Thanksgiving Makes Us Stronger
By: David Baak, Volunteer, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU
You are invited to the Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving service, next Monday, November 21, at 7 p.m. at Temple Emanuel, 1715 East Fulton, in Grand Rapids.
I remember the first time that invitation was given, in the fall of 2000, in the middle of a divisive presidential election and a turbulent economic year. A group of pastors and music leaders were called together by Fr. Tom Bolster, rector of the Cathedral of St Andrew. Not a few persons were thinking, “For what do we have to be thankful?” But Fr. Tom suggested that we all ought to be able to come together in thanksgiving because, as The Grand Rapids Press quoted him at the time, “We all live together.”
The group “kind of” knew each other; some of us had worked together on hunger and housing and racial justice issues; there had been a few joint services and peace vigils over the years. But this was new: representatives of a variety of religious traditions providing different sacred scriptures, music, prayers and reflections — all in the same place at the same time — hearing in the words of each other a reflection of their own faith, and all with the dynamic unifying theme of Thanksgiving.
The anticipation was high (and so was the anxiety.) And then it began to snow, and not a few of us worried that no one except the participants would attend. Instead, through inches of late afternoon snow, people streamed into the cathedral until it was filled to overflowing.
A Distinctive Interfaith Community Thanksgiving
Months later, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the invitation went out again and we joined each other in lament and comfort (also powerful themes of the different religious traditions), as a crowd of a thousand gathered.
Later that same year, and every year since, the same invitation has been given to all of us in this community. We express gratitude during the week of the Thanksgiving holiday at least partly because gratitude is common to our many faith traditions. And, partly, because it turned out to be a significant bonding event for our community. After this many years, the celebration is now “normative” — we now “expect” it to be a part of our community’s Thanksgiving Day week’s activity.
“Normative” or “expected” might be a stretch for some, but the service is distinctive. Few communities this week will have an interfaith service. And fewer will have a service with as broad a spectrum of faiths represented as ours. That, in part, is because of the increasing diversity of our community and, certainly, because of the intentionality of those who for over two decades have planned the service. It is also distinctive because of the number and variety of the congregations who have invited us into their sacred space to enjoy and celebrate and give thanks in a group expression that is much larger than our individual selves.
The celebration is that we, from some 10 different faith traditions, without giving up our individual perspectives, are able to express our unity through doing thanksgiving together.
At least for that moment, we move past the divisions in our diversity and, as writer Brian Andreas has said: “We sit side by side … and look out at the future together.”
In this time of heightened tension and division that includes a whole new round of attacks on religious belief and practice, an evening of reminding ourselves of how important gratitude is to and for (all) of our faiths is an expression of hope for the future. Gratitude empowers unity.
I can’t promise you 10 inches of snow to make the evening distinctive, but I can promise you the warm space and hospitality of the people of Temple Emanuel. I do promise you the joyful participation of a whole range of people that is unique to this evening. And I promise you that as you meet and sit side by side with each other, our whole community grows a little stronger — and importantly, so does our future.