important to have a positive response, to have a statement of being people of light," said Helen Baumann, a member of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, as she held out her votive candle.
Remembrances are very important in everyone's life, she said. "This is one we don't want to forget."