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Clergy of Diverse Faiths Preach Common Message : Religion: Jewish, Catholic, Baptist and Protestant participants embrace what they share in an interfaith church service.


LONG BEACH — Thanksgiving is traditionally a gathering of families, but this was a gathering of faiths, a place where a Jewish rabbi, a Roman Catholic priest, a Bolivian Baptist and a female Protestant minister could agree upon a common message and preach it from the same pulpit.

For one evening Tuesday night, the clergy and a handful of their assorted flock put religious differences aside--the very things over which wars are fought--in a service as diverse and symbolic as the table shared by Pilgrims and Indians 369 years ago.

Only in America, many of the hundred or so worshipers who attended said afterward over cups of coffee and two Thanksgiving cakes at the First Congregation Church of Long Beach.

If only, they lamented, it could happen more often.

"The spirit of the times now is for groups to draw inward; the mood is more tribal, more 'us against them,' " said Rabbi Howard Laibson of Temple Israel in Long Beach. "We did tonight what is often so difficult--acknowledge our differences while embracing that which we share."

The rabbi in his yarmulke, the priest in his collar, the minister with her crucifix and the reverendo in his poncho, prayed and sang together for an hour in the Congregational Church--the church of the Pilgrims--to recognize a God of many names worshiped by peoples from many shores.

"It's wonderful that Americans of different faiths can come together in unity," Bruce Krasner, a member of Temple Israel, said later. "That's the greatness of America. There are not too many countries in the world where this would go over."

Such interfaith celebrations began nationally in the 1960s. But they fell by the wayside in recent years in Long Beach, a melting pot of Latins, Asians, Anglos, blacks and the largest Cambodian population outside of Cambodia.

If Tuesday night's service demonstrated that some religious and ethnic barriers have been brought down in this town, it also illustrated that many have not.

Missing were the Cambodians, the Buddhists, the black Muslims and the American Indians. The pews were less than half filled. And although several clergy have been meeting since August to organize the service, some groups were hesitant to join, said the Rev. Mary Ellen Kilsby of the First Congregational Church.

Kilsby said the clergy planned to meet Tuesday to begin planning next year's service and open communication with more ethnic and religious leaders.

"The reality is we are becoming more pluralistic, and it is even more important that we recognize our . . . common relationship to God," Kilsby said.

It was a service carefully orchestrated to find common worshiping ground without offending religious tenets thousands of years old. And Thanksgiving offered the perfect occasion--an essentially secular holiday with traditions that conveniently sidestep fundamental differences between Christians and Jews.

Judaism, for example, rejects the notion of Jesus as Christ, the very idea upon which Christianity was founded. The songs and sermons at the service omitted the notion of Jesus, present only in the figures etched in three stained-glass windows.

But the message transcended even the deepest differences and called on people to come together in a world divided, a country on the brink of war and a city rife with gangs and underlying racial tensions.

'We weep over the Middle East," Kilsby said. "but how can we press for peace if we are not also getting to know our neighbor? This service is an effort real and symbolic that must be made. And if there are acts of bigotry or violence in the Hispanic or black community, we will see them as an aggression against us all, because those are people with whom we have worshiped."

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