Many Faiths, One Voice – The Culminating Prayer Service for America’s Journey for Justice

Around 4:00 pm on Tuesday, September 15, the marchers began to arrive. In pairs and small groups, with yellow shirts on their backs and suitcases in their hands, they walked through our doors. They numbered in the hundreds and were – elated, tired, hungry, and awestruck – the men and women of every age and background who had just walked on America’s Journey for Justice. Some had been with the march since August 1 and marked their 1,000th mile. Others had traveled from more than 1,000 miles away to walk two miles that day.

We welcomed them with open arms; stored their belongings; gave them a warm, nourishing meal; and sat with them to hear their stories. Our doors remained open, and men, women, and children from the greater D.C. community joined us. When it seemed Kreeger Lobby could hold no more and we would overflow onto Macomb Street, we entered Kaufmann Sanctuary. Black, white, brown, yellow, Jew, Christian, Muslim – our house of worship was a home to all. The bimah was a beautiful reflection of the diversity of the congregation: rabbis, cantors, pastors, imams, ministers, and lay leaders – 19 in all – led us in a moving interfaith prayer service. Clergy invoked the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, and liturgy included both the Sh’ma and the African-American national hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

When Cornell William Brooks, the president and CEO of the NAACP who conceived of this Journey for Justice, stood at the pulpit to address the congregation, he did so in the gray shirt and walking shoes that were part of his uniform for much of the Journey. He spoke of the Torah that was part of the 1,000-mile Journey. Carried by young and old, blacks and whites, Jews and Gentiles, the Torah – whether it was held on the left shoulder or the right – put the word of God on the heart of everyone who held it in their arms. Mr. Brooks also reminded us that on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we are still fighting for unfettered access to the ballot box. He promised that we would not stop until every American could exercise his or her Constitutional right to vote. With the soul he possesses as a fourth generation ordained minister, the intellect he displays as a Yale Law School graduate, and the passion he embodies as a grassroots organizer, Mr. Brooks had the congregation on its feet several times.

This gathering also gave us an opportunity to remember and mourn Middle Passage, who died in Richmond on Erev Rosh Hashanah. A 68-year-old Navy veteran who was marching in memory of his brother, Middle had walked 920 miles with the Journey carrying a large American flag, leading the marchers each day to their next destination. On September 13, as he unfurled the flag after a rainstorm, he collapsed and died. Middle was remembered for his warm, youthful spirit; wide smile; and his ability to create connections and laughter with his fist- and shoulder-bumps. Everyone – from rabbis to state troopers, senior citizens to children – treasured the “bumps” they received from Middle Passage.

As the service drew to a close and the organist played the first notes of “We Shall Overcome,” worshippers crossed their arms over their bodies and clasped the hands of those by their sides. With a strong, unified voice, the words of this Civil Rights Movement anthem filled the sanctuary and reminded us that our journey goes back generations and will not end until we all reach the Promised Land.

Click on the video thumbnails below to see segments of our service, including Mr. Brooks’ full remarks. We have also created a photo album from the day – from the march across the Arlington Memorial Bridge through the interfaith service. 

View more coverage of our event in Washington Jewish Week.