Commentary: As Austin’s many faiths gather, a common humanity emerges

Every year, I work with diverse faith leaders to plan Interfaith Action of Central Texas’ (iACT) annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. It involves weeks of meetings with new groups. Each year is completely unique. It is one of the greatest experiences of growth I have each year — and it always brings out new talents and skills in myself and everyone else involved.

For the past 33 years, iACT has had the privilege and honor of bringing the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving service to the Austin community, where it has become a tradition. The service brings people of diverse faiths together to give thanks in their faith tradition. Each Thanksgiving service is hosted by a different congregation. This year’s event on Nov. 19 was hosted by the Austin Muslim Community for the second time in our history. Since no mosque in Austin is big enough to seat over 1,000 people, the service was held at the beautiful Riverbend Church.

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I was delighted when Imam Mohamed-Umer Esmail and many others agreed, and I was overjoyed when so many members of the Muslim community were ready to work hard to make sure this Thanksgiving service would be extra special. We understood the challenges. There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world today from at least 50 countries. They speak different languages and have different cultures and ethnicities. Austin’s Muslim community is large and diverse. They do not all know each other, nor have they worked together on a common project like this.

From the start, planners agreed that they wanted to showcase the love and peace in Islam — and share the diversity of cultures, ethnicities and races that make up the Muslim faith in Austin and throughout the world. One big hit this year was the reception after the service, where we showcased foods from over 12 different Muslim cultures. People stayed and lingered, enjoying the music and each other’s company as they sampled exotic foods from across the globe.

What struck me through the weeks of planning and at the event was the common thread in us all: the quest for love, acceptance and understanding. The excitement of the planning committee to share their love and knowledge warmed my heart. It reminded me of the importance of iACT’s mission: to cultivate peace and respect through interfaith dialogue, service and celebration. Where mutual acceptance and respect are the norm and not the exception.

When people know they are a valued part of a community, they willingly and enthusiastically want to share the goodness of who they are. When we make room for others with openness and acceptance, it makes them want to share the best of themselves.

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I am prompted to ask why wouldn’t we want that for all groups of people that make up our community: people of diverse faiths, cultures and races; people who are elderly or live with disabilities; immigrants; refugees; and the LGBTQ community. Why are we not making more room for them to share their goodness with us? Letting people know they are valued and cared for gives them the space to value and care for others in return, which is essential to enriching a community. This only strengthens who we are and builds up our society. We all benefit.

I am fortunate to do the work I do with an organization like iACT, which is created to build bridges and avenues to bring us all together. We appreciate our role as connectors and conveners. All of us at iACT are honored to have the opportunity to create spaces where everyone is welcomed. And for this we are thankful.

Flowers is the executive director of Interfaith Action of Central Texas.

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