BRATTLEBORO -- It was late 2002, and anti-Muslim sentiment was running high little more than a year after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
But during a mixed-faith gathering at Brattleboro's Centre Congregational Church, Javed Chaudhri and his family felt welcomed -- and safe.
"It just seemed to happen very spontaneously," Chaudhri recalled. "Everybody gathered around us and formed a protective circle to show how much the community cared."
At that moment, "We realized that we were Vermonters and part of this lovely, embracing community," Chaudhri added.
That gathering also sowed the seeds of what now is known as Brattleboro Area Interfaith Initiative. While the group was not formally organized for another two years, members are marking their 10th anniversary because they trace their origins to the day when many faiths came together for one purpose.
"That event was so inspiring, and we look at that as the beginning," said Jim Levinson, a founding member of the group and a leader in the local Jewish community.
The initiative consists of clergy and lay people and works cooperatively with the Brattleboro Area Interfaith Clergy Association. Members say the organization also is a good fit for those who would describe themselves only as spiritual or those who are interested in multiple faiths.
Rupa Cousins places herself in the latter category and said she feels "fully accepted" by the group.
"This is within and beyond organized religion. Definitely both, with no separation," said Cousins, who chairs the initiative's gatherings.
The same is true for Fred Taylor, who comes from a Christian background but also is interested in other religious pursuits.
"Having a place where we can bring together all of our spiritual sides is really important," Taylor said. "It's a place where we can bring what we most care about in the world and have our voices heard."
Aside from the initiative's regular meetings, there have been special events organized to unite those of differing religious beliefs.
One gathering in 2005 was dubbed "Abraham's Family Reunion," and it was designed to ease misunderstandings among adherents of Abrahamic faiths -- Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Baha'i.
A few years later, an Abrahamic musical service brought together choirs from Brattleboro, arias from Bach and Mozart, music from a Jewish Yom Kippur service and Sufi whirling.
There also was a memorial service for casualties of violence in Lebanon and Israel. It featured Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers.
"Just to come to that event was so powerful," Taylor said. "There was a sense of real solidarity with people suffering in all parts of the world."
Members of the initiative also involve themselves in social issues. From the beginning, Cousins said, "We described ourselves as kind of an activist group wanting social change."
There was a 2007 "Fast Day for Peace" on Columbus Day, "rejecting the image of conquest and domination associated with the day," Levinson said.
The previous year, there was a Mother's Day march through Brattleboro.
"That march came out of a need to try to protest the war," Cousins said.
The group's social activism extends into environmental causes. Taylor said that connection is natural given religious traditions of environmental stewardship.
"We really felt that spirituality had a very important voice to bring to the issues of our day, because they aren't just issues to be solved by politics," he said.
For example, the initiative organized a 40-day Lenten "carbon fast" designed to help participants make a daily effort to reduce their carbon footprint. That has become a "national online program that has now reached over 10,000 people" Taylor said.
He also cites a 2008 interfaith retreat at All Souls Church with the theme of "Responding to Earth's Sacred Call," and he notes that the initiative has a Religion and Ecology Group that has developed programs for local faith communities.
The interfaith initiative continues to meet from noon to 1:30 p.m. on the third Wednesday of each month in the parlor of Centre Church. Leaders are looking for new members to help carry out what they believe is vitally important work.
"It's sometimes difficult in this world to sustain our ideals as individuals. It's sometimes difficult to believe that we're capable of making a difference," Levinson said. "In working together in common cause, sharing deeply together, we can make that difference."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.