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Giving Thanks For Diversity, Unity And Community

Published: November 23, 2016

Approximately 100 Newtown residents and neighbors gathered Sunday evening for this year’s Interfaith Thanksgiving Gathering. Following a theme of “Celebrating Our Unity In Diversity,” leaders of local houses of worship encouraged attendees to celebrate and honor the spirit of thanks and giving.

The Reverend Matthew Crebbin, senior pastor of Newtown Congregational Church, this year’s host location, welcomed those gathered, saying the evening was “time for us to come together to celebrate unity in the midst of diversity. God continues to sustain us … with compassion and care.”

Rev Crebbin also mentioned a large step the town’s Interfaith Partnership for Refugee Resettlement had just taken. Members of many of the town’s houses of worship decided earlier this year to work together to begin helping those who are leaving their home countries, having been displaced because of war, oppression, or fear for their lives. A family from the Congo had arrived in the area just three days earlier, the first family being sponsored by the new partnership.

“In this season of thanksgiving, we are so grateful to have a family arrive safely” in their new home country, said Rev Crebbin.

John Woodall, from Baha’i Faith of Newtown, said he and his wife Margo had had the opportunity to visit with the resettling family earlier in the day. He was encouraged, he said, at the efforts already being done by those volunteering for the project.

He urged guests on Sunday to “let religions agree … and to see the whole earth as one family, raise aloft a banner of one mankind.”

Mr Woodall reflected upon the interfaith effort of not only that evening, but also what he and others see occurring in Newtown year-round.

“When the world is crying for a ray of hope and community,” he said, “this town is becoming exactly that.”

Prayers and readings continued on behalf of a number of faiths, including a few times when multiple people shared prayers and readings.

Reverend Kathie Adams-Shepherd, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, opened the Gathering and Call To Prayer by asking that the Lord “open us to the treasures of your grace … and receive the prayers of this gathering.”

Rabbi Shaul Praver, Judaic Scholar-in-Residence at the congregational church, followed Rev Adams-Shepherd, singing the Call To Prayer in Hebrew. Muadh Bhavnagarwala from Al Hedaya Islamic Center then offered his Call To Muslim Prayer in Arabic.

The Sharing of Thanksgiving Texts and Prayers was also a multiperson offering. Reverend Jack Tanner of Newtown Christian Church began by saying Thanksgiving actually creeps up on him most years.

“I spend a lot of time preparing for others, and then it’s here,” he said. “We are grateful, certainly, for more than one day.”

Rev Tanner also read Psalms 100 and 150, before thanking the Lord for “the harvest … good times and not-so-good times … the warmth of our homes … Creation that shines forth from your glory … and comfort that comes in time of hurt.”

Additional texts and prayers were offered by Reverend Alphonse Arokian from St Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, and Rabbi Praver.

Rev Arokian reminded those in attendance that, in the words of St Paul, “if God is for us, who can be against us?”

His prayer offered thanks for “this day … for this life … for the fresh start of each new day … for all little miracles we receive day after day … for the blessings You have bestowed upon us … for food, shelter, and our health … for sending innumerable people into our lives to tell us that they care for us … for sending people to us, again and again, to reassure us that God is there.”

During the evening’s offering, attendees presented donations for the town’s two food pantries. Bins and baskets were quickly filled with food items and cash donations. While they were brought forward, an adult choir sang “All Lands and People.”

In addition to the adult choir, directed by NCC Music Director John Leibensperger, Newtown musician and music teacher Jim Allyn had worked with a group of children from Al Hedaya to add more music to the celebration. Mr Allyn had, at the opening of the service, performed “Free To Be You And Me” on his guitar, inviting everyone in the sanctuary to join him. Many took him up on the invite.

Later in the service, he introduced the children from Al Hedaya. Joined by Rev Crebbin and NCC member Tim Stan on guitar and banjo, respectively, Mr Allyn and the 11 young singers then led those in the sanctuary in singing “This Land Is Your Land.”

NCC Organist Phil Crevier also offered musical accompaniment Sunday evening, from the gathering music at 7 o’clock through the Postlude about an hour later.

Newtown United Methodist Church Senior Pastor Lori Miller, Rabbi Praver and Muhammad Sarwar from Al Hedaya Islamic Center presented the evening’s closing Blessing.

Mr Sarwar again returned to the theme of unity in his opening remarks.

“Celebrating and offering thanksgiving,” he said, “we do this daily, sometimes multiple times” in his practice of Islam. “Our ultimate objective is to give our thanks to God.

“But this,” he said of Sunday’s gathering, “this is special. The beauty is, it is common. There is no separation. We are thanking for everything that Allah gives us.

“God, or Allah, has given us plenty. We are a nation of immigrants, which has a lot of minorities,” he continued. “We are a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. Being a Muslim, and being here with you, it means a lot to us.

“Thank you,” Mr Sarwar said, “and may Allah have peace on you all.”

Newtown’s Interfaith Association includes Al Hedaya Islamic Center, Baha’i Community of Newtown, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Congregation Adath Israel, The Lutheran Home of Southbury, Newtown Christian Church, Newtown Congregational Church, Newtown United Methodist Church, St Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, and Trinity Episcopal Church. Most participated in Sunday’s gathering.

A reception was held in NCC’s hall following the gathering Sunday evening. As guests left the warm and well-lit church on West Street, it was back into a cold, windy night. Flurries that had been falling for most of the day continued to swirl down as people walked toward their vehicles.

As they headed toward their next destination, the swirling snow offered time for quiet reflection and hope for those who had spent an hour being reminded that everyone has something to be grateful for.

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