About 250 Loudoun County residents from an array of local religious groups — Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Unitarian Universalist — came together Nov. 20 for an evening of food, fellowship, prayer and entertainment. Organized by Loudoun Interfaith BRIDGES, the eighth annual Day of Thanks was held at Crossroads United Methodist Church in Ashburn.
“Thanks” was the theme, but the event was also a celebration of Loudoun’s cultural diversity. Many of the organizers and guests emphasized the importance of people from different faith groups coming together to gain understanding and build relationships.
“That whole essence of bringing them together has not changed over the years since the first Pilgrims came over,” said BRIDGES Vice President Gurpreet Singh Brar of the Raj Khalsa Gurdwara Sikh community. “We still need to get to know our neighbors and to accept and respect people from all different backgrounds. That’s the spirit of being an American.”
BRIDGES President Paria Akhavan of the Northern Virginia Baha’i Center said “uniting as a human family is where we begin to realize that there are a lot of universalities we all share.
“When we celebrate and honor them, I think they become more real to people,” Akhavan said. “And we honor them through food, through customary dances and songs, and then we really find the thread that unites us both spiritually [and] as a community.”
Guests were encouraged to write messages of gratitude on whiteboards in the church foyer. Another sign asked them to remove their shoes and gather for dinner in a large room next to the kitchen, where members of the Sikh community had prepared a vegetarian meal.
Many of the guests sat cross-legged on the floor, on long pieces of white cloth. A Buddhist instrumental group provided background music as members of the Sikh community moved up and down the rows, offering flatbread and ladling lentils, rice, potatoes and green beans onto the guests’ plates. Desserts from European and Middle Eastern cultures completed the meal. The guests then moved into the church sanctuary, where a stage had been set up behind a large Thanksgiving cornucopia.
BRIDGES board member Anya Sammler-Michael, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Sterling, asked everyone to look around the room and see the diversity of those present.
“This is what home looks like,” Sammler-Michael said. “This is the manifestation of the home that we call Loudoun County. It is the manifestation of the home that we call planet Earth.
“Home is not about four walls and seclusion,” she said. “Home is the space that we create when we give one another a place to sit [and] be fed. Home is what we create when we celebrate one another’s achievements and when we listen to one another’s fears.”
Cultural diversity was on display in a nearly three-hour program that included Buddhist, Sikh and Jewish musical ensembles; a young girl performing a Tibetan Buddhist dance; and two children chanting passages from the Bhagavad Gita in the Hindu tradition. Prayers and words of thanks were interspersed throughout the program. At the conclusion, the lights were dimmed for a candle-lighting ceremony.
“May the light always be with you,” Akhavan said, as the guests touched candles, spreading the flame.
Rabbi David Greenspoon of Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Leesburg said that involving “not just Jews and Christians, but Muslim and Baha’i and Sikh and [others] goes to lift up the absolute tapestry and mosaic that is America at a time when it is important to remember exactly how diverse this country truly is.”
The Rev. Dave Norman, pastor of Crossroads United Methodist Church, said he was impressed that “we’re all praying for the same thing — peace and unity, and for there to be more compassion in the world. And I think that’s important for people to see, so that no one thinks they’re the only answer.”