"It feels like we've been waiting a long time to be able to celebrate this bittersweet day. Bitter, because we mourn almost 4 million lives lost to COVID-19 in the past few months. And sweet, because the fact that we were able to gather today is a sign that hope is on the horizon, there's light at the end of the tunnel," Hina Khan-Mukhtar said in an opening statement welcoming attendees early Sunday evening.
The event was organized by three local interfaith communities — Eden Area Interfaith Council, Tri-Valley Interfaith Interconnect and Tri City Interfaith Council — and held in the parking lot of the Muslim Community Center-East Bay (MCC East Bay) in Pleasanton.
During the event, speakers shared personal experiences, prayers, poems and songs to commemorate those lost to COVID-19 and in anticipation of better times ahead.
Bishop Robert Lopez of Mar Thoma Orthodox Church and Munir Safi of the MCC East Bay shared their personal stories of losing a brother and a father to the pandemic. Lopez connected the loss of his brother to the ongoing issues of systemic racism.
"The pandemic is not over, people are still dying, people are still contracting the virus, here in the United states and abroad," Lopez said. "And we see the same systematic issues in other countries around economics, around religious beliefs, around gender ... and unless we are willing to address our own prejudices that we hold onto, the next pandemic is not addressed in a way in which we show compassion and love and truth, we will find ourselves in the same situation we find ourselves in today."
Jamie Ireland and Elsa Grabowski from Tri-Valley Cultural Jews shared poems in remembrance of the lives lost in the past year. Ireland recited the poem, "A Litany of Remembrance '' by Rabbis Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer. Grabowski shared her own poem, "A Year Like No Other," remarking the differences and changes faced within the last year.
Trish Munro from the Livermore City Council reflected on the losses caused by the pandemic but also the challenges beyond the pandemic, referencing the Black Lives Matter movement, fires, U.S. Capitol insurrection and climate change. As a member of the city council, Munro said she has first-hand seen the work of public service workers and expressed her gratitude towards them as they combat the ongoing pandemic and challenges.
Ruth Gasten from Tri-Valley Interfaith Interconnect shared a story of her post-pandemic experience. The pandemic had disrupted live rituals, yet with reopening, Gasten saw the mission statement of her interfaith group come to life at a wedding when a group of groomsmen from different cultures danced and had a good time.
"This is what our mission statement describes as one of the goals for the Tri-Valley: people of different backgrounds enjoying eachothers company and celebrating together, it's wonderful to see" Gasten said.
Midway through, U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Livermore) made a surprise appearance, lauding health care workers and the interfaith community members who helped the unemployed, collected PPE and kept faith during challenging times.
"As the representative for this congressional district, my pledge to you is to also be reinvigorated to serve. To serve you, to serve the cause of America which is to be a just, fair, humane, country, that holds itself up not only to ourselves but to the rest of the world as a place that believes in freedom: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of press ... freedom to live," Swalwell said.
"Today is the day that we mourn those we've lost but also the best thing that I think we can do for so many of those that we lost is to celebrate what we have right now and to reaffirm our commitment to make this a country that achieves its most basic and fundamental ideals," he added.
Arelis Sandoval is a registered nurse and public health nurse that participated in Alameda County's response to the pandemic. She was involved in Operation Comfort which provided hotels for those fighting homlessness and COVID-19 and received help from the Eden Area Interfaith Council who donated handmade masks and scrub caps to the public nurses at these hotels.
"The supplies felt godsent and I felt the overwhelming power of the community coming together to protect its healthcare workers," Sandoval said.
T he president of the Tri-City Interfaith Council, Joy Barnitz, talked about the unity that the pandemic has strengthened.
"To all viruses, humans are simply a place to grow, a place to reproduce. They see none of the differences we see. We are all the same, regardless of skin color, income, faith, tradition, none of that matters to the virus," said Barnitz.
The Tri-City Interfaith Council held a memorial service with three parts on grief and loss, community, and hope. Barnitz shared the closing prayer from the service at the event that allowed them to find resilience and community.
Other speakers from Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro, Our Lady Grace Catholic Church, Eden United Church of Christ, and the Hayward Sikh Gurdwara Choir shared prayers, stories, and songs as well.
Overall, Into the Light allowed the interfaith communities to acknowledge not only the physical but also the mental hardships that many felt as the pandemic gave many unanticipated challenges.
"I'm taking this as part of my healing journey because it was really hard for me to put my words down and even prepare for this today because as healthcare workers we tend to put hardships to the side because we want to keep moving forward and continue helping people," Sandoval told the Weekly, "But I think we need to sometimes allow ourselves to talk about it and talk about what we've been through and what we felt because it is part of the healing journey, and it felt really enlightening today to be able to do that.
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