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Challah at the Mosque
Thomas C. Willadsen

The irony about the Interfaith Festival of Gratitude is that to make this wonderful, inclusive event a success, I am at my most autocratic. A week before the festival someone asked me what I would do if a group I wasn’t expecting appeared wanting to make a presentation. I said I would count to ten slowly, take a couple cleansing breaths and say something like, “Ooh, sorry. We’ve got a really full program, but I can definitely plan on you for next year. Sorry, but that’s as inclusive as I can be at this point; I hope you will attend anyway….”

challah

The congregation I serve, First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, hosted the Thanksgiving gathering in 2007. At the planning meeting, a Lutheran colleague shared, “For Lutherans, Thanksgiving is a non-liturgical holiday.” I asked what that meant, and he threw his hands in the air and said with obvious glee, “Anything goes!” I took those two words as my marching orders and tried to find smaller faith traditions in Oshkosh who might be willing to participate. I wanted to get beyond “the usual suspects.” I wanted more diversity than Methodists, Congregationalists, and Episcopalians. It was frustrating. (I shared some of my experience in this publication in an essay titled “Herding Cats,” way back in the Advent 2009 issue). The day before the event, when I was desperate to get the names of the participants for the bulletin—they had missed the deadline for publicity long before—I realized that I was frustrated because these other traditions did not behave like Presbyterians. They were not fitting into the five-to-seven-minute time slot I had allotted for them, in my building, at the time I had chosen. The very traditions I hoped to include in order to celebrate diversity were really hard to find, because their leaders have “real” jobs, so they cannot come to the planning meeting at 2:00 on a weekday afternoon. (Perhaps this means that clergy hold surreal jobs? Yes, I believe we do.) Some of the smaller groups are not listed in the phone book because they do not have a building. Some of them have to drive to other towns to gather for worship. I felt like I was standing on the steps of my church screaming, “Hey, minority believer, you’re welcome here!” The more I yelled, the crazier I looked—and the less welcoming I seemed to the very groups I wanted to include.

In 2008, no one volunteered to coordinate the Thanksgiving service until about two weeks before Thanksgiving. A Roman Catholic priest decided that his congregation would host the event. His office staff contacted some clergy and asked us to participate. Each of us was given a part to read from a standard, Roman Catholic non-eucharistic thanksgiving service. I arrived on time, put on my robe and stole, sat in the second row, read my part and did not feel I could complain openly because I had not lifted a finger to make anything else happen. The event did not feel ecumenical; I thought of it as “add Protestants and stir.”

choir

I decided that next year the service would be held at the Grand Opera House. The Grand is a beautiful building, a downtown “anchor.” The city purchased it about thirty years before when it was in disrepair. (Oh, let’s be honest, it was a pornographic movie theatre.) The city restored it and now it is a public utility. It is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Grand is nobody’s sacred space; it is everybody’s civic space. I reasoned that people of all faiths would feel welcome there. It was a brilliant idea…whose time would have to wait. In February 2009, the Grand was undergoing renovation and found to be in a very dangerous state. It was condemned, and only prompt and generous action by the state of Wisconsin and citizens of Oshkosh saved the Grand from the wrecking ball. It re-opened in September 2010, just in time to start planning for Thanksgiving.

I phoned the Grand’s executive director. He told me that there’s never an act booked the night before Thanksgiving, so the building was available. He also waived the standard rental fee. We’d still need to cover the cost of the lighting and audio staff, and pay to have the piano tuned.

I had a place I could afford. Now I needed to find the faith leaders—the very problem that drove me crazy the first time around. Where does a pastor go for advice? To another pastor. I called my colleague at First Congregational Church, Carol. She gave me three bits of advice that were quite helpful.

