Unity-building celebration in Illinois grows from years of making connections
Years of relationship building and successful collaboration set the stage for an open-air celebration of the oneness of humanity and unity in diversity in Edwardsville, Illinois.
Unity Fest on Oct. 1 welcomed hundreds of people to Leclaire Park with booths, talks, music, art, dance and an atmosphere of love for everyone.
“Anything that can support cultural tolerance and harmony in our lives is everything we’re about as a city,” said Mayor Art Risavy, as quoted in the Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville student newspaper, The Alestle. “We want Edwardsville to be a city where people are all welcome and feel that they are a part of our community.”
Speakers came from an interfaith group, a Muslim community and a racial harmony organization. Prayers were offered from Jewish, Baha’i, Druidic and Christian perspectives. Performances included gospel singing, Latin American folkloric dance and symphonic music.
The 29 booths were staffed by faith communities, social justice groups, businesses, police and an array of diverse organizations representing several cultures, races, beliefs and interests.
Al Deibert of the Baha’i community says it was remarkable how the event was organized amid the difficulties posed by the pandemic. Edwardsville, he adds, “is a university town with a large number of international students. It has experience with diversity and accepts and supports diversity.”
While the event’s origins arose from a largely Baha’i-organized initiative, it owes a lot to the work of a friend of the Baha’is, Jesse Allen. He met Jamal McLaughlin at a weekly interfaith gathering that the Baha’i community facilitated, and the two became friends.
The two co-founded the nonprofit organization Edwardsville Unity, renewing a concept the Baha’is had been advancing a couple of years earlier. They developed a vision for a public gathering, which eventually grew into the Unity Fest.
In Allen’s words, the idea was “to put as many different voices and faces into one place as humanly possible in an effort to change the national narrative that we can’t get along.”
To make sure the festival had plenty of participants, Allen did much of the leg work of contacting churches, groups and businesses to widen participation in Unity Fest. It required “perseverance and resolve, but was worth it,” he says. “I was surprised at the receptivity of the people and their willingness to be a part of it.”
Relationship building by the Baha’i community over several years created a foundation for this success.
In 2017, Baha’is began forming friendships at an information table at a monthly farmer’s market, spearheaded by Jamal and Marci Winters-McLaughlin. That was the origin of the “Edwardsville Unity” theme, which was chosen for the information table by the Local Spiritual Assembly, the Baha’i community’s governing council.
This booth provided art projects for children — for instance, each child could contribute to collages representing “flowers of one garden,” “leaves of one tree” or other Baha’i-inspired expressions of the oneness of humanity. To stimulate the parents’ conversation, additional messages were displayed and more information was offered on related Baha’i teachings, including the spiritual equality of all and the urgency of countering prejudice.
In 2020, pandemic restrictions interrupted the farmer’s market. Then starting in August 2021, the Baha’i community gained a new public presence, facilitating the Soul Sunday interfaith/inter-spiritual gathering at the geodesic Buckminster Fuller Dome on the university campus. That weekly program is organized by the Center for Spirituality and Sustainability, an independent local organization that has had Baha’is as members for years.
That was where Allen first sought to meet Baha’is, after reading about the Faith’s concept of unity. He discovered a number of interests he shared with McLaughlin and other Baha’is at the Soul Sunday gatherings, as well as affinity with other religious traditions he was acquainted with.
In the wake of the October event, the Edwardsville Unity organization plans more gatherings focused on oneness, such as an upcoming talk on “Race, Religion and Harmony.” Annual Unity Fests are envisioned as well.
Noting the organization’s interfaith spirit, Allen says, “The Baha’i teachings speak of ‘divine confirmation’ and the Islamic teachings speak of ‘divine design.’ These two ideas played a role in the success of Unity Fest.”
He adds: “The cooperative nature of the enterprise — the different faiths, colors and organizations all coming together at this time of adversity (COVID-19) — indicate that the universe was conspiring for a higher purpose and a higher good.”