Praying Together: You’ll Never Walk Alone

Erev Thanksgiving brings the annual pilgrimage to what my son nicknamed, IHOP – the International House of Prayer. My temple is a member of The Wantagh Clergy Council, a group of houses of worship from different denominations in Wantagh, Long Island. Each year, one congregation takes its turn hosting the Interfaith Community Thanksgiving Service. As we read the Gathering Prayer, the words to God “shower forth tranquility, peace and reconciliation in a world that is troubled and grieved,” which were intended to refer to Hurricane Sandy, took on a deeper meaning given the announcement that a ceasefire had been negotiated between Israel and Hamas by the Egyptian President. In the same prayer, the worship leader recited “Enlighten the hearts of the leaders of nations that they may collaborate in drawing people closer together for the good of all humanity, and in preserving the noble images of humans, which your hands have fashioned.” Amen.

This year, our host was The Church of St. Jude (Episcopal). The first thing I noticed about this small, quaint, and welcoming building was the cross on the inside wall of the sanctuary. Rather than being overpowering, the cross reminded me of a modern sculpture that, while a religious symbol (not mine), also looked as if it should be in a museum.

We were greeted warmly by The Very Rev. Christopher D. Hofer from our host congregation, who I have come to know him from previous interfaith services; he always makes me feel as if we are old friends. In announcing the service and introducing the clergy, he used first names: Rabbi Bellows and Cantor Sher became Rabbi Marci and Cantor Steve., the Reverend Garner became Reverend Ron, and so on. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I never thought adults had first names! I always referred to adults by Mr., Mrs., Miss or by their title. While I doubt that I will begin greeting my clergy by their first name, the idea of using first names seemed appropriate for this informal, intimate service.

Prayer books were not used. Rather, there was a printed program that included songs and responsive readings with the parts designated “Leader” and “People,” as well as a blueprint of what to expect during the service and a list of the representative clergy and their congregations.

As the joint choirs from the participating congregations entered, with the clergy singing the opening hymn the familiar “We Gather Together,” the congregation stood. At the completion of the song, the choirs went to the balcony and the clergy took their place on the bimah (altar). When the service formally began with a responsive “call to worship,” I was already in my comfort zone.

The service was peppered with responsive readings, including one in which the congregation responded with “Thank You, God,” which reminded me of the Hebrew prayer Modim anachnu lach. I felt honored when the blessing that began with “Y’va-reh-ch’cha Adonai v’yeesh-m’reh-cha” was included and it was shared by a rabbi and a reverend. Together, we spoke to God, we thanked God, we asked God to guide and teach us, and we even said, “God’s love is everlasting.” We had a reading from Matthew 6:25-35, and one of the choral songs was A Celtic Thanksgiving; as we began, “Most compassionate God, receive the prayers of this gathering,” we were making sure everyone was equally represented and God was listening.

Members of the clergy reflected on their experience and experiences of their congregation during Hurricane Sandy. Rev. Hofer held up his cell phone, using it as a timer, explaining that each speaker would be given three minutes before being cut them off.  There were audible giggles from the congregation, surely praying that their clergy would not feel the wrath of the reverend’s cell phone! The mini-sermons made references to the Bible, short anecdotes and stories about survival and how congregants offered comfort to one another during the storm and its aftermath. Cantor Sher sang a moving rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Carousel, which includes lyrics about having hope in your heart and never walking alone. For me, these sentiments went beyond Hurricane Sandy. The lyrics, like those of the Mi Shebeirach, talk about the need in everyday life for healing. When people are in need be it spiritual, financial or social, your congregation has everyone’s back.

The Episcopal Offertory, which is much like our tzedakah, was handled on the spot with the passing of (my phrase) the silver platters. The choirs sang the Offertory Anthem “Festive Praise” as we were asked to contribute what we could, to look into our wallets and take out a one dollar bill, or even a $5 or a $10 or $20. All money collected during our interfaith service will go to the American Red Cross for its disaster relief efforts in our community.

As the service drew to a close, clergy exited to the choirs singing the closing hymn and we headed to the oneg. Although the priestly benediction was omitted, for me this meant that the next part of the service was just beginning. It was time to socialize to make new friends and get reacquainted with friends from the past – a reminder that we will never walk alone.