An Interfaith Thanksgiving

By Susan Milligan
Contributor

The first Thanksgiving is notable for its cross-cultural friendship: Native Americans shared a harvest feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts, with the English settlers, called Pilgrims. Since then, the holiday has evolved into a family affair, with the focus on traditional foods (turkey and trimmings, followed by pumpkin pie) and a day away from work.

But in some places the spirit of the original Thanksgiving endures, with churches, mosques, temples and other religious centers holding interfaith celebrations. Some deliver food to the needy. Others, such as the Heartsong United Methodist Church and the Memphis Islamic Center, in Memphis, Tennessee, share an annual Thanksgiving meal.

“We’ve done a lot of bonding and building of relationships,’’ said the Islamic center’s board member Danish Siddiqui.

The Thanksgiving meal has become a citywide symbol of understanding. The relationship between Muslim and Christian communities started in 2009, when the Muslim center purchased 30 acres of land directly across the street from the Methodist church. At the time, the Reverend Steve Stone, pastor at Heartsong, didn’t know any Muslims, save one man he saw at the gym, and he was “a little queasy’’ about having a Muslim center so close. After thought and prayer, Stone realized that his role as a clergyman was to counter the anti-Islamic comments being made elsewhere, so he put up a sign saying, “Welcome to the neighborhood, Memphis Islamic Center.”

Siddiqui, “very touched’’ by the gesture, contacted Stone, and the two men led their respective congregations into what became a close friendship. When the Muslims, still waiting for construction to be completed on their buildings the following year, needed a nighttime place to worship during Ramadan, Heartsong offered its space.

“We were just speechless,” Siddiqui said. The Muslim worshippers began bringing food to share with the Methodists. And when Heartsong offered to host a joint Thanksgiving dinner, the congregation’s neighbors agreed, but on one condition, namely, “that we provide the food,” Siddiqui said.

The event has been replicated across the country on Thanksgiving. Unlike many American holidays, Thanksgiving now has no religious underpinnings, said Christina Warner of the Shoulder-to-Shoulder Campaign, a nonprofit organization dedicated to interfaith understanding, especially of the Muslim community. That makes Thanksgiving easier for people of different faiths to celebrate together.

“Breaking bread together is really a fundamental way in which people of different faiths get to know each other,’’ Warner said.

In New Brunswick, New Jersey, Jewish and Muslim students at Rutgers University spend the week before Thanksgiving preparing food to deliver to the needy. “We try to do things that bring people together and won’t cause conflict,” said Saira Shakir, the 20-year-old president of Shalom/Salaam, an interfaith student organization. “Serving the homeless and the hungry is a way to do that.”

In Reston, Virginia, Cornerstones (formerly Reston Interfaith) has supplied meals to the hungry at Thanksgiving for 20 years, said spokeswoman Abby Kimble. And elsewhere across the country, people of different faiths gather for interfaith services or a traditional meal (often including a halal turkey to accommodate Muslim dietary rules).

For the Memphis Islamic Center and Heartsong United Methodist Church, the Thanksgiving celebration grows more popular every year, joined by local politicians and people from other churches. The event now draws nearly 500 people.

“It has become more than just a meal,” Stone said. It has become a Thanksgiving community: People of all faiths celebrate as one.

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Please Pardon Me

Roasting a fat turkey for Thanksgiving dinner is an American tradition that extends to the White House, where farmers have presented live holiday turkeys to presidents since the 19th century. While most families purchase a bird ready to go in the oven, White House residents have had one problem: Once they meet the live, donated turkey, it is hard to eat it for dinner.

Thus, in 1989, a more modern tradition — the White House turkey pardon — was born. For years, presidents have held lighthearted ceremonies at which a live turkey or two, often wearing security identification
tags around their gnarly necks, are formally given presidential “pardons,’’ sparing the birds from gracing the dinner table and sending them to a farm for the rest of their days. There are reports of Presidents Lincoln, Kennedy and Nixon sparing holiday turkeys from slaughter, but the first official pardon came from President George H.W. Bush, who declared that the White House turkey had been “granted a presidential pardon as of right now.’’

The lucky bird is chosen from an early field of 15–20 fowl, said Kimmon Williams, a spokeswoman for the
National Turkey Federation, which donates the animals. While appearance is part of the selection process (fluffed-out feathers are preferred), the turkeys are also evaluated based on their comfort in crowds and calmness under bright lights.

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