By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published November 29, 2007
It was a full house at the Temple Kol Emeth as worshippers from across the Metro Atlanta area gathered on the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 20, for the third annual Ecumenical Thanksgiving Service.
Welcomed by a troop of enthusiastic ushers and surrounded by the temple’s beautiful stained glass, attendees found the experience to be an uplifting kick-off to the holiday season.
The ecumenical service combined worship, music and a healthy dose of laughter to celebrate, as Cantor Mark Perman reminded the crowd, “what we all share: a love of God and of America.” Religious leaders from across the city led the service, each introducing his thoughts on what is important about the interfaith dialogue.
The idea for the ecumenical service came a few years ago from those at the temple as a way for people of different faiths—Jewish, Christian, Islamic—to come together under one roof to worship. Rabbi Steven Lebow deemed Thanksgiving week, a time when people traditionally recognize the blessings they have been given, as an appropriate time to celebrate together. Over the past three years, the service has become an extremely popular event across the congregations, and it has resulted in many friendships and strengthened community ties.
Several of the speakers testified to the relationships that have grown since the temple has sponsored this event. Dr. Bob Bullock of the Eastminster Presbyterian Church called it “one of his favorite events of the year,” while Imam Amjad Taufique of the Islamic Center of Marietta noted how they have built strong friendships between the different religious leaders and communities over the past three years.
In his homily laced with humor, Msgr. Patrick A. Bishop, pastor of Transfiguration Church, brought thoughts back to the impending holiday, as he urged the worshippers to find the true meaning of Thanksgiving. He told them not to expect everything to be perfect as they gathered with family and friends or celebrated alone.
“My wish and my prayer for you tonight is that you lower expectations,” he said, and he urged everyone to appreciate the people and things around them for who they are and what they are—that is, to be thankful for what they have rather than to try to control and change things and people. Attendees were urged to look at the people surrounding them and “see the likeness of God and treasure that image.”
According to Msgr. Bishop, by putting one’s own expectations aside and trying to make the holiday pleasant for everyone else, people can learn to treasure the blessings they have.
The idea of learning to appreciate people of different faiths as part of a common love of God was echoed by several of the speakers. Imam Furqan Muhammad of the Masjid Al-Muminun spoke eloquently of the importance of learning about other people’s faiths, accepting each other and the necessity of education to accomplish that.
Jeff Hickman of the North River Church of Christ used more personal recollections to describe the power that God has to fill spiritual emptiness. The addition of the Church of Christ is itself a marvelous example of the power of a strong interfaith community, as the church currently conducts services at the temple while plans are being made for its own building.
Rabbi Lebow closed the service with a sermon that concentrated on how a love for one’s country can help people come together despite their differences. Recalling the events of September 11, 2001, he noted the natural tendency after such a tragedy to distrust those of other faiths. However, he also urged the congregation to focus, instead, on the things that bring all people together—“love of country, love of family.” Noting that the United States is currently in some turmoil, he reminded the congregation that war is not just a political issue, but also a moral, ethical, and spiritual issue, and that “we must all stand together” in common beliefs.
For many attendees, the music was their favorite part of the service. The patriotism expressed by Rabbi Lebow was echoed in several of the musical choices. A rendition of “God Bless America” by the combined choirs of Temple Kol Emeth, Eastminster Presbyterian Church and Transfiguration Church was particularly moving, coming after Rabbi Lebow’s remarks. In addition, the Temple Kol Emeth Youth Choir contributed some patriotic favorites. The delicate notes of “Grace and Thanksgiving,” performed by the Eastminster Bell Ringers, was another musical highlight of the night, and the appropriate “We Gather Together,” sung by the entire group, tied the whole service together.
The foremost theme of the evening, the idea of coming together as a community, was demonstrated by the community service on display. One of the most joyful moments of the night came when Hal Schlenger, one of the service’s organizers, spoke about the efforts of the Smyrna/Cobb Habitat for Humanity Coalition, which organizes people from many of the different congregations represented at the service. Two of the most recent homeowners who have benefited from the coalition’s efforts were on hand, and it was clear how the combined community had both helped them and had been strengthened by the experience. In addition, the service gave the opportunity to donate to the Atlanta Food Bank and to Give-a-Gobble, a program that distributes Thanksgiving baskets through the Oakland Food Bank.
Worshippers at the Ecumenical Thanksgiving Service were treated to a thought-provoking and inspirational combination of music, worship and fellowship. This proved to be a perfect mixture to introduce the holiday and reinforce the ties of friendship and respect that have been established by this special event.