At 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 11, the parking lot of Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto was completely full, and people formed what was possibly the most polite queue in the city to make name tags and take a seat for the opening ceremony of the Multifaith Peace Walk -- an event marking the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
By 2 p.m., with all seats and standing room inside full, the crowd overflowed into the synagogue's hallway and entryway. But people appeared happy -- happy to stand, to make room in the crowd, to smile at strangers.
A long table in the back of the room was laden with snacks -- preparation for the 2.5 mile walk ahead -- and large circular fans with words like "Peace" and "Salaam" were distributed. At a balloon stand in the courtyard, Temeca Simpson -- in between filling blue and white balloons for children -- expressed what this event meant to her.
"I feel like there's a huge need for relationship-building. The community is aching for peace. These kinds of relationships open doors for larger conversations and create a space for empathy," Simpson said.
Sharon Reives, a retired Navy chaplain, spoke about the significance of the event from a military perspective.
"Being in the military, my heart is with those fighting in the longest war. My heart is with the ones still serving to bring everyone home safely," Reives said.
A man in the audience, Kamal Rasheed, said that the event was an "opportunity to engage other faith communities," adding that it was a "good time to meet new people in order to understand other."
For others, the event served as a time to reflect on Sept. 11.
"I happened to be in Sweden when it occurred," Gunnar Sevelius recalled.
"I saw it on TV and first we didn't think it was possible -- the immense damage that was brought to people that were just doing their daily job -- totally neutral," Sevelius said, the recollection bringing tears to his eyes.
In the background, women led songs on acoustic guitars -- songs with words like haven shalom aleichem, peace unto you.
During the opening ceremony, leaders from different local faith communities spoke to the idea of claiming one's own traditions, honoring what stirs one's soul and listening to what stirs another's soul.
Chaim Koritzinsky, Rabbi of Etz Chayim, emphasized the idea that we are all one in spite of all of our diversity and in spite of our differences.
Danielle Parish, pastor of Spark Church, talked about the Christian value of love and the need to elevate the reputation of God in the community along with the values of reconciliation and restoration.
Parish invited Palo Alto Police Chief Dennis Burns to the stage where he received a blue and white bracelet symbolizing peace and the idea that everyone is bound together.
Kristi Iverson from the Unitarian Universalist Church closed the ceremony saying that the afternoon would be a time for people to lay down the concerns that separate them and walk as one community.
On her way to the first stop, Barbara Marcum, a resident of Palo Alto, remembered the "sheer horror" and "disbelief" of 9/11.
"It's important for younger people to see this (event) so it's not just lost to memory," Marcum said.
She walked alongside Inez Powell, also a Palo Alto resident, who heard of the event through her church.
"We met six blocks ago," Marcum remarked.
"I hope this will bring awareness to a lot of people: Even though we are all different, we have a lot in common -- despite religious beliefs and nationalities," Powell said.
Stations along the way served water and one provided musical respite in the form of sacred harp singing.
For some, the walk was encouraging -- a symbol of unity amidst a heated political climate.
For Farukh Basrai, who has been involved for many years with Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, which sponsored the walk, said that there could not be a better occasion to show solidarity.
"I'm walking next to a Jew, I've been speaking to a rabbi, I've met people from the Christian community and I'm a Muslim, and I hope that they will see me for a human, just as I see them," he said.
Basrai recalled that the day of Sept. 11, he and his family were driving down the Oregon and California coast after a beautiful family road trip. He woke up to the horrific news and remembers his wife saying, ‘We just saw heaven yesterday, and we saw hell today.'
"But what also strikes me is that we live in Mountain View, in a community that's largely white, and the number of neighbors who came to check on us," Basrai said, pausing as his voice broke, "still brings tears to my eyes -- it is amazing, how that is the first thing they did: ‘Hey, are you guys okay?' Because, it was not a good day to be a Muslim."
The first stop was the University AME Zion Church on Middlefield Road, where Reverend Kaloma A. Smith started by saying, "Palo Alto, I am so proud of you. You are blowing me away!"
The crowd got up, clapped and sang "Victory Is Mine," "Amazing Grace" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The mood was celebratory and the music spilled into the courtyard where some children played, while others climbed a nearby tree and one child had the best view, atop someone's shoulders.
Brenda Johnson, a member of the AME congregation, noted the positive atmosphere: "Right after 9/11, there was a lot of unity in the country, and that's what we need to address again. We need to come together again."
As she looked around the courtyard, she added, "This is beautiful."
As the walk proceeded to the next stop along Middlefield Road, cars honked their approval and people stuck their hands out of windows, waving and cheering the procession on.
JianHu Shifu, abbot of the Zen Center of Sunnyvale, spoke of the Buddhist principle of not fighting violence with violence, but rather fighting violence with understanding and compassion.
"It's very important that different religions along with the government come together to look at strategies for peace," he said.
After stopping at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church, the walk continued to Mitchell Park for the closing remarks and a peace picnic hosted by American Muslim Voice.
People gathered around the amphitheater-like dome, eventually linking hands in two large circles as a show of unity before the symbolic release of white doves.
Reverend D. Andrew Kille said that though this was not the first multifaith peace event in commemoration of Sept. 11, this was the first time they organized a march. He estimated the turnout to be somewhere in the hundreds and spoke of the importance of holding this event in a very visible way.
"People have a desire for peace, though this desire is often hidden," he said.
When asked about the significance of this event today, in 2016, he said, "During this time of the elections when rhetoric has gotten so vicious, it's important for people to come together to say 'This is the America we want, where people live together and appreciate one another.'"
The peace picnic drew about 600 people who shared in a meal of international cuisines, according to American Muslim Voice founder Samina Sundas.