History of the Festival

Every year since 2003, we have had a festival with a different theme:

2003 Jews, Christians and Muslims
2004 Faith and the Family
2005 Mercy
2006 Seeking to Understand
2007 Faith Through the Arts
2008 Hearing One Another
2009 Diversity
2010 Caring for the Environment – One Planet United in Faith
2011 Forgiveness
2012 The United Nations Millennium Goals
2013 The 10th Anniversary: A Celebration
2014 In the steps of Hagar and Sarah: A Female Perspective on Faith
2015 Desiring Peace
2016 Welcoming the Stranger: The Refugee Experience
2017 Interfaith Dialogue for Challenging Times (featuring the Interfaith Amigos from Seattle)
2018 That we may know one another: Spiritual Awakenings
2019 Out of the Circle of Time… into the Circle of Love 
2020 From Prejudice to Acceptance: Confronting our own Ignorance & Fear of ‘The Other’

And how it all got started…”, because it’s a really fun serendipitous story!

In 2002, Helen McCarthy was teaching World Religions at St Peter’s High School in Peterborough. Elizabeth Rahman, a Muslim woman who attends the Masjid Alsalaam (the Peace Mosque) in Peterborough was to speak to her class. Elizabeth arrived for the class, not knowing it was a “snow day” (Elizabeth made it through the storm to the school because she thought it was important). Because there were no students, Helen and Elizabeth spent the whole class time talking together. They realized that even though there were many differences in their religions, their faith in one God was the same. The gleam of an idea was born.

A few weeks later, Heather Pollock, a Jewish woman from Beth Israel synagogue in Peterborough, was the guest speaker in the class. The realization widened  – Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the same God, and they all have Abraham as a common ancestor.   These three women conceived an Abraham Festival, honoring Abraham as a prophet in all three of their religions. A celebration of all three religions was underway.

It took a year of planning and negotiating with St. Alphonsus Roman Catholic Church, Beth Israel synagogue and Masjid Al-Salaam. The first festival was held in 2003, and there has been one every year since.

These founders of the Peterborough festival had certain goals.

  • They wanted to create a local network of Jews, Muslims and Christians who would grow relationships to bind these three local groups, who have traditionally been very separate.
  • They wanted to listen and learn from each others traditions.
  • They wanted to open their hearts to each others perspectives.
  • They wanted to support each other as extended family – the children of Abraham. Thus began their journey.

One core part of the festival has always been a Jewish, Christian and Muslim worship service. These are not interfaith services. They are the service of the synagogue, church or mosque and everyone is invited to participate. All the participants feel strongly that they are all praying to the same God. Visitors to the mosque are invited to join in the Muslim prayers, which involve standing, kneeling and bowing.  Visitors to the synagogue are invited to touch the Torah as it is carried around the synagogue as part of the service. In 2004, in the second year of the festival, the Muslims had one of their five prayer services a day in the synagogue, just before the Jewish service. That was a wonderful moment.
 There is a clear feeling that no one can give offense by praying in a place of worship.

Other than the worship services, the festival has done something different every year since 2003. In the first couple of years, there was an education evening at each of the locations, where information about each of the religions was exchanged. Then one year we had a film festival, with films chosen to represent some feature of each of the three faiths. One year we put on a concert evening, with readings and music from each of the three religions. There was Jewish klezmer music. There was chanting from the Koran. A small group from the Peterborough Singers sang the chorale from Bach’s St John passion “Oh Jesus when I come to die, let angels bear my soul on high, to Abraham’s protection.” One year, a theater group put on the opera Dead Man Walking, made from the book and the movie, and had Sister Prejean as the guest speaker.

There have been wonderful moments. I walked into the synagogue with my friend and colleague who is a Muslim. He muttered almost to himself. “I never thought I would set foot in a synagogue.” The first year at the synagogue, one of the Jewish men was saying how much trouble their small congregation had to be able to afford a Hebrew teacher for their children, but it was necessary to teach their children to read the Torah. One of the Muslim men said at once – it is the same for us too, we have to teach our children to read Arabic so they can read the Koran, and we can’t afford a full time teacher.  It was the first time they had thought of all they had in common. Two small congregations trying to be all things to all people in their own faith .

It hasn’t always been easy. We understand better why countries can’t solve their differences, when we see how hard we have to work, even though we are all coming at this project with enormous good will and friendship.

The first festival in 2003 was close enough to 9/11 that some Muslims were still feeling the labeling and ostracism that had followed. The mosque in Peterborough had had a rock thrown through the window, and a couple of incidents involving visible minorities had been really unpleasant. Some of the Muslims wondered if anyone would really want to come to the mosque.

