An Abrahamic Faiths Concelebration: A Parish Interfaith Experience
Saint Katharine Drexel is a Roman Catholic community of 800 households located in Frederick, MD. The parish was established in 2000 and is temporarily housed in a regional Catholic school. Weekend Masses, catechetical programming, and other parish events occur in the school gymnasium.
From its inception, the community has had an interest in establishing ecumenical relations with our neighbors of other Christian traditions. Before the regional school was built, for example, the parish gathered to celebrate Mass at Faith United Church of Christ. We annually host a Passover Seder on Palm Sunday with members of the Jewish community presiding. Our youth participate in Interfaith Youth Corp, a service oriented outreach we established in collaboration with the local Jewish, Muslim, & Protestant communities.
In recent weeks, an Interfaith Youth Band has been organized with a band director hired with grant money provided by the City of Frederick. In addition, parishioners participate in a number of other interfaith events throughout the year. Some of these are educational in nature such as taking a course on Isaiah taught by a Rabbi through The Frederick School of Religion. Some are social in nature such as gathering at the mosque for Iftar during Ramadan, or meeting around a table in a private home for Dinner Dialogues sponsored by The Amazing Faiths Project and Frederick Interfaith. Still others are more liturgical in nature. The parish hosted, for example, the welcome home celebration of the Clergy Caravan of Reconciliation last summer, and last week, several parishioners gathered at the mosque for Friday services.
Five years ago the parish pastoral council engaged in extended reflection on a more specific direction the community might take. The discussion hinged upon recognition of the tensions that exist between the Muslim world and the West. The pastoral council was determined to look for ways our parish might help ease the tension. As Roman Catholics, we remember how we were once a class of people not readily accepted in the United States. We have a sense of how difficult it can be for religious groups to be assimilated into the wider culture even in light of our nation’s commitment to religious freedom. As disciples of the Lord Jesus, we want to honor our obligation to assist all who struggle to belong and to be accepted. Our Muslim sisters & brothers fit that category in Frederick and throughout the United States, especially since 9/11.
An Experience of “the Other” in a Relaxed Environment
With this in mind, the pastoral council articulated a simple parish mission: to establish and maintain an alliance with The Islamic Society of Frederick for the purpose of being of assistance to them as they negotiate & integrate into American culture.
As a member of the parish staff, it’s my job to support the initiatives of the pastoral council and I attempt to do this in all areas of parish life for which I’m responsible. Catechetical programming is one such area and since the parish is committed to intergenerational formation, I look for ways to integrate parishioners of all ages into interfaith activities. I was able to do this successfully earlier this month when the parish hosted an interfaith event entitled, “A Taste of Tradition,” which occurred during a regularly scheduled faith formation night at the parish. The evening was promoted as a kid-friendly, pot-luck dinner and interfaith sharing highlighting the winter religious holidays of Hanukkah, Christmas, Ashoura and Muharram. An underlying Saint Katharine Drexel goal for the evening was to provide participants (parishioners and non-parishioners alike) an experience of “the other” in a relaxed, supportive environment. We recognize that many are ignorant and afraid because they don’t have any experience of personal encounters with Muslims, for example.
I began planning late last summer by soliciting the support of interfaith contacts and was able to secure co-sponsorship with two Protestant communities, one Jewish community, and The Islamic Society of Frederick. The planning team consisted of one representative from each sponsoring community who remained in phone or email contact with me through the fall. We had one face-to-face meeting in November to finalize plans.
A Kid-sensitive, Family Event
The planning team agreed to promote the event as an opportunity for families and to plan with the needs of children in mind. We decided to keep things as simple and brief as possible, and to remember that so much is to be gained just in being present with one another. The schedule for the evening was determined accordingly. We agreed to begin at 5:00 PM and to conclude no later than 7:00 PM, as follows:
- 5:00 Gather for multireligious prayer of meal blessing/thanksgiving
- 5:20 Sharing of the meal and interfaith dialogue
- 6:20 Presentations: 5 to 8 minutes for each faith community to share about its holy days in this season: Jews (Hanukkah), Christians (Christmas), Muslims (Ashoura and Muharram)
- 6:45 Concluding multireligious prayer to thank God for bringing us
together as one interfaith family, and a closing blessing
- 7:00 Farewell
Logistics for the event were minimal. Saint Katharine Drexel hosted the event in the school gymnasium and provided paper products and beverages (iced tea, lemonade, and water) for the potluck. We created the invitations and disseminated them to each sponsoring organization and to the Frederick News Post. Participants of all affiliations were asked to RSVP to the parish office and to bring a covered dish representative of their religious tradition at holiday time. Out of respect for Muslim & Jewish dietary restrictions, participants were instructed not to bring dishes prepared with pork or alcohol. To assist those with food allergies or food preferences, participants were instructed to provide a 3 x 5 card listing the ingredients in their dish. Saint Katharine Drexel provided name tags for all participants, and coloring pages and crayons for children in attendance. Hanukkah coloring pages were obtained at www.Torahtots.com, Christmas coloring pages at www.apples4theteacher.com, and Muslim coloring pages at www.playandlearn.org. Additionally, Saint Katharine Drexel provided a quiet, out-of-the-way space in our facility for Muslims to pray just prior to the event.
