When I arrived  at the Veterans Plaza for the third annual Peace Walk on Saturday morning, I didn’t know what to expect. I had never done anything like this before, and I was looking forward to seeing what it was all about.

I knew the event was going to be about creating unity and celebrating diversity in Lodi, and I was excited to participate. However, I showed up with flat shoes and was dreading the long walk we were about to take to Blakely Park.

While waiting for the walk to commence, I met Linda Hammons, who had been involved with the Peace Walk since its inception three years ago.

“I just really feel, especially in the  current climate, that it was important for us to say that we value the diversity in our community, and that it’s interesting to know about other people’s customs and backgrounds but that we are really united by our common humanity,” Hammons said as she explained her reason for getting involved with the walk.

Hammons then introduced me to Nancy Mellor, who had also been actively involved with the walk. Mellor said she was attending the walk with  her “foster daughter” Cleotilde Valencia, who was visiting all the way from El Salvador. Mellor had been a host for Valencia when she was an exchange student some years ago, and they have maintained a good relationship since then.

Next I was introduced to Nicole Milligan, a teacher at Lakewood Elementary who was at the walk with her two boys, Vincenzo, 10, and Deccio, 5. She said she decided to bring her boys out to the event because she wanted them to know that it’s their job to ensure that the community is harmonious.

“I want them to know how much we value being peacemakers. I want them to ensure that they are reaching their hands out in all directions to everyone,”  she said.

Next Hammons introduced me to Taj Khan, a founder of the Breakthrough Project For Social Justice, an organization that was formed in response to a cross burning at Tokay High School in the 1990s.

The goal of the organization is to speak out against racism and bigotry by celebrating diversity and promoting a greater understanding and tolerance of the diverse ethnic, religious and cultural groups in our community.

“It’s an event that brings good vibes to the City of Lodi and brings some peace to the community,” Khan said of the walk. “I think that’s what we want to stand for. We’re all human beings, children of Adam and Eve. We need to get together and love each other and love the city we live in and work for each other and support each other.”

Next I met Jenna Webb, who attended the walk with her sister, mom, brother-in-law, children and a family friend. She said that they came to show unity in the community and represent their church.

Next I spotted my boss, Scott Howell and his wife, Jennifer. We begin chatting and were approached by local pastor Norm Mowery, who asked if we were ready for the walk. We introduced ourselves to him and then he explained why he decided to participate in the walk.

“I just love to see people come together that are from diverse backgrounds and life experiences in cultures and religion, and we’re all people together,” he said.

We were joined by Breakthrough President Lusandra Vincent, who greeted us with a great big hug. She informed us she was also a founder of the Breakthrough Project.

Eventually we hit the street, with Lodi police officers leading the way as we marched down Pine Street. I noticed City Manager Steve Schwabauer, Mayor Alan Nakanishi, Police Chief Tod Patterson and Police Capt. David Griffin amongst the marchers.

As we made our way down Pine Street and later turning down Central Avenue, many bystanders waved at us from their vehicles and took pictures with their phones as we passed by.

The group of walkers were from all backgrounds, ethnicities, religions and races, and we were all walking in solidarity. It felt good to embrace the diversity of Lodi.

Not only did I feel a sense of peace and unity, but the walk also opened my eyes to Lodi’s Eastside. As we turned down Central Avenue, I realized I had never been down this street before. It was lined with the businesses and homes I never knew existed. Some of the homes we saw were so beautiful and the variety of businesses surprising.

As we continued down Central Avenue, some bystanders stood outside of their businesses and waved as we passed by. At one business in particular, Patty’s Beauty Salon, several people stood outside waving and cheering us on. It felt nice to see the community coming together.

Next, we turned down Mission Street and before we knew it we were approaching Blakely Park.

Once we arrived at the park everyone began to mingle and congregate, and I noticed some teenage girls were dressed in festive cultural attire, so I decided to see what it was all about.

