New Year’s Day service to urge unity across faiths

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

In the corner of a tree-lined rural road on Michigan’s west side, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Native Americans and more will gather on New Year’s Day to pray for unity in the world and peace.

Sufi minister Ruth Eichler holds a discussion of the desire for a world in harmony and at peace. That will be the theme of the Universal Worship Service on New Year’s Day in Three Rivers, south of Kalamazoo.

The group will participate in a little-known celebration — a Universal Worship Service — to honor and celebrate the similarities of the world’s major faith traditions.

Only a few places in Michigan host such a service. The Universal Worship Service that is traditionally held on Jan. 1 will be at EarthSong Peace Sound Chamber, one of five spiritual retreat centers in Three Rivers, a community south of Kalamazoo.

Now in its 16th year on New Year’s Day, the service comes as two former presidents, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, recently lamented divisions among Americans, interpreted by some as a critique of President Donald Trump’s administration.

The Universal Worship Service has always centered on a theme of peace but this year is especially poignant, said Ruth Eichler, who takes care of the peace center with her husband, Vic.

“It might be more important than ever,” said Eichler, a social worker, author and retreat facilitator who has dedicated her life to promoting personal and spiritual growth.

EarthSong Peace Sound Chamber is one of several peace chambers in the world, but the only such facility in Michigan.

All were inspired by Joseph Rael, a Native American who envisioned a peace sound chamber in 1983 as a place for people to chant and dance for world peace. Today, there are at least 50 peace sound chambers around the world.

“We are going to get plenty of everything we focus on and act on,” Rael wrote on his blog, explaining how he envisioned the peace chamber. “If we focus on conflict, we will get more conflict. However, if we focus on peace, we will get plenty of peace. As soon as we focus on a goal, the universe will take us in that direction.”

The EarthSong peace chamber came to fruition after Ruth Eichler moved to Portage, outside of Kalamazoo, from Witchita, Kansas. She was joining her husband, who had landed a position at the Fetzer Institute, a private foundation in Kalamazoo founded by former Detroit Tigers owner John Fetzer.

On her drive to Michigan, she heard a voice that told her she would not be living forever in Portage but would be moving “southwest.”

EarthSong Peace Sound Chamber in Three Rivers is one of several peace chambers in the world, but the only such facility in Michigan.

But during a trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1997, the Eichlers attended a ceremony at Rael’s first peace chamber. It was there that Eichler realized that their southwest move would only be 20 miles away, to land they had bought two years earlier in Three Rivers, where they would build a peace chamber.

“It was a divine marching order,” said Ruth Eichler, 75. “I knew this was something we needed to do.”

Vic Eichler, 76, who had done a lot of work with peace communities, felt the same.

“I was all for finding a way to disseminate peace in the world,” said Eichler, a biologist. “The idea of the peace chamber and following Joseph Rael’s concept seemed very natural for me.”

It took a few years. She and her husband, who raised four children together, already had built a cabin on their 42-acre parcel in Three Rivers. A year after their visit to Albuquerque, the couple built a house in 1998 and moved there.

In 2000, they gathered a group of a dozen people and shared with them their vision for a peace chamber on their land. Over two summers, more than 100 volunteers, some of whom the Eichlers barely knew at first, helped build the 15-foot by 18-foot peace chamber.

Nestled on the side of a knoll, the peace chamber is one of the world’s such centers, snugly seating three dozen people. It is heated in the winter with a custom-built fireplace.

The Universal Worship Service, held each year on New Year’s Day at EarthSong Peace Chamber since 2002, is a participatory celebration of many of the world’s great religions. Here participants from southwest Michigan and northern Indiana gather and ring bells to welcome the New Year.

The Eichler’s host several ceremonies at the peace chamber, including a monthly fire service on the seventh day of the month, in union with other peace chambers around the world. They also host services welcoming the solstice and equinox and have other ceremonies at a nearby sweat lodge and dance circle on their land.

Unlike the other ceremonies at the peace chamber, the Universal Worship Service is not part of the tradition of other peace chambers. But the service — which includes prayers, songs and scriptures from each major faith — is steeped in the mystical Islamic tradition of Sufism, and it promotes peace by recognizing individual faiths’ similarities, Eichler said.

“The work of the Sufi message is to spread the unity of religions,” said Eichler, quoting Hazrat Inayat Khan, who founded the movement in the West and started the Universal Worship Service about 100 years ago.

“It is work to unite the followers of different religions and faith in wisdom, so that without having to give up their own religion, they may strengthen their own faith and focus the true light on it. In this way, a greater trust, a great confidence will be established in humankind.”

That’s why Michael Northrop, a former minister in the Nazarene Church, has been attending the service for years.

“As my spirituality broadens, I really believe that for the world to achieve any peace, I think it takes individual believers understanding other individual believers,” said Northrop, a professor of art and comparative religion at Glen Oaks Community College in Centreville, Michigan.

“What the universal Worship Service does is take scriptures and songs and put them all together and shows how they all harmonize and are seeking truth. ... We all have that same drive to be better people and understand truth, and that’s what the service is about.”