Interfaith Thanksgiving event prays for peace in time of war
by Tom Hoffarth
Special prayer intentions for those affected by the Israel-Hamas war on the Gaza Strip will weigh heavily on the South Bay Interfaith Service of Thanksgiving’s annual event scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 21 at American Martyrs Catholic Church in Manhattan Beach.
Organizers of the multi-religious service acknowledged there were tense conversations about how to show a unified front in light of issues in the Middle East.
Rev. Alexei Smith, who for more than 20 years has been the Ecumenical and Interreligious Officer of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, will be one of the officiants, which will bring together Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons, and Bahai faith groups.
“In past years, there has always been one crisis or another in the world, but this year’s situation in the Holy Land dominates our thoughts,” said Smith, the pastor whose El Segundo home bases are St. Andrew’s Russian Greek-Catholic Church and Saint Paul Melkite Greek Catholic Mission.“There are contrary narratives and different approaches to the same reality on both sides of the Middle East. This is a quest to defuse that.”
“It is imperative we stick together as a human family,” he added. “Sadly, we see that denial and fail to recognize that we are created in the image and likeness of God, and it becomes dehumanizing. We have to mirror to the world that we may have disagreements, but we can still stay united.”
Smith was part of the South Coast Interfaith Council when, in 2004, it widened its reach from just an ecumenical focus. SCIC has been the umbrella group of South Bay Interfaith, which began in 1972.
Then-American Martyrs Catholic Church associate priest Peter O’Reilly was able to convince his pastor, Monsignor Robert Deegan, to join with Rev. John Calhoun of Manhattan Beach Community Church, and Rev. Richard Parker of St. Cross Episcopal Church in Hermosa Beach to have its first event at Thanksgiving time.
The issue at that time was the Vietnam War, and a desire to listen to the youth of the country.
O’Reilly, who turned 89 last October, remains the only living member of that first group formed more than 50 years ago. He said the current Synod process in Rome that Pope Francis has called for continues to help create a positive message about listening and discerning with all religious communities, not just Catholic factions.
“Synodaility is meant to be a shared experience of the whole believing community,” said O’Reilly, who has been a retired Monsignor since 2005. “To me, it’s essential we be open or we can fall into a trap. We have to be able to navigate choppy waters.
“My experience is that when we talk together and discuss issues, there is a common awareness about the dignity of each person. We also have a history of doing harm to people and need to learn forgiveness. And it can’t be rushed or it won’t happen.”
The Service of Thanksgiving rotates each year. In addition to the Catholic Churches at American Martyrs, and St. Lawrence Martyrs in Redondo Beach, it has been held at Temple Menorah synagogue in Redondo Beach, and at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in South Torrance. It took place via video streaming during the pandemic.
Msgr. O’Reilly’s awareness of social justice issues goes back to his arrival in Los Angeles from Ireland in 1961 following his ordination. His first assignment in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was at St. John The Evangelist Catholic Church in the Crenshaw District, which needed peace keepers during the 1965 Watts Riots. That preceded the Rumford Fair Housing Act, passed to end unfair discrimination against people of color or religious seeking shelter.
Thanksgiving was an opportune time of the year to incorporate this messaging.
“We needed to listen to things that we adults were choosing not to hear,” recalled Msgr. O’Reilly. “If we were bringing Vatican II into the modern world, we needed to ‘read the signs of the times’.”
O’Reilly said his retirement discernment trip to Jerusalem helped him better understand the current factions in the Middle East.
“There is a word in ancient Greek, Xenos, which means ‘stranger,’ or ‘host,’” said O’Reilly. “But that can easily be misinterpreted in different contexts to mean ‘enemy’ in a highly tribalized society. That is the danger.”