In 2009, we were planning the festival right during the Israel- Gaza war. The Jewish members of the committee were surprised and upset at the strength of the anti- Israel feeling in the newspapers and other media. They felt support for Israel had been lacking while Gaza had been firing rockets at them, but now that Israel is being aggressive there is nothing but criticism. The committee just had to keep talking and reaffirming our commitment to non violence and to working together.

In 2010, for the first time we  partnered with another group, Faith & the Common Good and their Greening Sacred Spaces Program. The members of this group are bound together through a shared moral perspective. All of their faith traditions encourage their members to revere the natural world as sacred, to be respected, loved and nurtured. They view the care of the earth as the most significant spiritual quest of our time.

Greening Sacred Spaces was designed to assist faith communities with both the educational and spiritual dimensions of greening. They know the “how-to” side of audits, retrofits and generally reducing the faith community’s footprint. They have developed a whole resource kit – with workshops, posters, music, and more– to help faith groups become community leaders in working towards a more sustainable future.  We feel that this is a perfect fit as we continue our journey in which the Jews, Christians, and Muslims of Peterborough work together.

In 2011 we explored the theme of forgiveness and held a world café with several facilitators from our community.

In 2012 we focused on the United Nations Millennium Goals.

These goals were written by the United Nations and adopted by the countries of the world in 2000, with the hope that they would be realized by 2015. There are eight specific goals:

Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education
  • Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women
  • Goal 4: Reduce child mortality
  • Goal 5: Improve maternal health
  • Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability
  • Goal 8: Develop a Global Partnership for Development

Our 10th Anniversary Year in 2013 was a grand celebration with arts, music, prayer, dance and spoken word. All faith traditions came together in celebration of our relationships and for the work of the committee, encouraging diversity, pluralism and peace in our community. We would like to thank the Peterborough Occasional Singers and the Peterborough Poetry Slam, among many others, for their contributions to the festival celebrations. At this festival celebration held at George Street United Church, the committee shared the how and why of creating the festival.

We then embarked on a new activity to see each other more often throughout the year: The Abraham Festival Book and Film Club. We meet on The Third Tuesday night of each November, January, February and March to discuss our reading or watch a film!  Everyone is welcome, please join us.

Our First Book: The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew – Three Women Search for Understanding written by Ranya Idlyby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner  includes special features such as a Reading Group Guide and How to Start a Faith Club.

Our First Film: Arranged: Friendship Has No Religion, Mongrel Media

On Mother’s Day 2014, as a committee of women, we explored the role of women in each faith tradition by the theme: In the steps of Hagar and Sarah: A Female Perspective on Faith.  We had some changes to the locations of our annual festival and worship services, growing the network of faith communities involved in the Festival. Our Jummah Prayers were hosted by Fleming College and our Christian service was hosted by St. Peter’s-in-Chains Cathedral and the festival itself was held at the Knights of Columbus. We are grateful to the hosts for having such a welcoming and blessed service for the festival goers.

In honour of women in faith the committee welcomed Dr. Nevin Reda, assistant Professor of Muslim Studies at Emmanuel College, recipient of the Canadian Council of Muslims Women’s Women Who Inspire Award to share her keynote address: Under the Tent of Abraham: Hagar, Sarah and the Journey of Faith.

Check out this great TED Talk of the Three Amigos!  Breaking the taboos of interfaith dialogue that was shared at the Jummah prayer discussion session.

For the first time the Abraham Festival was able to offer a special kids corner with fun activities for children!  Thanks to our volunteers Shegufa Merchant, Nancy Nashman and other volunteers  for creating this family friendly activity! This is a new tradition that we will try to offer in years to come.

In 2015 the Abraham Festival Committee, moved by the violence and suffering in the Middle East, felt called to focus on positive energy. The Abraham Festival Committee hosted a Peace Vigil at Millennium Park Monday on July 21st.

Later that same year the Syrian refugee crisis called many people to action. This combined with the firebombing of the Masjid Alsalaam (the Peace Mosque) in Peterborough after the Paris bombings called our community to action. The Abraham Festival committee had moved ahead to sponsor a Syrian family (as did many people and local groups) who arrived in December. Because of these world and local events it was decided that the theme for 2016 would be Welcoming the Stranger: The Refugee Experience. Many of our newcomers came to one of the Festival’s events.

As we meet and plan for each year’s event, we do so in hope of creating a better community and world. We continue to take serious steps toward the peace that our traditions demand of us through continued learning and dialogue.