Sitting in the cavernous Crescent Hill Baptist Church, listening to faith leaders pray, it occurred to me that I could have used something like this when I was 10.
The Interfaith Thanksgiving service and dinner on Monday night started with a short sermon from Reverend Jason Crosby, giving readings and recitations that were familiar to me.
I didn’t grow up in Louisville, but outside Charlotte, North Carolina in the 1990s. North Carolina was and is very much part of the Bible Belt, and back then — maybe even now — the question wasn’t, ‘where’d you go to high school?’ but, ‘where do you go to church?’
Because I’d moved down south with my parents at age 8, without them having taught me much about Jesus or the Bible, Christianity was totally foreign. I was teased for not going to church; I felt like an outsider.
But there’s a specific effort in Louisville, called the Interfaith Paths to Peace, that aims to make us all feel like insiders, no matter our religion, and to bring faiths together. On Monday, a half-full church heard from Temple Shalom Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner, Johnny Alse from the Hindu Temple of Kentucky, and many other faith leaders. They stood at the front of Crescent Hill Baptist Church, where a pastor usually stands, and recited their own prayers.
Thanksgiving isn’t necessarily about religion. Today, it’s a quintessential American holiday, despite the history. It’s about friends and family, or whatever else you’ve got, and for being grateful for all that.
But religion provides a landing spot for so many Americans to rest their beliefs. In my reporting on health care, the thing that doesn’t often make it into the story of people’s health and financial struggles are their comments about their faith as the source of strength during it all. It might be a faith in God, or a faith in suffering as a human condition, or faith that their relationships with loved ones will counteract the suffering.
Imam Mohammad Wasif Iqbal from the Louisville Islamic Center of Compassion reiterated that gratitude is part of almost every religion or belief.
“Gratitude is a perspective we can choose to adopt or reject on a daily basis,” he said. “Even in the midst of difficult times, when we continue to give thanks, that can shape our outer lives.”
Anne Walter from the Buddhist Drepung Gomang Center for Engaging Compassion talked to me before the service started about what this event can do.
“I think it gives you something meaningful to put your heart into; we all have challenges, and we all often have challenges between faith traditions,” Walter said. “But whenever you can build something like this, it gives you hope. And I think that’s what we need more than anything right now.”
In addition to faith, hope also keeps a lot of people I interview going: hope that they’ll get better, that the cost of a drug will be lowered and they’ll be able to afford it, that there’s a scientist working on a cure for their ailment. There’s also hope from health researchers, advocates and policy makers, a belief that whatever they’re doing might improve lives.
And perhaps every faith has some belief in gratitude and giving thanks. Most faiths recognize suffering and the turmoil humans have faced throughout whatever century we’re living. There’s scientific research on what this mindfulness and gratitude does to our brains; it rewires it and changes our perspective to become more resilient. Resilience has been shown to be an indicator in life expectancy and in surviving sickness.
During the service Iman Iqbal remarked that this was the first time in years that there hadn’t been a mass shooting or vandalism of a religious facility that could be tied to this event. This Thanksgiving service started back in 2015, after the River Road Mosque was defaced with graffiti. Last year, Thanksgiving fell shortly after a shooting at a Jewish temple in Pittsburgh.
“Usually that is the case. So this is a reminder of regardless of what is to come, we have each others back,” Iqbal said. “Louisville is unique in what we have with the grassroots efforts and the relationship that’s been built.”
Reverend Crosby later told me that the service and dinner is one of his favorite Thanksgiving events: it reminds him that both people and religions have more similarities than differences.
“I don’t see how an event like this cannot then inform other Thanksgiving events that folks participate in,” Crosby said. “One reason I enjoy this event is that it happens on a Monday night, and as I move through other Thanksgiving events through the course of the week, most of which won’t be as racially, ethnically or religiously diverse as this one, it does shape conversations I’ll have later in the week.”
Sitting in front of me during the service were three pre-teen boys, and I wondered, “what are they thinking?” Perhaps they’d learned in school about the many wars throughout history that were sparked by the belief that people of certain religions were intrinsically better than others. Or maybe they’ve watched the news of late about religious extremists who cause havoc on other lives.
The messages local faith leaders were sharing Monday night could have been considered radical and dangerous at various times in the past, and remain that way in parts of the U.S. and around the world.
I hope those boys got what I could have gotten from the service — had I been in their exact spot when I needed to hear it. Without my own faith, and surrounded by others who clung to it, I felt lost, never understood why people believed, never understood why it was so important that I believed.
In my adult years, I have learned that religion played and still plays a big role in society. It’s imbued people’s lives with meaning, given hope to people in distress and offered a reason for all of the struggles. Now, I’ve finally figured out why it was important to some that I believe in something.
Religion is, in the worst of circumstances, a weapon. But in the best of circumstances, it brings people together. The Louisville Thanksgiving service would have been good for my ten-year-old self. It was at the very least, a surface look at the faith community in Louisville: together in a house of worship, sharing green bean casserole and falafel.