There’s something about Thanksgiving

Tis the season for interfaith get-togethers.

Around Thanksgiving, numerous local groups pull together people from different faiths for a few prayers and snacks. You usually get mostly mainline Protestants and Jews, with a smattering of Catholics and Orthodox Christians and a Muslim or two.

At least that’s the mix in the NY burbs.

The Westchester chapter of the American Jewish Committee will hold its regular Thanksgiving Diversity Breakfast on Thursday at Manhattanville College. This is a unique event, as participants will take turns reading aloud from a special “reader” written by the AJC, which tells the story of how immigrants from many cultures come to the U.S. to share our special freedoms.

I’ve been to several of the breakfasts and it can be a moving experience.

This year, the breakfast will honor Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson of Temple Beth-El of Northern Westchester and Reverend Paul S. Briggs of the Antioch Baptist Church in Bedford Hills, both of whom are very active in interfaith work in their community.

The Peekskill Area Pastors Association will host an inter-religious service next Sunday (Nov. 22) at 5 p.m. at the St. Columbanus Church, 122 Oregon Road, in Cortlandt Manor.

And there will be many others (which I’m sure I will hear about after I post this).

Local pastor heading for Sultinate of Oman to head interfaith center

Last year, I talked to the Rev. Doug Leonard, pastor of the Reformed Church of Cortlandtown, about a trip he was about to take to the Beijing Olympics.

He was going with Rabbi Arthur Schneier of New York City, a leading voice on religious freedom issues, to see how China was addressing the myriad religious needs of the Olympic athletes.

Leonard told me that the trip was a great opportunity for him because — beside the obvious reasons — he had a tremendous and growing interesting in interfaith relations.

tjndc5-5b4o3jlkb0j12nm1enb6_layoutHe was quite proud of the fact that  his denomination, the Reformed Church in America, is a descendant of the Dutch Reformed Church, which has a long history of promoting interfaith tolerance.

A few months after the Olympics, Leonard was leaving for the Sultinate of Oman to take part in a conference with Muslims.

Now he’s going back — to stay (at least for a while).

Sunday will be Leonard’s last day at the Reformed Church of Cortlandtown. The next day he leaves for Oman to become director of the Al Amana Centre, an interfaith center in Muscat that was started by the Reformed Church in America

I understand that he will be back briefly late next month. He’ll be honored by the Peekskill Area Pastors Association, of which he is immediate a past president.

I hope to get a chance to talk with him about his unusual new job.

Talkin’ interreligious understanding, tolerance, pluralism, respect, whatever

“There is something essentially risky for anyone who participates in an interreligious panel or discussion,” Rabbi Lee Paskind of First Hebrew Congregation in Peekskill said.

The risk is that you will be challenged on your most closely held beliefs.

But Paskind and other panelists took up the challenge last night at Graymoor, where the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement sponsored a program on the state of interreligious understanding in the Lower Hudson Valley. The program was timed to mark the start of Pope Benedict XVI’s trip today to the Holy Land — when interreligious relations can be affected by anything the pope says or does.

I moderated the panel and we got a good turnout. The panelists were consistently insightful on a subject that can, at times, draw a lot of cliches.

I asked the panelists what interrreligious understanding looks or sounds like. How do you know when you’ve succeeded?

“We all start out with fear, which leads to hatred and suspicion,” said the Rev. Anthony Falsarella of the Greek Orthodox St. Basil Academy in Garrison. “We choose to be in fear. Tolerance means we’re coming to recognize the other. Respect is an outgrowth of learning about them.”

Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan of the American Muslim Women’s Association, a plastic surgeon at Phelps Memorial Hospital Center, said what she has learned from meeting patients from all faiths: “When you talk to them, calm them down, you realize we are human, all worried, all with our fears, financial-wise, you name it.”

Father Jim Gardiner of Graymoor, who called the program together, said that “tolerance” of others is not enough. “We have to get past that and look for a closeness with one another that allows us to ask questions that we otherwise wouldn’t ask,” he said.

Gardiner continued: “The fences and borders are real. They’re theological. They’re historical. They may sometimes seem to be insurmountable. But they’re ours. We made them. We have to see what God is doing on the other side of the fence.”

Everyone agreed that contact is real important. When people get to know one another, things change fast.

“We have to model that behavior,” Paskind said.

“We need to manufacture excuses to get together,” Gardiner said.

“People have to go out and talk,” Hassan said. “We spend too much time inside our own houses of worship.”

Paskind suggested that one way to further the dialogue would be to talk about one another’s religious texts.

“We all have texts that are problematic for other faith groups,” he said. “We can say ‘What texts of mine hurt you?’ ”

It occured to me when I was driving home that the panel did not address one sensitive matter that happens to be of particular concern to Benedict XVI: How do we promote interreligious understanding and pluralism without allowing it to morph into religious relativism — the idea that all religions are equally valid.

Now, many people do believe that there are numerous paths to God and that their own is not the only way.

But the pope and other traditional religious leaders bristle at this suggestion. So, how can communities further interreligious understanding without giving pause to those who worry about relativism?

A question for another night.

Rev. Lacey remains papa of PAPA

tjndc5-5baqxu698s8sd28l6bw_layout.jpgThe Peekskill Area Pastor’s Association — known as PAPA — has re-elected the Rev. Adolphus Lacey, pastor of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Peekskill, as its president.

The group also chose Archbishop Michael Champion, metropolitan of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church of North and South America and the Diaspora, as its vice president.

They begin one-year terms.