A spirit of fellowship: Interfaith dinners, concerts and events build community and understanding

Church of Jesus Christ takes part in interfaith events throughout the U.S. through help of JustServe and community connections

Throughout the United States in recent months, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have taken part in interfaith events and hosted programs to sit beside, serve with and learn more about members of other religions.

These events have fostered new understanding and a spirit of fellowship — with new friendships and connections made and plans already forming to host future events together.

Interfaith evening in Texas

Approximately 400 people gathered on Oct. 29 for an interfaith evening in Round Rock, Texas, to seek unity and peace through understanding faith.

After almost a year of joint planning, the Round Rock East Texas Stake joined together with the Jewish and Muslim communities for the event, which included speakers and prayers from each of the three faiths, a musical number, presentations and a question and answer session.

Stake President Channing R. Williams expressed gratitude for the opportunity to share in an evening of peace and unity.

“We’re grateful for our friends and our neighbors, particularly in this community, but throughout the Earth,” he said “We’re grateful for the many good people who shared love and understanding and compassion.”

A choir sings at an interfaith event at the Round Rock Texas East Stake Center.
A choir consisting of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Round Rock Texas East Stake sings “Hallelujah Peace” at an interfaith event in Round Rock, Texas, Oct. 29, 2023. | Jessica Murray

The event included facilitating a room to view the presentations via video feed for the female members of one particular sect of Islam who sit separately from the men during meetings. Women of many different faiths joined the women in that room as they supported each other. 

Childcare and refreshments were also provided, including options appropriate for each faith.

Irfan Chaudry, a representative from the Muslim community, said it was heartwarming to see the response and support that the event received. 

“I am grateful and I thank the Almighty God that He has given us an opportunity to come together in this house of worship and pray together, to say words of peace and love to each other with the hope that our very small effort, but humble effort, here today will make some difference to our community.”

Festival of Faiths in Upstate New York

Buffalo, New York, is home to one of the nation’s oldest interfaith groups. On Oct. 8, the Church of Jesus Christ hosted a community-wide event called Festival of Faiths at the Buffalo Ward meetinghouse. 

More than 180 adults and children attended and learned about various faith traditions including Sikh, Muslim, Baha’i, Jewish and Hindu.

Buffalo New York Stake members Bruce and Denise Strassburg said the presentations, crafts, food and activities allowed everyone to learn more about each other’s beliefs and traditions. 

A youth committee helped with the planning, and full-time missionaries from the New York Syracuse Mission helped serve as guides that night. They have also helped during other events and service projects. 

People learn about different faith traditions in the Buffalo Ward cultural hall in Buffalo, New York.
People learn about different faith traditions at the Festival of Faiths event in the Buffalo Ward cultural hall in Buffalo, New York, Oct. 8, 2023. | Bruce Strassburg

The Strassburgs have been involved with the Buffalo’s Network of Religious Communities for more than 40 years, and they believe it is one of the oldest interfaith groups in the nation — it started in the 1860s.

Bruce Strassburg said the different faiths prioritize adaptability and cooperation. “We all believe in the same God and we respect the differences in our worship.” 

JustServe — a website and app where organizations can list their volunteer needs — has helped members of faith groups meet each other and grow closer as they have helped the community, said Denise Strassburg.

“We’ve done lots of things that have been helpful and I think that people really appreciate it,” she said.

Like the interfaith leaders in New York City who are uniting to help serve children this December, the interfaith groups in Buffalo are always looking at ways to continue to work together.

“It feels good to be involved,” Denise Strassburg said.

JustServe projects in Arizona

The Florence Ecumenical Council in Queen Creek, Arizona, was created last year after stake JustServe specialists wanted to find a way to have all the churches and other agencies in the area work together for the benefit of the community.

Representatives from Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist and other congregations joined the Church of Jesus Christ and local community organizations on the council. They meet each month to plan service projects, including food drives and holiday meals for those in need.

