“I didn’t think it would really be possible,” one tree-planter commented, incredulous and smiling. “I really didn’t.” Rain dripped down his rain jacket hood and on to his face. But even the constant rain didn’t dampen his spirit or cloud his sunny attitude.
I knew just how he felt. For a group of us–most of whom didn’t even know each other–had just pulled off the seemingly impossible. In just over 2 months 7 of us had organized, funded and implemented the planting of the first ever interfaith Peace Forest in Denver. Over 100 people–Jews, Christians, Muslims and our friends–showed up to plant over 100 trees.
We hadn’t planned on rain, mind you. In fact, there had been no appreciable moisture in Denver for months. Nor was rain forecast for the day.
But 10.10.10 dawned cloudy. As the day wore on cloudy became overcast. Overcast gave way to drizzle. And drizzle flowed into solid rain.
Eighty people had pre-registered to join us in tree planting. Would they all show? We wondered.
Not only did they show, but 20 others came along as well! It was a lovely mix of Tongans, Kenyans, Somalis, African-Americans, first generation Americans from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and white folks. There were children and adults, rabbis and pastors, Tongans in traditional dress, Muslim women with head coverings and Jewish men with yarmulkes. It was quite the cultural experience.
As one friend put it, “We had Jews, Christians, Muslims and one Republican.” Needless to say, he was the one Republican. And even he felt strangely at home.
As volunteers arrived, we checked them in out of the back of a Suburban, with the tailgate down and the window flipped up. As they signed in, people put on a name tag, with an accompanying sticker to denote their religious affiliation, if any. And then promptly found others with the same symbol. Little circles of comfort formed as people waited in the rain for the opening blessings.
“C’mon folks!” I prodded good naturedly, “the whole point of the sticker was to meet someone from a different faith tradition!” I could hear little waves of self-conscious laughter. Even so, not many moved. But by the time we began planting, little interfaith groups had formed to plant the trees.
But not before Rabbi Stephen Booth-Nadav sounded a shofar to begin our momentous occasion. And not before Rev. Peg Newell retold the story of the fig tree that Jesus wanted to curse because it wasn’t producing. “Just give it one more year,” a servant begged. In the same way that we say about peace, “Let’s give it one more year and see if it produces.” And not before Atonio Tolutau prayed in Tongan. And not before Carema Cook said, “It’s appropriate the the Muslim prayer comes last. For in Islam we draw upon all the wisdom that has come before us.”
And people stood in the rain and listened and prayed, and smiled. .
And then we put shovels into the ground, mixed in soil conditioner, and carefully planted trees–living symbols of our ability to restore creation.
Most of the trees came in 5 gallon buckets, so it wasn’t too hard. But the trust test of interfaith cooperation came when it was time to plant (3) 700-pound trees that Fatuma got donated for us. One Jew and one Republican worked a two person auger to dig the holes. Then about 7 people rolled the trees down the hill and into place by the Sand Creek.
As Fatuma helped shovel and then spread mulch around the very large trees, her white head covering accentuating her joyful eyes and bright smile, the Republican said, “This is what I feel best about,” pointing to Fatuma. “You just don’t see this face of Islam that often.” “THIS is America,” I said as he shook his head disbelieving, “This is my America.”
It was an iconic moment.
Yes, we planted trees. Yes, we helped restore the old Stapleton Airport area. Yes, we created habitat. Yes, we helped to right ecological imbalances on the planet. But we did something even greater than that.
We gave people the opportunity to do something they crave: something unreasonably positive. And unreasonably good.
Perhaps the coolest part is that our Peace Forest Project Team doesn’t want to stop meeting. So Monir, Saba, Fatuma, Jeanette, Betsy, Rae Jean, Ria, Heather, Carissa, Betty and myself are now planning quarterly interfaith dinner and discussion evenings. And our next planting projects.
It turns out that what we planted was trees. And what grew was community.