“It’s not just a Christian event,” Mayor Alan Autry said, and people of several faiths had their chance to pray — and talk — at Thursday’s National Day of Prayer event at Fresno City Hall.
Autry, one of the speakers at the event, invited people in the audience, particularly Jews and Muslims, to speak. It was the first time in the event’s 16 years that there was an open mike.
Kamal Abu-Shamsieh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center in Fresno, spoke briefly in Arabic before praying for God’s blessings particularly on “those who don’t have the means.”
The National Day of Prayer is an annual observance that invites people of all faiths to pray for the nation. Events are held on the first Thursday in May. In the central San Joaquin Valley, large prayer events also were held in Clovis, Hanford, Madera and Visalia.
Nearly 500 people attended the Fresno event held outdoors in sunshine near the water fountain. Early on, Autry — a born-again Christian who attends Peoples Church — asked whether a rabbi, a Muslim or anyone else would come forward to speak.
That change was brought about after members of the Interfaith Alliance of Central California, an organization that affirms religious pluralism and celebrates diversity, said they were concerned non-Christians weren’t being asked to be event speakers. Abu-Shamsieh said he was grateful for the chance.
“It’s a historical thing in the history of Fresno and the Muslim community, in particular,” he said. “Our mayor sending an invitation to the rest of the community speaks volumes of the contributions of the whole community.”
Abu-Shamsieh said the Interfaith Alliance of Central California expressed its concerns in an e-mail sent Wednesday mainly to Fresno media. The e-mail said members were planning to attend the event and make a “silent presence” by holding 10-by-17-inch signs that read, “One Nation, Many Faiths.”
Twenty-four people in the Alliance group came to the event and stood or sat in the audience. Many displayed their signs. Even though the e-mail stated they wouldn’t disrupt the event, Abu-Shamsieh said he felt anxious.
“I didn’t know if there was going to be anyone there telling me I shouldn’t be there,” he said, adding there wasn’t.
Abu-Shamsieh said some Alliance members were concerned about the event’s scheduled speakers ending their prayers by saying, “In Jesus’ name.” But he didn’t feel the same way.
“There’s nothing offensive about Christian prayer,” he said. “I support the event.”
Two other Alliance members — Grace Schireson, a Zen Buddhist priest and founder of the Empty Nest Zendo in North Fork, and the Rev. Natalie Chamberlain, pastor of United Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Fresno — followed Abu-Shamsieh to the speakers’ area. They didn’t speak, but sat with other speakers and prayed with them in small groups. The Rev. Bryan Jessup, the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno, also attended the event.