I approached Hitzel Reyna, who was wearing traditional Colombian clothing, and she explained that she would be performing a Colombian dance. I also met Kasandra Foster, who told me we were “twining” because we were both rocking a curly hairstyle.

Foster said that she was the president of the Central Valley Arts and Cultures Club, a club in which girls like she and Reyna were able to learn and perform dances from a variety of cultures.

Foster, who was dressed in traditional Indian clothing, explained to me that she and some of the other girls in the club would be performing an Indian dance to the song “Chammak Challo.”

As I made my way to where the rally would be taking place, I was approached by Ray DelCarlo and his daughter, Karin Shirk, and his granddaughter, Adriana Shirk. He asked me to take a picture of them and I did.

We began chatting, and he explained to me why he decided to bring his girls out to the event.

“It’s just a neat thing for all of our communities to walk together for one day. We try to do it generationally so it carries on,” he said.

Little Adriana, who looked like she couldn’t be any older than 2, was also ready to embrace new people as she reached out for me to hold her. I gave her a little hug and patted her on the back.

While waiting for the rally to start, I noticed the park was filled with the aroma of the refreshments that were being served, so I decided to check it out. I noticed that Hammons and Mellor were at tables serving snacks.

They were serving Rice Krispy treats, oatmeal cookies and water to the attendees. At the table adjacent to them members of the Muslim community served rice they prepared at the Lodi Mosque along with rose water.

After getting a bite to eat, I stood and waited for the rally to begin. A few minutes later, Pastor Jake McGregor from First Baptist Church addressed the crowd before Davis Mahoney kicked off the rally with the national anthem.  

“I want to thank you all for coming out here and standing together for peace and acceptance in Lodi,” McGregor said. “We’re here together to stand against violence, against intolerance, against racism and bullying and all forms of disrespect for all fellow human beings.”

Next, Mayor Nakanishi followed up with a few words.

“Our city and community has long supported peace and compassion,” he said. “Today you come here from different cultures, races and religions to unite and honor your commitment to resist violence and intolerance and walk for peace. Because no city or community is immune from violence and intolerance, there should be a continued work to fight it. It should be carried out in our homes, our schools, our work places and our government.”

Patterson then shared a few words. He was happy to report that gang activity in Lodi has decreased significantly over the years and encouraged the community to continue its efforts to keep that number low.

Lodi Unified School District Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer also gave a few words.

“With nearly 30,000 children attending our local schools, we all believe that it is vitally important to teach our children these values, especially those of respect and cohesion,” she said. “We try to emphasize and model these values each and every day, and I want to ensure you that the staffs at your schools are doing an outstanding job doing that. We also place great emphasis on the principles of kindness, acceptance and community service.”

Khan served as the representative for the Muslim community and also shared a few words during the rally. After his remarks, Alex Navarro with the Community Partnership for Families informed the crowd that a community art project was set up and everyone could come over and put their fingerprints on it or paint something with a paint brush. She said the project would be presented to the city council as a thank you for the hard work everyone in the community does for youths.

At the conclusion of the rally, McGregor instructed the crowd to approach someone from outside of their community or group and say “peace be with you.”

I approached Brandon Hart and his daughter, Kaitlyn Hoover, who was going to be performing the Indian dance with Kasandra Foster. I shook their hands and said “peace be with you.”

After speaking with them, I came across Schwabauer. He informed me that he had been attending the peace walk all three years and felt it was important that the community supports it.

“A community that is cohesive where people come together is a community that’s at peace, and I think that it’s important that the leadership of the community be here to represent it,” Schwabauer said.  “I really do hope it continues to go on. It’s a remarkable event.”

Finally it was time for the multicultural entertainment. The crowd watched as the Japanese folk dancers performed two dance sets, including one which required audience participation. Next, the children from Central Valley Arts and Culture Club performed a variety of cultural dances.

Following the entertainment, the festivities came to an end and everyone went on their way. As I rode the shuttle back to my car, I thought about what a great event we had. I just wish more people could have experienced it.

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