Last Thursday I attended our town’s annual Thanksgiving Interfaith Service, hosted by the Grace United Methodist church and featuring speakers from a variety of faiths. It was lovely and inspiring and very well attended.
It started with a beautiful Hindu dance introduced by my friend Arpita. It included a Buddhist contemplation read by my friend Jane and a passage from the Koran by my friend Dilara. There was a beautiful dance number to a Gospel song by three young girls from the African Methodist Episcopal Church. My own “liberal Episcopalian” Father Ted read a psalm. A local Rabbi read verses from the Old Testament. My old surfer friend from college turned Presbyterian pastor spoke about the Ecumenical Food Pantry. And a distinguished local professor of theology gave a very inspiring humanistic sermon on gratitude and cherishing our connections with each other. We even got to sing one of my very favorite hymns – O Creatures of our God and King! The whole evening made my heart sing.
As we went through our whirl-wind tour of each major religion, each one lasting approximately 3 to 5 minutes, I was struck by two things. One – the beauty of all these varying religions coming together honoring our similarities and the common thread of love, compassion and gratitude that is central to all our faiths. And two – the craving for more from each faith and my desire to experience God from every perspective.
It gave me the idea that in addition to having an interfaith service, for those who wanted to, we could have an interfaith experience.
The experience doesn’t necessarily have to take that much longer – it’s just that instead of just sitting there like audience members passively watching the different faith expressions being played out before us, we would participate in each one all of us together.
So, for the Hindu faith, we would do 10 minutes of chanting and everyone there would dive into it head first and chant Sri Ram Jai Jai Ram with the most devotional of hearts. During the gospel song, we all stand up, sway back and forth and sing with full passion for the Lord, reaching up our hands as we are moved by the Holy Spirit. During the Buddhist segment, we not only hear a reading about meditating for all beings everywhere to become one with their higher nature, we fully meditate, visualize and feel this from the deep peace of our own higher nature. For the Jewish segment we could all tie the words of the Shema to our foreheads and fervently pray “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” After the reading from the Koran we could all engage in a sufi dance of Universal Peace. And for the singing of ‘O Creatures of our God and King’ we would all sing the words deeply connected to our hearts, feeling the truth of the words resonate through us with the beauty of the Christ Spirit, just like I do with Christmas Carols.
Again – this would only be for anyone who wanted to fully participate. I don’t think that devote Catholics need to experience sufi dancing or Gospel singing in order to truly love God. As long as we are honoring and respecting each other, we’re good. And it was truly beautiful to see how packed the church was that night – there were so many people that they ran out of programs, more people attended than they had anticipated. And if you’re not inclined to participate in other faiths, then sitting and honoring all the different expressions in an interfaith service is wonderful. But I am the kind of person who WANTS to dive in.
I remember 20 years ago, during college, I went down to Atlanta, Georgia and volunteered at the Open Door Community for 10 days. It was a life changing experience and maybe I’ll write about that in another post. In this post I’m talking about this one evening where we, the people and volunteers of the Open Door, went to an interfaith service for Martin Luther King’s birthday at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Now, this was no ordinary Martin Luther King celebration. This was the church where Martin Luther King Jr. had been a pastor. There were speakers from all different faiths honoring the beautiful legacy and life of this incredible man.
And the choir! They had the most amazing gospel choir I have ever heard. They stood in the back of the church and when they sang the Amen the sound and the feeling of the Amen blasted through the whole entire church like a tidal wave of praise!
I was this very white Swedish-American college girl. I had NEVER been to a church like this before. The pastor was calling on people to stand up to oppression, to stand up for Christ’s love and compassion. The congregation was alive and passionate and yelling out “Amen!” and “Tell the truth, brother!” as the different rabbis, pastors, ministers and imams spoke. People were throwing their hands up in the air when they agreed with something, saying “Praise the Lord!”
And the choir! The music moved me, the harmonized Alleluias went straight into my heart and broke it wide open. I couldn’t understand how the roof stayed on or how the walls didn’t come blasting off the building. The music was so powerful that it filled the entire space in a tangible immersion of praise.
I was sitting there getting FILLED with so much inspiration, so much spirit, so much passion! And yet I couldn’t yell out. I WANTED to. I wanted to raise my hand up and say “Alleluia!” – but I couldn’t. I was too white. I was too self-conscious. I hadn’t given myself permission to fully participate. I was amazed and dazed and just too white.
As we left the service and were walking to our bus to take us back to the Open Door, these two African American men who were part of the community came up to me and smiled. One of them said “The Spirit was in her, I could see it!” They both laughed and I just nodded my head. I was speechless.
All this to say that I WANT to participate. I want to fully experience all expressions of loving God. If I’m listening to a gospel choir, I want to let the Spirit move me and shout out to the Lord! If I’m chanting Sri Ram Jai Jai Ram I want to FEEL the Victory of Ram in my heart. If I’m going to communion, I want to commune and become ONE with the body of Christ.
I would love to have an actual Thanksgiving Interfaith Experience. I don’t want to be a spectator. I don’t want to be limited to being just a too-white Swedish-American quiet and contained Lutheran heritage girl. I want to experience being something else – a Southern Baptist, a Jew, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a liberal Episcopalian. I want to live life to the fullest! I want to love God and Give Thanks every which way!