I got to attend my first KC Interfaith Council Thanksgiving Dinner service last night. I took my wife and kids, and all of us ended up participating in a small way to the ceremony and liturgy of the evening. In fact, my youngest son got the most enthusiastic response of anyone!
It all happened because I became friends with Vern Barnett after my Faithwalk columns were published in the KC Star. He and I have met several times, and he invited me to be the "freethinker" representative at the event. He told me that although he has pushed for a long time to include this vastly underrepresented minority in the InterFaith Council, he hadn't found someone who was clear in their views and articulate in the explanation -- until me (or something to that effect).
It was a nice dinner service at St. Paul's Cathedral in midtown KC, and I got to meet several very interesting and diverse people. My kids all thought it was boring (but I would expect most kids would feel that way about having to stare at food for two hours before getting to eat). Some aspects were fun, though, and the food wasn't all that bad once we got to eat it.
The evening started with acknowledgements and the Interfaith Council annual awards, followed by a "blessing" read by a representative of each of the faiths (of course, I was asked to read the "freethinker" part -- which was basically an acknowledgement of the wisdom of the nation's founders to separate church and state, and for the opportunity to pursue any faith tradition or none at all. The event then proceeded to a liturgical-style prompt/response exchange. Dr. Barnett was the interlocutor, and he walked around the room of about 200 people, tapping individuals on the shoulder to indicate they should read the responses as written.
Most of it was interesting, with some history thrown into the mix. At the end, 11 children were tapped to ask a series of questions about the symbols and foods that were involved. Finally, my youngest was given the honor of asking "IS IT TIME TO EAT?", to which the entire room responded with a hearty (and hungry) "YES!"
One of the questions I got asked was why an atheistic freethinker would want to attend an obviously theistically-biased event. I was asked this by a self-professed non-observant, non-theistic jewish man (who acknowledged that his views matched closely to those of Einstein, among others). I explained that first, I was invited by Dr. Barnett because it was his intention and desire to include all people -- even those without "faith". And second, I feel that freethinkers and atheists/agnostics are part of the social and civic structure of the community, and that our views and beliefs should be recognized and acknowledged with as much dignity, respect and value as any of the religious faiths.
All in all, it was a worthy event. Although it was a little too "churchy" for my tastes (hey - I'm an atheist, after all), the inclusiveness, openness and fellowship of the evening won me over. Seeing Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jainists, Freethinkers and Pagans all sharing an evening without acrimony or dispute, with a grand showing of acceptance and warmth, was very encouraging to me.
Although I have to wonder how many of the people there realized that "freethinker" is a code-word for "atheist".