For the first project, the council provided Thanksgiving dinners to more than 300 families in 2022. Since then, they provided Christmas dinners last year, and meals this year for Easter, 4th of July, Labor Day, 9/11 Day of Remembrance and Thanksgiving. Christmas dinners will be distributed this year on Dec. 22. 

Boxes and pallets of food are set up in a parking lot in Queen Creek, Arizona, for a Thanksgiving meal distribution.
Members of the interfaith Florence Ecumenical Council prepare Thanksgiving meals for hundreds of people in the community in Queen Creek, Arizona, in November 2023, with the help of JustServe. | Cathy Nelson

“Each time the number of dinners gets larger and is now upwards of 400 dinners for each event,” said JustServe specialist Cathy Nelson.

She said at each meeting or service project, those involved sit by or work with someone they do not know. This has led to many friendships that cross the boundaries of church membership.

“I know that JustServe is inspired. Every time we make even a small effort, the door of opportunity swings wide open. We are very grateful,” Nelson said.

Christmas together in Virginia

When members of the Winchester Ward in the Winchester Virginia Stake were planning their ward Christmas party, they invited their new neighbors to join the celebration.

The First United Methodist Church recently purchased land across from the Winchester chapel, with members meeting in an elementary school until they can construct their own building.

“Knowing that they don’t have a place yet to call ‘their own,’ we hope that they will know they are always welcome in the Church of Jesus Christ,” said Winchester Ward Bishop B.J. Custer. 

Eight people sit or stand behind a table during a Christmas dinner party in Winchester, Virginia.
First United Methodist Church of Winchester Pastor Sean Devolites and members of his congregation attend a Christmas party at the Winchester Ward meetinghouse in Winchester, Virginia, Dec. 8, 2023. | Bishop B.J. Custer

The ward activities committee chair worked closely with members of the Methodist congregation to ensure that the Christmas program became a blended and unified program.

After the party on Dec. 8, as one of the members from the Methodist congregation said before leaving that the food, program and music were great — “but the best part was the camaraderie that we felt.”

Bishop Custer said he felt their love as well and enjoyed meeting them and learning from them.

“We hope this is the beginning of a long-lasting friendship and recurring joint activities between our Christian congregations,” Bishop Custer said.

Thanksgiving celebrations in Iowa

Latter-day Saints in two Iowa cities gathered with friends from various faith backgrounds for two Thanksgiving celebrations in early November.

The Reverend Sarah Trone Garriott — a state senator who is also the interfaith coordinator for the Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) — spearheaded the event in Des Moines. She has worked closely with leaders in two Des Moines stakes in sponsoring the “Songs of Gratitude” concert for the past few years.

This year, performers included members of Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Christian congregations. Those who came were invited to donate to DMARC, which runs a large food pantry system in the Des Moines area. 

Participants attend an interfaith concert at a church in Iowa.
Participants attend an interfaith “Songs of Gratitude” concert at Faith Lutheran Church in Clive, Iowa, on Nov. 6, 2023. | Blake Willadsen

Rachel Murdock, a member of the Des Moines Iowa Stake, is on DMARC’s board of directors. After the performance she said, “It’s an honor for us as Latter-day Saints to come together in an atmosphere of fellowship and mutual appreciation with others. We were very grateful to Faith Lutheran Church in Clive, Iowa, for opening their church to this concert.”

Meanwhile, in Cedar Rapids, more than 120 people attended another multi-faith musical event, co-hosted by the Community of Christ, the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County, and Marion Mayor Nicolas AbouAssaly. 

The event featured musical numbers from Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Baha’i, Catholic, Muslim and other faiths. 

Cedar Rapids Iowa Stake President Joseph Miller led the organizing committee. Before the concert, AbouAssaly mentioned to him that he hoped “this will be the beginning of a wonderful annual tradition in our region.” President Miller said he agreed, and hopes more Latter-day Saints will participate next year.

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