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Dancing, Singing & Fighting our way toward Food-Justice

Thanksgiving Creatively Re-imagined

By Sara J Wolcott
Judson Memorial Baptist Church, New York City

When I saw 15 young boys garbed in bright yellow and black turbans, clearly prepared to give a presentation at our Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration Honouring Food and Honouring Faith, I was delighted. Finally! The Sikhs were here! In the background, on the stage, a man was doing the Muslim call to prayer. It was a particularly beautiful rendition. However, the Sikhs surprised me: they told me they needed 25, maybe 30 minutes to perform. All the other offerings of music and dance pieces designed to celebrate the sacredness of the earth and our connection to it had been told to limit themselves to 10 minutes. It was the night before Thanksgiving – cold and bitter and icy outside, and I knew the 250-plus people gathered there needed to get home. Absolutely not, I told them firmly. 15 minutes, max.

Then the young boys, maybe about 12 years old, looked at me, with these doe-like eyes that quickly turned scheming. 21 minutes, he said. Ah, yes, a culture of bargaining. I knew this game. In other countries, you bargained for the lowest price. Here, at Judson, we were bargaining for the maximum time during which we can celebrate God.

And, really, how can one say no to a group of young, dark-skinned boys with eager faces and their mothers in veils bringing up the rear? Especially on that night, two days after the injustice in Ferguson was made public and my community had been brought to despair and tears and fear – yet again?

“19 minutes and 5 seconds”, I replied. The boys smiled. One held up his watch. “19 minutes and 10 seconds and I’ll keep track!”

We entered the room, setting up more chairs just as the Sufi reflections on the union of all earthly beings was drawing to a close.

From the very start of the evening, with Judson’s minister Micah Busley and the Village Temple’s Rabbi Chava Koster and the Progressive Korean Church’s Rev Tong lighting of the candles, the Interfaith Worship Service had a strong celebratory feel. In the midst of a hard week in which the gaping wounds of America’s continuing racism, white supremacy and continuing police brutality were blatantly obvious, gathering together to celebrate our collective bodies was particularly important. I started the evening by reminding us that when we celebrate how food is a thread that physically links us to the ecology and to our community, it also reminds us that violence done to the body of the earth is violence done to the human body and violence done to the human body is violence done to the body of the earth. I don’t know how much more blood caused by the poisons of inequity and dangerous chemicals the earth will have to swallow. But after last night, I am increasingly convinced that communities – especially musical, dance and martial-arts-infused communities – are critical to our collective healing. Maybe that is why community is sacred.

I admit I tend to veer away from what I call ‘superficial’ interfaith dialogues. The kind where ‘faith leaders’ discuss their different views on, say, ecology. Often it comes down to ‘we are all so similar’ or ‘we all think the earth is important and we all have some aspect of our faith which is difficult to deal with as it relates to earth care’ (In Christianity, the ‘dominion over the earth’ is a classic example of a text that has been used to excuse natural destruction). But I don’t find these panels and talks helpful. So we agree the earth is important. Duh. That’s not stopping mountain top removal in the Appalachian mountains where the rivers are running orange, or improving air quality in Harlem where asthma inhalers are about as common as snicker bars in kids backpacks.

But this Thanksgiving was neither a panel discussion nor a bunch of folks sitting around eating food. We gave thanks and shared our traditions through sound and silence, dance and martial arts.

Hindu eco-justice theologian Chris Fici started the evening with a collective chanting of ‘Om’, reminding us that the vibration of the Om was at the beginning of creation, uniting all mind and all matter. The Village Temple Children’s Choir sat on Judson’s stage throughout the evening and sang songs of water and planting. The Church of St. Francis Xavier brought us straight into their worship experience, with a cantor’s rendition of ‘one body’ that brought stillness to my mind as (foolishly) I attempted to ensure that all was ‘under control’. Elaine Comparone led the First Moravian Church’s Choir in exquisite renditions of Bach. Richard and Lynn Kutner from the Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue re-told the story of the Jewish harvest holiday of Sukkot, reminding us of the early interconnections between the Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving and the Jewish holiday.

The youngsters from Baba Makkan Shah Lobana Sikh Center started with a Panjabi musical piece praising God. The Jewish children, still on the stage, were clearly intrigued with the tabla and harmonium and the North Indian music so different from their own.

I must admit I was surprised when the martial arts piece contained not only fighting staffs but shiny swords, knives, and maces. The audience, sitting in a circular fashion was suddenly only a few feet (occasionally less than a foot) away from the exuberant somersaults, flips, flashing swords and fight-dancing which, according to their introduction, was designed to help them strengthen their body and become warriors for God. The energy and power released by these young men filled the room. There was a touch of real fear – what if that twirling spiked ball flew into the audience? – that was also perfectly controlled by hours of disciplined practice. By the end, most of the audience was standing, and there was no question in my mind that the warrior-energy brought into a Church which stood in the midst of a country aching from injustice lifted the spirits and strength of all who were gathered.

Judson’s own musical-dance-story telling performance followed, with mother-son duo Mac and Dar Twining doing a contact improvisational dance piece as the Old Testament’s story of Manna and the New Testament’s story of the loaves of bread were integrated together to a song created by Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning. The night ended with a final enthusiastic sing along by the Village Temple’s Childrens Choir – and some food from the Korean Church and the Village Temple.

One man said at the end of the night, ‘I just tweeted that the best form of protest is to build diverse communities, and this is exactly what we are doing here! See! We really can live together in harmony!’

Did the Sikhs keep to their time limit? Honestly? I don’t know. Sometimes, Kairos interrupts Chronos. Our sense of time expands, each moment filled with a preciousness that transcends the ordinary and turns seconds into a communion with eternity.

For more information, contact Sara Wolcott.

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