Thanks-filled Worship

One of the longest running Huntington religious traditions is the Community Interfaith Thanksgiving worship service. This will be the thirty-ninth time that the religious groups of Huntington have gathered at Thanksgiving to worship together. In the past few years the service has undergone several changes—the less important was to change the date from Thanksgiving eve to the Sunday night before. The more important changes have come due to the evolving nature of religions in Huntington.

When I first began participating in this service twenty years ago it was not only a reflection of the town, but also of a model of interfaith participation that was common in the United States for many years. The service was led by most of the mainline Protestant ministers, Catholic priests, Rabbis and the Unitarian Universalists. In Huntington this meant 8-10 ministers, 1-2 priests, 2-3 Rabbis and one UU.

With this group our goal was to find common elements of our religions. It was like the melting pot ideal for American society—our differences were submerged in pursuit of the common story. This was not difficult because we all were, at least historically, part of the same Biblical faith. So our readings were taken from the Hebrew Scriptures, we prayed to God, and usually preached on the unifying components of our national traditions.

The primary difficulty with this model was for Christians who found it impossible to pray without invoking the name of Jesus. For some Christians every prayer, to be true to their tradition, needs to refer to Jesus. As this could be offensive to some non-Christians, particularly given the historical Christian persecution of Jews, we all agreed to pray to God, but without reference to Jesus. For this reason some Christians refused to participate.

This Sunday our service will led by seven Protestants, one Catholic, one Unitarian Universalist, one Rabbi, and representatives from Baha’i, Hindu, Sikh, Islam, and one multi-faith pastor. Now what is the common deity whom we worship? As our service has become more inclusive, to reflect the changing demographics of our town, we have been forced to reexamine our model for interfaith worship.

We are still evolving in our understanding, but the emerging consensus seems to favor the other defining narrative of the American tradition—instead of a melting pot, we are more like a mosaic. We are all united by our love for the ideals of our country, but our religions are distinct from each other, and our worship service reflects the differences as well as the similarities. So this Sunday there will be readings from many of these different faith traditions, and they not all directed to the same concept of God.

There are many questions raised by this—are we really worshipping together, or separately in the same space?—is this actually worship at all, or a religious variety show?—how will the many differences impact the common American culture?—but the most important element for me is that we are trying. We recognize that religion is important to our lives, and that forming relationships across our differences is essential to the long-term health of our community. So we will speak from a variety of faith traditions, but always respectful to the others who are worshipping with us.

For me, personally, it is important to celebrate the Christian path when worshipping with my congregation. It is in discovering and practicing our unique history that we find meaning. But when I gather in worship with people of other traditions I am sensitive to the fact that some things I believe may be offensive—so I will downplay the differences in deference to common ground. This is not about theology, it is about etiquette. It is also, most importantly, about continuing to forge a common American path that includes the many trails of all of our faith traditions. For this opportunity I will give thanks. Best wishes for a wonderful Thanksgiving.