With religious and racial strife on the rise worldwide, it can be hard for one person, let alone one congregation, to feel like they’re making a difference.
“I feel like an ant, holding a tiny cup of water and fighting a huge fire,” said Imam Dzemal Crnkic of B&H Islamic Center in Mechanicsburg.
“But I want to step up and show where I stand,” he said. “I honestly believe it makes a difference. At least it’s a start.”
Crnkic was the first ever Muslim presenter to be included in this year’s Thanksgiving interfaith service, organized by the Carlisle Area Religious Council and hosted by the Second Presbyterian Church on Garland Drive in Carlisle.
Wednesday night’s service was also the first in which Second Presbyterian’s annual community Thanksgiving dinner was rolled into the program, with great results, according to Second Presbyterian Pastor Jeff Gibelius.
Roughly 250 people signed up for the dinner and stayed for the interfaith worship that followed, compared to attendance numbers of 70 to 80 people in years past, Gibelius said.
The Thanksgiving meal featured dishes from multiple cultures, with no pork — forbidden for Jews and Muslims — and multiple vegetarian options for Buddhists and other eastern religions that abstain from meat.
“It’s a great sign,” particularly given the current environment, Gibelius said.
This year’s interfaith service fell a day after the FBI released it’s 2017 data on hate crimes, showing a 17 percent increase in incidents last year, the largest spike since the Sept. 11 attacks, after which hate crimes against Muslims spiked.
For 2017, however, the greatest increases occurred in crimes against African-Americans and Jews, a harrowing number brought home by events in recent weeks.
On Oct. 24, a gunman killed two black customers at a supermarket near Louisville, Kentucky, after he was unable to enter a historically black church. Three days later, 11 Jewish congregants were killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
On Wednesday, following a choral prelude, the interfaith service was called to order with the blowing of a shofar, the traditional Jewish ram’s horn trumpet, by Stephen Tompkins of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Carlisle.
“The last several weeks have shown us again and again and again what hate looks like,” Gibelius said in his opening remarks. “Tonight, we’re going to show what love looks like.”
The service included dozens of songs and prayers from different faiths: multiple Christian denominations, as well as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Baha’i groups.
A collection was also made for Project SHARE, Carlisle’s community food pantry, and Project SHARE CEO Bob Weed offered a prayer for those struggling with food insecurity, asking the faithful to “respond not only to their physical hunger, but their hunger for love.”
Many attendees at Wednesday’s service said that, while the interfaith tradition in the area has always been strong, current events made it all the more urgent.
“There is a tenor and tone in our country, particularly in our politics, that is very unfriendly,” said Kip Bollinger, a deacon at Second Presbyterian. “The question is what can we do to help our community, here in Carlisle? That’s where change can start.”
“I think that’s what tonight was all about. Let’s break down the barriers and start the conversation,” congregant Julie Estes said Wednesday.
For Crnkic, the Tree of Life shooting made Muslim participation in Wednesday’s event all the more pressing — an important showing of interfaith solidarity, Crnkic said, especially given the recent vilification not only of Jews, but also of refugees.
Most of Crnkic’s congregation consists of Bosnians who came to the United States as refugees during the wars of the 1990s. Some are survivors of the 1995 massacre of Muslims at Srebrenica, and received assistance from American Christians and Jews when they arrived.
Such a show of diversity and solidarity was something Ron Grunert, who recently relocated to the area from Brooklyn, was excited to see.
“Coming from New York, you don’t’ see that as much around here, but to have the opportunity to see and experience that in central Pennsylvania tonight was great,” Grunert said.