Interfaith Thanksgiving Service Leaders Encourage Compassion, Goodwill
The Reverend Lori Miller told those gathered late Sunday afternoon for the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service that she got a kick opening last week’s issue of The Newtown Bee and finding a very relevant note within The Way We Were.
The column, which shares news of years past from the archives of this newspaper, opened its segment for November 18, 1921, with a note concerning a proclamation by Governor Everett J. Lake, which called for “a community service of Thanksgiving” to be held in the Congregational church the following Thursday evening. Lake’s proclamation said, in part, Miller said, reading from the newspaper, “Let the people gather in their churches and in their homes to offer humble and hearty thanks to Almighty God for the abundant harvests in our land, that have enabled us to share His bounty with the starving multitudes of other countries.”
Smiling, and looking at those seated in the pews before her inside Newtown United Methodist Church, Miller said 100 years later, people still need to gather together and give thanks.
“That does not change,” she said, “and so this evening we gather and worship together.”
Newtown Interfaith Council members presented the annual Thanksgiving service at the Methodist church this year. The town’s houses of faith alternate locations for the event, which this year included representation from local members of Baha’i, Catholic, Congregational, Episcopal, Islamic, and Lutheran faiths. The November 21 service also welcomed the Reverend Bill Donaldson, who recently launched Love Has A Home, which offers interfaith/interspiritual worship services twice monthly at Sticks and Stones Farm.
Approximately 30 people attended the 75-minute service, which ranged from very serious to light-hearted and hopeful. A livestream presentation was offered.
Hafidh Rehab Alwajih, from Al Hedaya Islamic Center, offered the call to worship. Guests then stood to sing the hymn “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.”
Sacred texts about Thanksgiving and love were read by Steve Bamberg, from Congregation Adath Israel; Lynette Daria, Newtown United Methodist Church; Mariam Azeez, Al Hadeya Islamic Center; and John Woodall, Baha’i Faith. St Rose of Lima Church Father Tom Przybyl offered a Thanksgiving prayer, encouraging all to “remember the richness of your blessings … as we celebrate our joys.”
It was then that six local clergy members gathered in the chancel of NUMC for a brief conversation on “Making a Home for Love,” the theme of the evening.
Donaldson opened the conversation by paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr, saying, there are “so many prophets, saints and sages, but it all comes down to love. That’s the common thread that weaves through all of us.”
An Open Sanctuary
Rev Andrea Wyatt, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, said she and members of the town’s Episcopal church have been holding their own conversations, trying to decide how to share their space “and the beauty of peace with the entire town. How do we talk about peace and justice with everyone, not just among ourselves?” is among the topics discussed, she said.
As such, Trinity will further open its doors the weekend after Thanksgiving, Wyatt said.
“We will offer an open sanctuary next weekend, offering the space and peace for anyone who wants to visit,” she said. Trinity will also launch a town-wide memorial book, she said, so that anyone who wants to honor someone will feel welcome to do so.
Returning to his earlier reading of the story of Abraham, who welcomed all into his home, Bamberg said, “when someone is sick, it doesn’t matter who they are. They need to be taken care of.”
“Sometimes,” he said, “you have to put yourself into an uncomfortable situation to invite a different culture, even to talk to them. I think that’s what is driving a lot of division in our country today: People are afraid to go outside their culture.”
Woodall agreed on the idea of division, adding his voice next to the conversation.
“We all feel the urgency and the burden of the time we are in,” he said. “We don’t feel like we have any control over any of it. Powerlessness is dangerous,” he continued. “It feeds fanaticism and finger pointing, and how do we put a lid on that?”
Gatherings such as the one on Sunday, he said, “are critical. It mobilizes goodwill.”
With so many people feeling disconnected, he later said, “this is the spiritual crisis of the time. The crisis of our time is fundamentally spiritual. We must fall into the merciful or we will fall into despair.”
Rev Leo McIlrath, who serves as the ecumenical chaplain at The Lutheran Home in Southbury, noted that “love has a very important place in so many faith communities.”
Al Hedaya Founder Eman Beshtawii also recalled the story of Abraham, “who always welcomed guests at his home, and never ate alone,” she said.
Beshtawii also touched upon the concept that “we all come from Adam and Eve. We are not supposed to be enemies.
“I come from a big family,” she added. “Sometimes we fight, but I love my brothers and sisters.”
Too many people, she said, “have ideas they don’t realize they have. People look at me and they think they know me.
“There is a fear of the unknown, of separation, and people are afraid of each other,” she also said.
After sharing a story of how her mother taught her the importance of sharing, even when one has very little of their own, Beshtawii asked why people cannot be more welcoming of strangers.
“Our grandparents came and were welcomed,” she said. “It’s so sad to see children, people crying and suffering. Every family was once refugees. We must all be more welcoming.”
Concluding that portion of the service, Miller thanked those in the chancel for “a compelling dialogue.”
An American Holiday
Newtown Congregational Church (NCC) Associate Pastor Kristen Provost Switzer then invited the offering. After guests took donations of nonperishable items and financial offerings for FAITH Food Pantry to the front of the sanctuary, she read an excerpt from an Iroquois prayer of thanks.
In his Benediction, NCC Pastor Matthew Crebbin noted that Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday.
“It is an American holiday,” he said, “although we are mindful that it is a season of thanksgiving, and it is a season of gratitude.”
While not religious in nature, Crebbin further said, “we have heard tonight that all religions have a basis in thankfulness and being grateful.”
Crebbin mentioned that studies have shown that showing gratitude has a positive effect on the brain. Seratonin and dopamine levels rise after one shows gratitude, he said.
“When we practice gratitude, we actually change our brain’s chemistry. When they practice this regularly, people found more well being.
“I think our ancient religions knew this, even if they didn’t know all the science of it,” Crebbin said, drawing a few chuckles. “They knew that the expression of gratitude to God, of offering our thanksgiving, of doing that on a regular basis, actually can change us.
“As we prepare to go on our way, one of the ways we can change ourselves and our world is to continue to remind ourselves that gratitude isn’t just something you say” at the Thanksgiving table, Crebbin added. When a person actively thinks about who and what they are grateful for, how they are grateful to their Creator, “when we actively do that, we change ourselves and we will change our communities.
“Thanksgiving is an important thing for people of faith to do. We’ve known that for thousands of years: when we practice it genuinely, we change ourselves and our communities.”
The service closed with Crebbin reading an ancient blessing: “May God bless you and keep you, may God’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May the holiest of holies look upon you, with all kindness, and give you peace.”
Associate Editor Shannon Hicks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.