With a crowd of nearly 200 people expressing their support for a more peaceful and inclusive world, the American Muslim Voice Foundation capped off a National Day of Service and Remembrance with a Multifaith Peace Picnic at Palo Alto's King Plaza on Sunday evening.
Samina Sundas, executive director of the foundation, organized the first spiritual community gathering in 2011 to honor those who lost their lives on 9/11 and to do something positive in their memory. Since then, it has become a tradition for local spiritual leaders, dignitaries and community members to come together in friendship and peace to renounce fear and divisiveness.
"There is so much hate and division in our country," Sundas said. "And the only way you can ever get over the hate and anxiety about strangers is to get to know each other."
This year's gathering, which was jointly sponsored by state Sen. Dave Cortese and Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, was celebratory in tone but did not shy away from controversy.
Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt provided the welcoming remarks by emphasizing the need for community members to value diversity by appreciating one another, something that had to be continuously recognized and reenacted for democracy to work.
"We now realize that we have to have a renewed commitment to nurturing those principles, to understanding each other and to having tolerance with those we disagree with and really investing in what it means to have a democracy," he said.
But Sundas took exception with the word "tolerate."
"I don't want to be tolerated by anybody," she said. "I'm a human being. I cherish human beings. That's why we're here. I believe we're supposed to be cherished, accepted, loved and celebrated. So, let's do that."
Directly addressing the mayor and receiving enthusiastic applause for it, Sundas added, "Mayor, next time please say that — celebrated."
The theme of celebration carried on throughout the evening, as numerous musical performances by elementary and high school students addressed the pain of loss and exclusion while also offering messages of hope and renewal.
Talia Kertsman, 22, who was sitting among family and friends, was particularly pleased with the public visibility of the occasion and the opportunity for people to connect with one another and openly celebrate their identities.
Her mother, Stacey Kertsman, expressed similar sentiments and said that her daughter never knew a world before 9/11. This was an occasion to not just memorialize tragedy but to see how the world could be better, something that she found especially meaningful as an immigrant.
Cortese, meanwhile, addressed the difficulty of framing the Multifaith Peace Picnic as an occasion of celebration in his remarks to the audience. His office received a lot of negative emails the first time the event took place, he said.
"People were basically saying, 'How can you celebrate? How can you come together and use the title 'picnic' in the wake of what happened?
"And in my mind," he continued, "it was all the more reason we needed to go forward with it."
The alternative of people expressing their anger in violence instead of peaceful communion would just be another tragedy, Cortese said.
The night ended with a candlelight vigil, as everyone joined together in a large circle, swaying back and forth to music and conversing in low chatter.
The evening atmosphere was captured by the prayer of youth community volunteer Haaziq Altaf. "When we start appreciating our presence with one another, we truly understand who we are," he said.