As I stepped into the vicinity of the Riverbend Church, I took immediate note of my colorful surroundings. For the eye, the area was lined with rows of stalls displaying art, food, and cultural artifacts from all across the world. For the ear, the air was filled with tones and melodies of different languages. Kippahs, hijabs, teekas, crosses, and robes– the diversity was striking. Spending my Sunday as a volunteer at the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service and Celebration co-hosted by the Austin Muslim Community and the Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT) reminded me that it’s the diversity, mutual respect, and understanding in our country that truly “makes America great”.
The event began with an Interfaith service, in which prayers were recited by members of all different groups. The service included Jewish prayers, Quranic recitations, Hindu mantras, Buddhist chants, Christian hymns, Sikh orisons, and interfaith litanies written and presented by members of different religious groups. The clergy members also presented a special prayer for the victims of the Sutherland Church shooting, as to collectively condemn hate crime. I enjoyed listening to the different services, and as a practitioner of Sahaja Yoga meditation, which integrates various religious beliefs and practices, I found it easy to appreciate the different prayers. What was really beautiful to see was that the same people who clapped to the Muslim Qawali were singing enthusiastically during the Christian Gospel songs. Most of the guests had not heard these prayers before; however, everyone was following along with the brochures that iACT had provided, and it was inspiring to see a group of individuals from so many different religions honoring and participating in the faith traditions of others. Towards the end, we volunteers helped pass around baskets where people put in donations for the iACT, an organization that supports refugees in Austin.
The service was followed by a wonderful reception in the huge courtyard. Tables piled with decorations and foods from different countries stretched endlessly: India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Morocco, Egypt, Indonesia, and more. The stack of delicacies on my plate was higher than I would care to admit. From the South Asian countries, I took chaat and halwa, from Egypt, I tasted basbousa, and from Palestine and Syria, I filled my plate with real, authentic hummus, as well as zayt wa zatar with khobz, a sentimental reminder of my everyday breakfast back in Jordan.
In addition to the food, language was definitely a highlight. We were in Austin, Texas, yet English was a minority language. The South Asian stalls were buzzing with the sounds of Hindi, Urdu, Pashto, and Persian, while various dialects of Arabic could be heard throughout the courtyard. I am proud to say that I spoke only in Arabic at the Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian, and Iraqi stalls! It was definitely a nice experience to be able to speak Arabic outside of my scheduled Arabic classes, and I had some nice conversations about my summer in Jordan, as well as responding to the general curiosity: “Where are you from?” I did find it easiest to speak to those running the Palestinian stall since the accent was closest to the Jordanian dialect; however, I held a substantial conversation with the Egyptian lady as well! It was interesting because I was speaking in Jordanian Shaami (Levantine), while she was speaking in Masri. Even despite this, it wasn’t too hard to understand!
My experience at the event went from a 100 to a 110 after I ran into Mariam*! Eight year old Mariam was one of the Syrian girls that I tutored at Galindo Elementary last year, so it was definitely a wonderful surprise to see her with her family. She was a little shy, but it was fun to talk to her and take a few selfies as well! I also talked to some of the Iraqi sisters that I tutor at Aubry Hills this year, in addition to a few girls that I knew from my summer with GirlForward over a year ago!
Overall, I am really happy to have attended the Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration; it was a fun and meaningful experience. I am really thankful to be a part of this colorful Austin community, where people from different cultural and religious backgrounds come together as one.
*Name changed for privacy