First, she said the event should be called a “festival.” This not only made it feel more, well, festive, it freed faith traditions to put anything on stage at all. Together we decided the event would be called “The Interfaith Festival of Gratitude.”

singing

Second, Carol said almost cryptically, “Three cups of tea.” She was referring to the book by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin about Mortenson’s peace-building efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She said, “You’ve got to sit down and get acquainted with people. Listen. Build some friendships first.” I saw immediately that she was correct. Every day I get letters promoting events, and unless I have some kind of personal connection with the organization who has done the sending, I recycle them.

Third, First Congregational had offered a small Muslim group use of their kitchen and fellowship hall for large events. Over the years she had gotten acquainted with their leadership. She offered to send an email to her contacts there. It read, “You will soon receive an email from my friend Tom Willadsen. I give him my seal of interfaith approval.”

I spent October and November that year totally caffeinated—not from tea, but coffee. I met faith leaders at Starbucks, Planet Perk, and The New Moon. (The New Moon is my favorite. You walk in, take a whiff, and know that it’s a safe place for liberals.) I met faith leaders, drank coffee and we got acquainted. At the first Interfaith Festival of Gratitude, twelve different faith communities took the stage, representing ten religions. It was a stunning show of diversity in Oshkosh. More than 200 people attended on a night when “wintry mix” was falling. (When I was a lad, and we walked ten miles uphill both ways to interfaith Thanksgiving events; we called it “sleet.”)

Two moments stand out from the first festival. Khurram, the president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Oshkosh, announced as he began his remarks that his group had purchased a building that morning. (The idea of Muslims purchasing a former funeral home had been controversial. The neighbors were worried about traffic; apparently, the presence of Oshkosh West High School across the street left no room for Muslims and their cars. The pastor of a Lutheran church down the block was concerned about drainage. Oshkosh has been hit by some flash floods, and it seemed that converting a funeral home to a mosque might make that worse somehow. He shared this in a spirit of Christian love and concern.) The only applause at the first Interfaith Festival of Gratitude that night was when Khurram announced that the sale had gone through.

The other moment that stands out for me came at the very end of the festival. Everyone who had been on stage at some point that evening was invited back on stage to sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” I envisioned “A Smothers Brothers Moment.” In the confusion of so many people on stage, the Sikh priest, who was wearing a spectacular, royal blue turban, wound up sharing his song sheet with the father of the Latter-Day Saints bishop. “Let me walk with my brother in perfect harmony,” indeed.

Afterwards, a member of the Islamic community went out of his way to thank me for my work coordinating the festival. I told him all it all just happened naturally. He held the program out to me and said, “We couldn’t have done this.”

“Of course, you could, Harris! I just drank a lot of coffee and made a lot of friends.”

“No,” he continued. “It’s not the same when we….”

I suddenly saw what he meant. I felt like a fish that had just realized he’d been swimming in water his whole life. My friend helped me see that I am The Man. I am the pastor of a Mainline, downtown church. I’m white, male, straight, well-educated, married, and a father. I’ve been president of the Rotary Club. Harris helped me see what I now call my “Bland Credibility.” In my heart I believe I’m still the fifteen-year-old class clown from Peoria. I simply do not recognize my own status, or privilege, until someone points it out to me.

Now that I have a name for it, I use my Bland Credibility to bring people together. I love doing this, but it gets better—my church pays for the coffee. And once a year, I get to exercise my inner autocrat all in the name of building respect and inclusion.

The seventh annual Interfaith Festival of Gratitude took place at the Grand Opera House in Oshkosh, Monday, November 21, 2016. I made some changes to the standard program. The presidential election had revealed a climate of fear and distrust. I began by telling those in attendance that we were going to work on infrastructure: we need to build bridges of understanding, rather than walls of fear.

It is never easy to select a night the week of Thanksgiving for the festival. Past festivals were on “Thanksgiving Eve,” and groups showed up Thursday night. Many people indicated that Wednesday is not a good evening for them. Some travel on Wednesday, or welcome guests who have traveled to Oshkosh that night. One person told me, “I can’t come on Wednesday; I have to thaw the turkey.”

“Bring it with you,” I replied, “and put it on your lap.” She was not persuaded.

