On Tuesday November 22 at 7pm, Temple Beth-El and St Martin’s Episcopal Church will host their traditional Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, this year at St Martin’s. This year’s theme will focus on refugees and migrants, with the address being given by Kathleen Cloutier, CEO of Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the resettlement of refugees admitted to the U.S., and to their cultural assimilation and economic self-sufficiency.
Thanksgiving has a strong connection with hospitality and welcome. Our modern celebration of Thanksgiving Day recalls an earlier memory of the hospitality shown to the first European settlers to these shores by indigenous communities in the North East who were gracious enough to share their land and life. Whether one believes these brave souls were refugees, migrants or immigrants, the Pilgrims took a perilous journey to escape religious persecution.
Our Temple-Church celebration of Thanksgiving is part of a long tradition of friendship between Jewish and Christian communities in Providence. The Temple-Church relationship is undergoing a renewed impetus as Temple Senior Rabbi and Church Rector both share the experience of being relatively new arrivals to Providence. In September we inaugurated the first of a series of Temple-Church Conversations with a focus on the distinctive contribution of the faith community’s voice to a wider civic conversation.
An interesting phenomenon is that the decline of institutional religion (i.e. decreasing attendance at churches and temples) is accompanied by a resurgent voice in faith communities concerned about the moral and spiritual nurture of our common social fabric. While some sections of the religious estate stridently seek to impose doctrinal beliefs on wider society‒ using the Bible as a kind of rulebook for modern government‒ progressive voices within mainstream American religious life are seeking to contribute to a civic-wide rational conversation about aims, ends, and experience in contemporary society.
Prophetic critique, advocacy, and solidarity are the ways that Church and Temple contribute to a wider civic conversation. For us, rather than being a rule book for modern government the Bible constitutes a written record of the ceaseless struggle against forces corrosive to the notion of the common good. It’s a record that speaks of the fight for justice in the face of political and economic oppression. It stresses the importance of virtue in the ordering of a healthy public space where effective citizenship can be nurtured.
The progressive faith voice seeks to constructively apply insights from its theological traditions to the challenges we currently face. It is concerned about threats to the stability of our democratic institutions posed by rapid changes in technology and communications, the corrosive operation of market forces on social and political life, globalization, the degradation of the environment, and worldwide mass population migrations. We have all been witnesses during this presidential election cycle to a resurgence of a sense of the threat posed by the Other in response to a migration crisis of a magnitude not experienced since 1945. We have become horrified by how easily dark xenophobic and racist instincts can so easily slip their chains, escaping from the dungeons of our collective memory to rise unexpectedly into our public discourse.
The Interfaith Thanksgiving Service on November 22nd offers an opportunity for our entire community to come together to remember and celebrate that we were all once refugees or immigrants seeking a better and safer life, dependent on the generosity of others. When we ask who is the God we follow? God replies, “I am the Liberator, who hearing of your plight brought you out of the land of bondage.” Recapturing a sense of timely gratitude, we slice through the romanticism that has come to cloud the significance of our day of national Thanksgiving, to focus on a virtuous cycle where gratitude encourages generous hospitality to those who are in need of our assistance.
The Rev. Mark R Sutherland Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman
Rector, St Martin’s Episcopal Church Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth-El