Vineyarders Join Faiths to Offer Holiday Thanks

By NIS KILDEGAARD

"For the beauty and wonder of your creation, in earth and sky and sea," read Varian Cassat from her place at the pulpit, and the congregation sent its response echoing from the high ceilings of Grace Church: "We thank you, God."

The litany of gratitude found its cadence and continued:

"For our daily food and drink, our homes and families, and our friends:"

"We thank you, God."

In the waning afternoon light of the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Vineyarders of many faiths set aside their doctrinal differences to express that universal and central religious impulse, the urge to give thanks. The annual interfaith Thanksgiving service is a project of the Island Clergy Association, a movable feast celebrated each year in a different Vineyard house of worship.

"For health and strength to work, and leisure to rest and play:"

"We thank you, God."

Sunday's modest service - it drew fewer than a hundred people to Grace Church - was stronger on giving thanks than on bridging the chasms that divide faith from faith and fuel such murderous hate in our modern world.

The Rev. Alden Besse, president of the clergy association and associate rector of the host church, welcomed the congregation and offered the opening prayer. "I give thanks," he declared, "that we are able to be together not on the basis of the lowest common denominator, but of highest common denominator, the presence of God."

When Michele Lazerow of the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center strummed her guitar and led the congregation in a traditional Hebrew song, voices were lifted gamely as mouths shaped unfamiliar syllables:

"Hi-né ma tov u-ma na-im, She-vet a-chim gam ya-chad," they sang, hesitantly at first and then with gathering confidence. "Behold how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell in unity." And for a moment it was almost possible to envision a world where the only roof large enough to embrace all of worshiping humanity might be the blue dome of the sky.

Rupert Robinson of Trinity United Methodist Church in Oak Bluffs read from Deuteronomy, the Old Testament story of God's rescue of the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. At the center of that story is manna, the bread from heaven that sustained the people during their flight - it was such an unexpected nourishment that its Hebrew name comes from a question: What is it?

Janet Holladay, a divinity school student and intern at the Unitarian Universalist Church, read from the letters of Paul to the Corinthians: "God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work."

Miss Holladay then became a puppeteer, bringing two cuddly skunks to life as the Rev. Judith Campbell of the Unitarian Universalist Church delivered the children's sermon, the story of how the animals of the Island learned the meaning of Thanksgiving. Ms. Campbell said she had chosen an animal story as a more universal message, wanting to reach beyond the human history of the coming holiday: "The first Thanksgiving," she noted, "is considered by some to be a day of disenfranchisement for Native American peoples."

After learning that Thanksgiving is the way two-legged creatures celebrate the bounty around them, the forest animals of the story are shocked to discover that hunger and inadequate housing are actually human problems on the Island. "I think there's some work to do here, don't you?" declares one of the skunks. From knowledge of need comes the urge to help, and the audience was invited to chime in with their own response throughout the story: "Wouldn't you?"

The grownup sermon came in the form of a dialogue between two of the Island's freshman Methodist ministers, the Rev. Nancie Wnek of Christ United in Vineyard Haven and the Rev. Mary Jane O'Connor-Ropp of Trinity United in Oak Bluffs.

"When our bishop said, ‘I've got a place for you,' and the district superintendent asked me, ‘Can you speak Portuguese?' - and that was all he asked me, nothing else - I had a clue that something wild was happening to me," Pastor Wnek recalled. She continued:

"The diversity on this Island is so incredible - I just love it. I'm especially proud that in our church, we have about 150 to 200 people who, every night of the week, use our building. They're an Assembly of God congregation. They're wonderful, wonderful Christians, and I feel honored to be a pastor in this church.

"Now, diversity is not easy. The concept is easy - but the day-to-day reality and challenges are not easy. And I have a commitment, as pastor of Christ United Methodist Church, to help and to have an open door policy for these congregations.

"I celebrate diversity, and here's why. I believe that diversity makes us better people. I believe that when we learn about other cultures, and other traditions and other races, and when we put aside our preconceived notions, whatever they are, we become stronger and better people."

Pastor O'Connor-Ropp echoed her colleague's sentiments, speaking both to the Vineyard's diversity and to the popular myths about Island life.

"When I first found out I was coming here, I told the church I was serving at the time, and they said to me, ‘Oh, you're going down to be with all those people.' I don't know about you, but I don't have a lot of rich people in my congregation. In fact, we just had pledge Sunday, and I hope they are a lot poorer than they were yesterday."

But on a more serious side, she said:

"This Island has the same problems that are anywhere - in inner cities, in middle America. There's poverty here, there's homelessness, there are hungry people, there's domestic violence and enormous amounts of substance abuse. Anyone who thinks this is a paradise filled with rich people with no problems should really come here for awhile."

Pastor O'Connor-Ropp concluded:

"I'm honored to be a part of the diverse Island Clergy Association. There are so many wonderful people who come together - the interfaith gatherings that I've been part of have been such a blessing. It's such a blessing to be together with Jewish and Muslim and Buddhist and other Christian colleagues and friends on the Island."

While Philip Dietterich displayed his growing mastery of the church's new digital organ with a lovely musical interlude, a collection was gathered for the Island Food Pantry. Afterward, the Rev. Dr. Gerald Fritz of the Federated Church in Edgartown led the congregation in prayers of thanks and prayers of concern for ailing friends, for world leaders in a time of turmoil and for the fragile cause of peace.

Here were no doctrines to be disputed, only the purest, most universal elements of the religious impulse - the sense of wonder and ensuing gratitude, the need to reach out and care for suffering neighbors. Reverend Fritz closed with words that included us all: "Hear us o God, by whatever name we call you."