We had hoped to serve food prior to the festival, but the county health code specifies that we could only serve food prepared in a commercial kitchen. The mosque stepped in and offered to host a potluck. While pork and alcohol were forbidden, traditional Pakistani food proved to be a big draw.

The prior year we tried Sunday night, but lost the Latter-Day Saints because of family night. This year the Packers were playing on Sunday night. I checked with Khurram about this, because his community would host the potluck. Suddenly we realized that one thing that Christians and Muslims have in common is that no one in Wisconsin can compete with the Packers! So Monday night it was.

I spotted Ben’s challah at the potluck before I spotted Ben. I like Ben; he works and plays well with others. Minutes before the prior year’s festival, I saw him in the auditorium wearing his kippah and tallit, the traditional Jewish  head covering and prayer shawl. The synagogue had indicated that they would not be taking part in that year’s festival, but when I spotted him, I asked, “Ben, could you get on stage and be Jewish? I’ll put you…let’s see…after the Bahá’ís.” He came to the podium and chanted a blessing in Hebrew.

Ben was wearing his kippah and tallit at the potluck. In the mosque. There was so much food, an additional table, exclusively for desserts, was set up. People kept coming; it was hard to count, but we estimated that 140 people came to the potluck. A stunning turnout! I had to leave early to drive across town and get ready for the festival.

I checked in with the stage hands at the Grand and gave them a program with rubrics explaining what each act would require on stage. They were most eager to see Taiso, a Buddhist priest who would begin the festival with a guided meditation structured around his striking a bell. I said, “That really resonates with you—ooh sorry.” Later I told Taiso that I put him first because he sets a good tone. Fortunately, I got the puns out of my system before taking the stage.

Dilip Tannan, the Hindu representative, brought two additional musicians with him. I never know whom to expect; he is the Bonnie Raitt of the interfaith community in Oshkosh. This year he was joined by Penny Paiser-Wilson on flute and Rajinder Singh, a Sikh priest who plays tabla drums. Dr. Tannan played his harmonium and sang one of Mahatma Gandi’s favorite devotional songs in Gujarati.

The choir from a new Pentecostal fellowship of refugees from central Africa was scheduled to sing. None of the members of the fellowship had ever been to the Grand before, so I led them on stage as they arrived. I showed the program to their leader, Pastor Shadrach, saying, “You’re between the Jews and the Muslims. Ooh, in some parts of the world that’s probably not such a good place…”

“Tom,” he reassured me, “we know Muslims in America are good people.” Later I am somewhat relieved to learn that the sheep of his flock have fled tribal, not religious, wars.

For the eighth year in a row, a group of Muslim girls recited a poem in Urdu. Many of us have watched these young women group up. This year they were joined by four much younger girls, and they were lovely in their Pakistani clothes.

A group of Hmong folk dancers from a high school shared two delightful and elegant dances. Hmong is the largest minority group in town, and their leader helpfully explained the significance of these dances to the audience.

One of the surprising benefits of the festival is that it brings Lutherans together. Lutherans abound in Wisconsin, but they don’t always talk with one another. This year, representatives of three Lutheran congregations formed a choir. They sang “For the Healing of the Nations.” They added verses to this song to include Friends, Hindus, Eckists…every tradition taking part in the festival. It was the most thorough hymn anyone had ever heard.

The Latter-Day Saints were in fine voice this evening. Their choir included people of all ages; they even signed.

Each year the festival concludes with all the participants taking the stage and singing “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” This year, there was a benediction of sorts: the daughter of the song’s composers, Jan Tache, sent us this message in her email that gave us permission to sing the song:

I am very happy that you are including “Let There Be Peace on Earth” in your annual Interfaith Festival of Gratitude. It is the kind of program that brings people together—something that is sorely needed—and is the reason why the song was written in the first place by my parents. I wish that there were more festivals like the one you have created in Oshkosh.

 

Thomas C. Willadsen has been a Presbyterian minister for more than twenty-five years. He has been a Cresset contributor for nearly as long. He lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

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