Dialogue Conversation Starters, Multireligious Prayer, Presentations
On the day of the event, a set-up team placed 19 round dining tables in the gymnasium along with four large rectangular tables set end-to-end for the buffet. At the center of each dining table was a list of “Conversation Starters” to facilitate interfaith dialogue during the meal:
- Share a special holiday memory.
- Do you have a family tradition that helps you celebrate or observe the holiday your faith community came to share about tonight?
- What special foods do you eat in celebration or observance of the holiday?
- How does your faith community celebrate or observe the holiday?
- What personal meaning does the holiday hold for you?
- Do you have any questions about Hanukkah, Christmas, or Ashoura and Muharram?
Additionally, we placed a welcome table near the front door of the facility with name tags and extra 3 x 5 cards for those who forgot them. Greeters were recruited from each sponsoring community who welcomed and directed participants as they arrived.
Participants began to arrive at 4:30 PM. Some of the first arrivals were Muslim men looking for a place to pray before the start of the event. The planning team was overwhelmed by the amount and variety of festive foods participants brought.
At 5:10 PM, an official word of welcome was offered by me on behalf of the Saint Katharine Drexel community. I then offered an explanation of the format of the evening and defined multireligious prayer using Fr. Tom Ryan’s book, Interreligious Prayer – A Christian Guide as my resource. Next I drew attention to the “Conversation Starters” at the center of each table and explained that in order for the table conversations to be truly interfaith, we couldn’t have any religiously homogenous tables in the room!
Participants were then instructed to take a few minutes to introduce themselves to the people at their table and to identify their religious affiliation. After a few minutes I asked participants to raise their hands if they discovered they were sitting at a table of all Christians or all Jews or all Muslims. We subsequently took some time to make seating adjustments before continuing. People were cooperative, but it was a bit tricky making some adjustments as a majority of the 152 participants were Roman Catholic. Before continuing with the program, I took a minute to acknowledge each member of the planning team and the co-sponsoring faith communities by name.
We next engaged in multireligious prayer offering thanks to God for the food. A representative of each faith community offered, in turn, a typical prayer that is offered in his/her faith community or household before meals. Following the prayer of thanksgiving, the buffet line was opened on schedule. As people waited for their table to be called up, they were encouraged to engage in dialogue using the conversation starters, and to continue the dialogue through dinner, taking care to include the children in their discussions.
Following the meal, we began the presentations. Rabbi Dan Sikowitz of Congregation Kol Ami presented on Hanukkah which included the singing of holiday songs with lyrics provided to all participants.
Dr. Mudusar Raza, board member and spokesman for The Islamic Society of Frederick, next presented on Ashoura & Muharram. We learned that “Ashoura” means tenth in Arabic. Ashoura is celebrated on the tenth day of the first month (called Muharram) of the Islamic year. Ashoura occurred on 6 December this year and for Sunni Muslims it commemorates the day Moses and the Israelites were saved from the Egyptians by Allah. For Shiite Muslims; however, Ashoura is also a time to commemorate the death and martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Brother Mudusar, a Sunni Muslim, further explained that, “Standing up for religious freedom of expression in the face of violent threats and deeds is one of the important messages of the Islamic holiday known as Ashoura.”
Rev. Janice Daffern of Evangelical Reformed United Church of Christ presented on Christmas followed by the singing of Silent Night performed by Jenn Kmiecik of Saint Katharine Drexel and a Christmas musical presentation offered by the children of Saint Katharine Drexel.
Following the presentations, we concluded with multireligious prayer of thanksgiving and blessing before departure. Fr. Keith Boisvert, the pastor of Saint Katharine Drexel, offered the last blessing and thanked everyone for participating.
We received lots of positive feedback from participants. Some expressed appreciation that presentations were kept short and provided just a “taste” of tradition for their children. A Muslim mother expressed delight in discovering her daughter’s teacher (a non-Muslim) was in attendance at the event. Everyone raved about the food and a few participants shared that their favorite part was hearing the stories behind the food – i.e., where the recipes originated, how they got handed down through the generations, how some families can’t celebrate their religious holiday without them. Others were touched by the sight of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish children standing elbow to elbow around the coloring table and happily playing together in the gym.
I was moved by two things; first, how deeply engaged some participants were in the table conversations – even to the point they didn’t want to disengage when called to the buffet line; and second, the response the Rabbi gave me when I called him to the buffet. He told me the Rabbi doesn’t eat until all his people are taken care of. Rabbi Sikowitz was the last person to go through the buffet line!
We’re planning another “Taste of Tradition” for October 2012 to highlight Eid-al-Adha, All Saints, Yom Kippur and Succot.
Leah Huber is pastoral associate at Saint Katharine Drexel Church in Frederick, MD. She has a BA in Religion & Religious Education from The Catholic University of America (1983) and a MA in Church Ministry from The Ecumenical Institute of Theology, Baltimore (2004). She is a wife, mother, and soon-to-be grandmother.