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Members of various faiths to join for annual Thanksgiving service

By Pat Gee

LAST UPDATED: 2:47 p.m. HST, Nov 14, 2011

Christian, Buddhist, Baha'i, Jewish and Unitarian congregations are planning a Thanksgiving service under one roof to recognize 50 years of neighborliness in a community proud of its diversity of faith traditions.

At the annual Nuuanu Thanksgiving Eve Interfaith Service Nov. 22, the sounding of a Hawaiian conch shell will open the event, and a Jewish shofar, or ram's horn, will signal its conclusion. Flags and banners of each church or temple will adorn the sanctuary, and a procession of members bearing iconic symbols of their faiths will mark the occasion.

The 7 p.m. service, which takes place at different churches or temples each year, will be held at the Community Church of Honolulu.

Of the 29 houses of faith in the corridor — loosely defined as the area along by Nuuanu Avenue and Pali Highway — 11 are participating in the event's planning, said chairwoman Mollie Sperry, a member of the Baha'i Community of Hawaii.

"There's a sense of pride that this has gone on for 50 years as a beacon of hope, so the theme is ‘50 Years of Hope: Forward Through the Ages,'" Sperry said.

The keynote speaker will be Maya Soetoro-Ng, the sister of President Barack Obama. Participating congregations are from Temple Emanu-El Hawaii, Soka Gakkai International, Baha'i Community of Hawaii, Nuuanu Congregational Church, Community Church of Honolulu, Harris United Methodist Church, Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin, United Church of Christ-Judd Street, Honolulu First Church of the Nazarene, Saint Stephen's Roman Catholic Church and First Unitarian Church of Honolulu.

The Rev. Mary Paik, pastor of Nuuanu Congregational Church, said: "At least once a year the community comes together in a visible way to worship. We are together as humanity, although we are rooted deep in our religions; we hold a hope for a sense of this goodness for the world.

"But there's a general appreciation at other times for one another throughout the year," Paik said, citing as an example the sharing or borrowing of each others' parking lots among her church and the nearby Temple Emanu-El, First Unitarian and Soka Gakkai, to honor their respective traditions.

Her congregation has expressed a renewed commitment to taking part in the service because many of her members come from Buddhist backgrounds, and the event allows them to celebrate Thanksgiving along with their parents or other Buddhists.

"We want to be more open and embracing rather than exclusive. We have to find renewed ways and reasons to keep on doing this besides tradition. The world is increasingly divisive among religious groups and even among Christian denominations. This is a reason to worship together," Paik said, adding that members of other faith groups feel the same way.

"All participants are so open and generous. It makes our planning very easy. If we err, it's on the side of being too polite. We also don't want to offend. It's really amazingly easy because … the participants are thoughtful, open-minded and always willing to challenge one another's thinking gently. The process models what we would want our congregations to model," Paik said.

Rabbi Peter Schaktman of Temple Emanu-El said, "We can celebrate our similarities, but we can also celebrate the differences — the different ways we pray and for different things — and that's fine, as long as we don't offend. I don't think homogenization is our goal. I think our strength is in our diversity."

Sperry said the first interfaith Thanksgiving service was held in 1960 at the suggestion of the Rev. Paul Wheeler of St. Clement's Episcopal Church in Makiki. It was attended by about 70 people. The next year it was moved to Nuuanu.

For reasons no one can remember, there was no service in 1962, making this year's event the 50th, she said, based on an account culled from the memories of Bishop Yoshiaki Fujitani of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii and the Rev. Gene Bridges of First Unitarian.

Wheeler was supposed to give the first address at the inaugural "Union Thanksgiving Service" in 1960 but was too sick. So a Buddhist minister, the Rev. Ernest Shinkaku Hunt, read the Episcopalian minister's text, Sperry said. Also in the early 1960s, Fujitani was the first non-Jewish keynote speaker in an isle synagogue, she said.

The service, attended by a few hundred people in recent years, donates proceeds from collection plates to varying charities, usually local. This year donations will be sent to Thailand's Chulalongkorn University Flood Relief Campaign.

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