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Herding Cats: An Interfaith Adventure
Thomas C. Willadsen

This year it was the Presbyterians’ turn to host the annual interfaith Thanksgiving Eve worship service. Actually, it was our turn last year, but the Roman Catholic bishop had announced plans to close a church which has taken part in the past services, so last year they hosted the service, perhaps for the last time.

Thanksgiving is a non-liturgical holiday, as a Lutheran colleague put it, which means, in practical terms, anything goes. 

This year we followed the same pattern to plan the service as we have in prior years. As host pastor, I sent an invitation to the meeting to plan the service to my colleagues in late September. The first Monday in October the representatives from the various congregations came to the afternoon meeting. There were two United Methodists, a UCC pastor, two Roman Catholics, two Lutherans [though one of the Lutherans is a UCC pastor], myself, and the high school student who is job shadowing me this semester.

Everyone arrived at the appointed hour. And everyone said something snide or sarcastic to my job shadower. “Are you sure you want to learn about the ministry from him?” “Well, sometimes you learn more by seeing what not to do.” “Presbyterian, well you must be a good speller.” These responses did not surprise me one little bit. I’ve worked with these jokers for eight years. Still, I remember the first time I received this treatment. Twenty years ago I was attending a meeting of the Coalition Against Anti-Asian Violence in New York City. I was the lone non-Asian in attendance. One of the leaders of the coalition was the pastor of a Chinese Presbyterian church in the city. “Hey, I’m a candidate for the ministry in the Presbyterian church!” I informed the pastor warmly. “I am very sorry to hear that,” he replied with a gravity that was just over-the-top enough to indicate he was kidding.

I think.

At our planning meeting we looked around the table at who was not there. The Baha’is, the Jews, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Sikhs. We had no representative of the Hmong community, the largest non-Anglo ethnic group in our city.

One of the pastors volunteered to get word about the service to some contacts he had in various non-Christian congregations. Looking back (I’ve been doing that a lot this month), it’s clear to me why we only had Christians around the planning table: we’re the ones whose congregations are large enough to support full time, paid leadership. The Muslim who will speak works as a banker; the Jew is in education. The Hindu and Sikh leaders are physicians. None could get away in the middle of the afternoon to represent his faith.

As Thanksgiving grew closer I waited to hear which communities would be participating, and what they would be doing. The last week before Thanksgiving the bulletin still looked like this:

Welcome
Something from the Jews
“This is My Song”
Something from the Baha’is
Litany of Thanksgiving—which two Christians want parts????
Offering—to support the domestic abuse services center
Something from the Muslims
Sikhs!!!?
“Let There Be Peace on Earth”
Go in Peace 

Most years this service is not especially interesting visually. Once we had a group of traditional Hmong dancers who were marvelous and exotic. This year no one knew whom to contact to extend an invitation to the Hmong. We decided to ask each group that participated to share a ritual or action of some kind, something important to their faith, something that will help us encounter them in a way deeper than words. It was difficult to convey exactly what we wanted. In fact, it was difficult to communicate with representatives of other faiths at all.

Email makes it possible to spread confusion faster than ever before. One illusion of email is that because it is written it is unambiguous. But when messages regarding a confirmation class’s trip to a local mosque precede invitations to participate in the service, only the former are responded to.

I received a copy of one email regarding the interfaith service which consisted of directions to a reasonably priced kabob restaurant in a neighboring community.

As we counted down to Thanksgiving we struggled with publicizing the service. We want the wider community to know that people of all faiths can come together for thanksgiving and peace. We simply did not know which faiths would be present. We decided not to list “sponsoring communities” and “those invited to participate.” By the deadline for publication, only those who had indicated they were participating were listed, which makes us appear a little less broad-minded than we would like.

As I labored to get the bulletin done, waiting for correct spellings and precise terminology, I realized the problem, such as it is, is completely my own. I need the information in time for the newspaper’s deadline. I need to have the bulletin done in time for it to be printed. I need to not have people approach me three minutes before the service starts and ask when their ritual will appear. I need leaders from other traditions to come to my building, fit my time limits (“3 to 5 minutes, please, gotta be done by 8 pm”) and then go home. Happy freakin’ Thanksgiving!

Then I imagine being the leader of a tiny faith community in a sea of Christians. Would I feel safe, trusted, willing to share my faith, in their building, on their terms? “Hey, minority person! Please let me encounter you, on the one holiday when I can put aside my tradition and leave the door cracked for your bit of domesticated exoticism. Can I pencil you in for 7:20?”  And I wonder why those people do not return my calls.

The tragic part is I really am curious and interested in other traditions. I really want to know, but a day before the service I cannot think of another way to build a bridge.

Maybe we could start with some reasonably priced kabobs. I know a place.

 

The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

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