Nativity's Children's Choir, under the leadership of Dr. Ken Thomas, performed the offertory.
Approximately 225 people from many different faith communities visited Nativity on November 21 for the 10th Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service.
Representatives from several Christian denominations in the Wiregrass area of Dothan, Alabama, came together with ministers from the Spiritual Enrichment Center and people from the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist faith groups. The overarching theme of the evening was that “what we have in common is greater than what divides us.”
The evening started with a musical prelude by Debbie Deas, choirmaster and organist at Nativity, and the service started with the processional hymn “We Gather Together” as the faith leaders processed in.
Following a welcome from Father Peter Wong (Nativity), and a call to worship, Dothan Mayor Mark Saliba welcomed everyone. The mayor commented on the fact that in recent surveys, 90 percent of Alabamians had stated that “religion is very important or somewhat important” in their lives. He then went on to point out that in another survey, Dothan was listed as the third most religious city in the state.
And then Father Peter Wong of Nativity gave his homily. After thanking everyone for being present, he asked them to turn to someone and thank them for being there. “I wanted you to thank each other because I want us to remember that even if we came here without a faith community to support us, regardless of where we’ve came from, none of us really do walk this journey alone. We are always surrounded by others. Others who are walking their own faith journey...Others who rely on us for emotional, physical and spiritual support. Others on whom we rely for our own well-being. That, for me, is the primary reason I am here tonight because I am part of this community. This is my home...You are my people not because we profess one faith, not because we share one creed, not because we call the divine by one name or share one set of sacred writings, but you are my people because you are a part of the community in which I live.”
Members of the different faith communities read from their sacred texts – all in keeping with the theme of the creator’s love for mankind, and how we have more in common than we might normally think. During the offertory, the Nativity Children’s Choir performed to the delight of many in attendance. A total of $1,344.08 was collected to benefit the Wiregrass Area Food Bank.
The closing hymn was “For the beauty of the earth ….” and was followed with a benediction from the Rev. Ashley Drake Mertz from Evergreen Presbyterian Church. A reception was held in the Parish Hall following the service.
“The first year we held the service, the man responsible for locking the church had trouble getting everyone out of the building; wonderful conversations had started,” said the Rev. Lynn Smilie Nesbitt of the First United Methodist Church in Dothan. “Thereafter we arranged for refreshment after the service to give a chance for more conversations.” When asked why she takes part in interfaith activities in Wiregrass, Nesbitt said her life is richer because of her interactions with other faith groups. “My experience is that most people in Dothan have no idea that we are a religiously diverse city...In addition, we tend to fear or distrust what we don’t know. My life is much richer because of my associations and friendships with people of other faiths; in fact, such friendships help my own faith...To worship with another is one of the highest acts we can do together. We do not all believe the same, but we all give thanks, and we can do it together. Besides, I believe that this service honors God.”
I asked Nesbitt why she, personally, is involved in the interfaith service? “There is nothing quite so soul crushing as clinging to a narrow god,” she said. “I believe that the love of God is so much wider and deeper and more complex than any of us can imagine. I believe that Jesus is the son of God and savior of the world, but I also know that people who do not share that belief love and worship God and can teach me how to love and serve God better.”
Mother Linda Suzanne Borgen, Nativity’s curate who was instrumental in bringing the service to Nativity, said the interfaith service promotes unity and cooperation. “The service promotes a spirit of unity and cooperation around our common community values of peace, dignity and well-being for all people,” she said. “Expressing our Thanksgiving to God through our various faith traditions reminds us that we are accountable to God and one another for the way we steward the blessings we have received.”
Father Peter summed up the evening best when he was asked by one of the local TV stations about the service, “What we have in common is a lot more important and a lot greater than what keeps us apart.”
Representatives from the many different faith communities in Dothan following the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. Photo courtesy: Stuart Ibberson.
For those who want to continue the ‘conversations’ they started at the service, what’s next. Evergreen Presbyterian Church hosts a monthly, brown bag interfaith luncheon. For more information, contact Evergreen at 334-792-7898.
Author's note: Video of Father Peter’s homily and the Children’s Choir performance can be viewed on the Nativity Facebook page. Additionally, Father Peter’s message is available on Youtube.