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How different faiths give thanks in Cedar Rapids
On a secular holiday, an annual interfaith service in Cedar Rapids assembles a view of gratitude that cuts across religions
CEDAR RAPIDS — On its face, Thanksgiving is a secular event. Established as a holiday in 1863 by President Lincoln and moved to its current calendar day by President Roosevelt in 1941, it’s mostly celebrated in the United States.
But in Cedar Rapids, every faith and religion has found a way to celebrate it with meaning, aspirations and calls to action. More significantly, each faith has found a way to celebrate it alongside each other through an annual interfaith Thanksgiving Service.
“Renewing our connections” was the theme at this year’s Inter-Religious Council of Linn County’s Thanksgiving Service, held Monday at First Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids.
“It’s a way for people to give insight on what it’s like to express Thanksgiving but also coming together, showing friendship, acknowledging we all have this desire to thankful,” said Alan Diehl, president of the Inter-Religious Council and representative of the secular humanist perspective. “People recognize the importance of having a way to showcase cooperation, empathy, love, understanding. Especially in our very divided society — politically and otherwise.”
Want to learn more?
This year’s Interfaith Thanksgiving service with the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County was held at First Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Nov. 23. The service is available to watch online by going to the YouTube page of “First Lutheran Church — Cedar Rapids.”
What Thanksgiving means to each faith
For each faith or spiritual tradition, the significance of giving thanks is as varied as how each religion practices gratitude. Most religions were established before Thanksgiving was an American holiday, but take the opportunity to recognize something they’ve been practicing for centuries.
For some, it’s a reminder that — amid plenty of thanks given to God — to thank each of God’s children for their roles and gifts all over creation.
Reading from Luke 9:51-62, the Rev. Dr. Leoma Leigh-Williams, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Cedar Rapids, spoke on reliability, commitment and being a person of character. For her, Thanksgiving is a time to stop and think about your privileges and blessings in life.
“If you can look back in your life and realize that, spiritually, you’ve been given opportunity, this is your time. If no other time, this is your time to stop, reflect and say, ‘Thank you, I appreciate you,’ ” Leigh-Williams said. “We say thank you to God, but it’s a time where we should (also) say thank you to others.”
To some, it may mean little, but to many others in the community, it makes a world of difference. In expressing gratitude, she said you’re able to open doors for blessings to boomerang back to your life.
“Being thankful opens up other doors for you to receive,” Leigh-Williams said. “When people see you’re grateful, they’ll come back your way and bless you.”
In other faiths known for strong cultures and traditions of hospitality, it’s an opportunity to remember to thank the creator of all goodness. Imam Taha Tawil, longtime leader of the Muslim community at Mother Mosque, read Quran scripture about Abraham teaching followers how to praise God.
In a country that gives his community the blessings of diversity, plurality and equal opportunity, he said American Muslims take advantage of Thanksgiving as an institution of good habits in faith as they reconnect with family near and far.
“We get too familiar with the favor of God. Then you lose the appreciation for it. This Thanksgiving reminds us that we should give thanks to the source of all this favor,” Tawil said. “The Muslim community is a very generous community and they do things with faith. Thanksgiving is a hub for them to do these blessings on that day.”
For practicing Buddhists like Kelly Kruse, who represented the faith at Monday’s service, gratitude is a state of mind practiced every day.
“It’s not directed at anybody or anything, it’s just a state of mind of noticing the little things and not just noticing the things you think are bad, difficult or stressful,” she said.
Buddhists and Taoists have been practicing it for tens of thousands of years, but only recently have researchers learned of gratitude’s positive effects on physical and mental health.
“Buddhism is very practical. You can be a more effective person if you practice gratitude day in, day out,” Kruse said. “It gives the right mental mindset you want to do. It can make you healthier and more effective in what you’re trying to do.”
As she practices mindfulness, her gratitude is expressed by giving back to others through small food pantries she’s working to help create in different locations. After needing help in her life, she wants to give back as much as she received, if not more.
“Everything you do in your life has this giant ripple effect on everything around you,” she said. “That’s an important thing for every adult to know.”
For those who are Baha’i, the service celebrates what they already know: “the changeless faith of God — eternal in the past, eternal in the future” that shows itself through various faiths, according to representative Brian Daugherty.
“Think about it as religious dispensations. Each prophet came at a particular time to particular people and taught what was necessary at that time,” he said.
The notion of setting aside a day to be thankful for God’s blessings is appropriate, he added, and one they should be doing every day. Solidarity with one another in worship is important, too.
“Most people will focus on the thanksgiving of what God has bestowed on us, and that’s wonderful,” Daugherty said. “But I think it’s important to sing the praise of the creator himself.”
Why interfaith celebrations matter
At a service where religions and traditions are given equal time, recognition is just the floor of what is accomplished.
Educational aspects of the services build knowledge, but the real value is in seeing the human part of each faith.
“There’s that human component of it, the ability to empathize and be able to see that being a Catholic, Muslim, Jew, atheist person doesn’t make you an evil person. These people are just like us — with questions, passions for life,” Diehl said. “Connections are key.”
For many faiths — whether minorities in the community or denominations in mainstream religions — it’s a chance to build the familiarity that reduces fear of the unknown and promotes a sense of community for the betterment of everyone.
For Leigh-Williams, the time after the service was where connections were really reinforced, when others came up to introduce themselves as members of her fan club after a short sermon — even those of other faiths.
“As a result of hearing me, it caused them to think, ‘I can be friends with her, embrace her,’ ” she said — an illustration showing the power of interfaith services.
For those like Kruse and Daugherty, the service is an important entry point for exposing their less-familiar faiths to others. For Kruse, who grew up in a Christian denomination that disallowed associating with other faith perspectives, the feeling of being able to celebrate freely in the same room with others is something she enjoys.
Unlike when she was a child, she doesn’t have to play mental gymnastics to keep track of where her friends went to church or what they believed.
“The Inter-Religious Council is something really special you don’t get everywhere,” Kruse said. “In this political climate, it’s so important.”
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