New TraditionsThis evening is for you … for the good of this place … for the good of the world,” says Jeanette Stokes to the assembled circle of 130 people. “We invite you to enter into this time, and into this circle, in a way that’s appropriate for you. Being open to sharing your own tradition and history with others. And being open to appreciate the traditions and histories of others.”

So began the Sixth Annual Interfaith Celebration, convened by Stone Circles and the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South, at the Beth El Synagogue in Durham. The men, women and children in attendance had already had their worldviews challenged by drumming, libations to their ancestors, a Yoruba prayer, and a reading of John Parker’s poem, “Wilderness”:

Find the wilderness in you.

Discover your sense of place, your sense of space

Know your people, your relations.

Do not be afraid.

Live with the wilderness.

Organize, grow and maintain.

Lead with love and wisdom.

Understanding how to live with your wilderness will help you get home.

The celebration has traditionally included explanations of Channukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas and Winter Solstice celebrations. But this is anything but a lecture series. Evelyn Bloch, Thea Bloch-Neal, Richard Goldberg and Edie Kahn get the crowd out of their seats and dancing the Jewish grapevine step in a space that could comfortably hold one-third of their number. Within minutes, they’re tripping, giggling and laughing like wedding guests.

Billie Burney and her son, Che Nembhard, have the crowd repeating the seven principles of Kwanzaa: Umoja (unity); Kujichagulia (self-determination); Ujima (collective work and responsibility); Ujamaa (cooperative economics); Nia (purpose); Kuumba (creativity); and Imani (faith). Pat Long performs a striking a cappella rendition of the Christmas song, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” The crowd punctuates a free-form poem from Cara Page with repeated bursts of, “We are the rhythm, we are the rhythm, we are the rhythm.” Then, flute and guitar draw them out of their seats again, to reverently circle in dances of universal peace led by Lucy Oliver, Laurie Lindgren and Jim Ashton.

Rumi’s poem “The Guest House” is read in honor of his passing on this very day, Dec. 17, in 1273:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

Some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all.

Donna Boyd and Arthur Turbyfill create a song on the spot– “It has never been heard before, and will never be heard again”–riffing on Rumi’s poetry. “Unexpected visitors,” they sing. “Welcome them. Invite them in with joy and light. Welcome them in peace.”

For many of the assembled, ranging from infants to retirees, all of this is uncharted territory. But they participate with a sense of good cheer, good fun and downright wonder.

“This is the most significant thing I do at this time of year,” says Meredith Emmett of Durham, a regular attendee. “Because it’s one of the few places that integrates the many faith traditions that are celebrating different things at this time of year. In most of the world, you walk around and you’d think it’s only Christmas. But there’s lots of other things happening.”

“There’s a lot of people we meet through the Interfaith Celebration who we only see this time of year, because everybody has different lives,” says Burney. “It’s cool to connect with folk and say, ‘Hey, didn’t I meet you last year?’ Sometimes I’m over at the grocery store and I go, ‘You look really familiar,’ and then I go: ‘Oh, Interfaith Celebration–yeah.’ It builds nice connections that are free flowing.”

“I like the fact that it’s a community gathering, and that people come who I know from lots of different circles in my life,” adds Oliver. “I like it because it is multicultural and embracing of all religions.”

Anita and Mike McLeod have lived in Durham for 40 years, and came for the first time because they liked the idea of the community gathering. “I call myself a spiritual person, but not a religious person,” says Mike. “I think this is a spiritual event that takes in all religions, and I like the universality of that.”

Goldberg, from Chapel Hill, has been taking part in the Channukah portion of the program since year one. “There’s so many similarities among the customs that different cultures do this time of year, and it’s neat to see them all in one evening,” he says. “I just like the feel of the community, and enjoy the spirituality,” adds Kahn. “It’s diverse, it’s just a nice warm feeling and a great way to bring in the season.”

“Worship is one of those things that tends to segregate people, more than link people,” says Claudia Horwitz, who initiated the gatherings six years ago with the help of community friends. “And if we’re trying to think of faith as something that can unite instead of divide, then it’s important to begin exploring how we can do that through interfaith worship.”

The celebration began as a program of Stone Circles, Horwitz’s Durham-based group that helps individuals and nonprofit organizations integrate faith, spiritual practice and social justice into their lives and work. The inspiration for the gathering came from the abundant energy of different faith traditions at this time of year. “There’s so many different holidays and expressions of holidays going on, and they actually have a lot in common. So I wanted to create something that would highlight what we have in common rather than what divides,” she explains.

The Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South, founded 23 years ago by Stokes–a longtime friend and Durham neighbor of Horwitz–became a co-sponsor of the event last year. The nonprofit Center is a networking and support program for women in, and entering, ministry, and has hosted programs for men and women on feminism, theology, spirituality, creativity and social justice.

“I had, through the years, gathered friends personally or through the Resource Center to do something around the Winter Solstice,” Stokes says. When Horwitz’s gathering began, she became a regular attendee. “What I particularly like is that we provide a format in which everyone can honor their own traditions, be comfortable, and share that tradition with other people–without trying to recruit anyone else, or be recruited by anyone else. People who don’t have a particular tradition that they’re really attached to can come and be relaxed, without anybody trying to get them to come back next week or next month.”

Stokes also is concerned about avoiding the “inappropriate appropriation” of other people’s traditions. “I want to be very respectful,” she says, “so we try to get somebody from each of the traditions to share a similar story, song or dance from that tradition with the group. It’s worked out to be such a lovely thing.”

As the Celebration winds down, the lights go off. Every guest has been asked to bring a candle. Now, each will light a candle and offer a prayer.

“People love this piece because it feels pretty sacred, and it’s very different from a lot of forms of worship,” she says. “You can actually hear your own voice in a more unique way.”

Out of the darkness, a candle is lit. Then another. “This candle lights a prayer for open communication,” says one of the guests. “This candle lights a prayer for the voices of those who have no voices,” adds another.

One by one, each of the 130 guests offers a prayer: “For yogic detachment from all of the craziness of politics” … “For all the young people facing dangerous decisions” … “For wide open spaces in which to think, dream, and play” … “For healing of broken hearts” … “For taking risks, laughing out loud, and sharing our love” … “For transgender warriors” … “That George W. Bush will not be as bad a president and I think he will be” … and, finally, “That our lights may light many other candles.”

Everyone stands, holding their candles, each face illuminated by the warm glow. The Celebration ends, as it has for six years, with the assembled group singing “Amazing Grace”:

Through many dangers, toils and snares

I have already come

‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,

And grace will lead me home. EndBlock