By Tom Holmes
Ending hunger will be the focus when an official with Bread for the World gives the main address at the Community of Congregations' annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service at West Suburban Temple Har Zion this Sunday, Nov. 23 starting at 7 p.m.
Matt Gross is deputy director of organizing for the organization, described on their website as "a collective Christian voice urging our nation's leaders to end hunger at home and abroad." Rabbi Robin Damsky, whose congregation is hosting the event, said that Gross is a good fit for a service of thanksgiving, because the theme of the event is Food for All and because the Community of Congregations has been focusing on the issue of hunger all year.
"There's such an immense crisis of hunger that keeps growing and growing locally and globally," she said. "At the service we will be giving thanks for what we have, but it's really important for us to acknowledge the imbalance of wealth and to care for those who don't have as much as we do."
Dennis Northway, the parish musician at Grace Episcopal Church in Oak Park, is coordinating the music for the service.
"There will be two choirs and community people are warmly invited to join in," Northway said. "The adult choir rehearses at 5:30 p.m. and the children rehearse at 6:30 p.m. promptly. There will be plenty of music on hand if people just want to come and sing." Martha Swisher, music director of Unity Temple, will lead the children's choir.
Clergy and lay leaders from many of the faith communities in Oak Park and River Forest will offer prayers, scripture texts and readings from their respective traditions. The coordinator of the Holiday Gift Basket program will announce the amount of donations received at that point and the offering taken will go to various community needs. A social gathering with refreshments after the service will allow members of the different faith traditions to get to know each other.
"The Jewish Bible," Damsky explained, "has many teachings which are common to Christian denominations and even to Islam. What will happen is that people will make choices regarding what to present and the way they present it so that it will be sensitive to everybody present."
Northway said, "The community Thanksgiving service, for me, is a way to celebrate what we have in common. With all the noise about warring religions in various ways, it is good to come together, in safety, and sing!"
"We need all the coming together that we can," added Damsky. "The Earth needs us to be working together and not working in opposition to each other. There's way too much pain. The more interfaith programming we can do, the stronger our ties are going to be. There are so many boundaries that we have between all kinds of people, and many of them exist in the faith arena, so why not take any opportunity we can to begin to soften those boundaries?"
Rev. Sally Iberg, current president of the Community of Congregations, added, "Since a primary purpose of the Oak Park-River Forest Community of Congregations is to bring people of all faith backgrounds together for common purpose, the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service is a perfect fit."
Damsky said that having Gross as the main speaker will help move the issue of hunger from a theoretical discussion to the need for action.
"What Matt can offer," she said, "is suggestions on actions that people can take. We're coming together in an interfaith capacity. We have so much power. Why not take advantage of that and help people consider more action in the food pantry, more action in the homeless shelter, more action in writing letters for the school lunch program."
Northway acknowledged that it's difficult to find the sweet spot between allowing each tradition to express itself authentically and doing so in a way that is respectful of everyone present.
Regarding his role, he said, "Choosing songs we can all sing together is a difficult endeavor but comes with a blessing! After thinking deeply about it, struggling with it if you will, one comes out with a strong sense of what we have to share. What we have to share is a God who continues to bless creation and the created! What a powerful message."
"There is a lot more that is similar than is different," Damsky said. "For this night to focus on what brings us together and giving thanks is a human thing, a beautiful thing to do."
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