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Reflection on Interfaith Thanksgiving: 'Unite and bind together the hearts'

The 17th annual Community Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration was an opportunity for community members to come together to give thanks and promote peace.
The Community Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration took place at Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids on November 21, 2016.

The Community Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration took place at Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids on November 21, 2016. /Kiran Sood Patel

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On Monday evening, inside Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, more than 650 people gathered for an evening of fellowship and community.

The 17th annual Community Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration was themed “Coming Together: Welcoming All.”

Seated in packed rows, attendees of multiple faiths and backgrounds listened and took advantage of the opportunity to celebrate together the season of giving thanks. The evening featured prayers, music and reflections from faith leaders of multiple perspectives, as well as from a member who identified as an atheist.

The divided nature of the country post-election was acknowledged by many of the speakers. Yet, the speakers encouraged attendees to unite, offer love to one another and create a welcoming community for all.

One of my favorite moments came during a touching performance of a Baha’i prayer by a children’s choir. The young voices beautifully sang “Unite and Bind Together the Hearts.” Hearing the young voices sing this message was so compelling: “Unite and bind together the hearts, join in accord all the souls. Oh Lord! Make these faces radiant through the light of Thy oneness.”

Chris Beckstrom, an advisory board member of the Center for Inquiry-Michigan, offered a secular perspective. He acknowledged the number of world views represented in the room, and yet, noted similarities.

“We all come from the same place,” Beckstrom said. “Our minds are literally made of the same stuff.”

Beckstrom encouraged attendees to “celebrate our shared human experience.”

“We must stand up for each other,” Beckstrom said.

The keynote address was delivered by Faye D. Richardson-Green, executive director of Partners for a Racism-Free Community. Richardson-Green expressed her pleasure at being a part of an “evening of inclusion” and an evening dedicated to giving thanks. She also referred multiple times to a particular quote by James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

She shared with audience members one of the overarching goals of Partners for a Racism-Free Community, which is to achieve a community in which people of all backgrounds and skin colors feel welcome and wanted, emphasizing the final two words.

Rabbi Michael Schadick of Temple Emanuel shared another important message: “Every single person in our community counts.” He, too, encouraged working together to make our community and country a better place.

Near the conclusion of the program, an offering was collected to benefit three entities: Addie’s Pantry, a local food pantry located at Central Reformed Church; Make-A-Wish Michigan in memory of Samantha “Princess Sami” Bannister, a member of Center for Inquiry-Michigan and finally, to the Interfaith Hospice Coalition in memory of Sister Sue Tracy.

This year, 200 additional people came to the event. Last year, 450 were in attendance. I asked Katie Gordon, program manager at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, to what she attributed the increase in attendance.

"Over the last year, in our increasingly divisive political climate, we've noticed more and more people coming into interfaith programs inspired to engage with our neighbors from different backgrounds," Gordon said. "While nationally, a lot of otherizing rhetoric and policies are used, I think that people realize that they are empowered to do things locally - like showing up and getting to know our Muslim community members."

The Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration brought together people from a number of faiths and communities and followers from multiple backgrounds. The large number of people in attendance is a testament to the fact that people were itching for an opportunity to be together, give thanks, enjoy one another’s company and celebrate the diversity of faiths that make up this community. It was an evening of healing and hope  and togetherness.

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