It was two days before Thanksgiving, and nearly all of Santa Barbara’s diverse religious leaders, from Vedanta to Catholic, were sitting together in the First United Methodist Church. Imam Yama Niazi of the Islamic Society of Santa Barbara was giving the keynote presentation. “The Prophet—” the imam said, referring of course to Mohammed, “the first thing he did when he got to Medina was tell the people there, ‘Bring peace and feed people.’ And we are very thankful for being here with you.”
The Community Interfaith Thanksgiving Service has been held for nearly two decades here in Santa Barbara and is organized by the Santa Barbara Clergy Association and the Interfaith Initiative.
This year, offerings were made to the Freedom Warming Centers, a Santa Barbara organization that began last winter in response to three homeless deaths from hypothermia-related causes. The .org uses churches to provide a safe haven on chilly and rainy nights when conventional shelters are already full. Eight churches in Santa Barbara and Isla Vista will open in December to the homeless.
“A lot [of the Islamic Society members] feel we need to do these interfaith things and promote peace and understanding,” said the imam. But, he said, “Even tonight I was afraid that some guy in the back was going to be, like, ‘Why’d you bring some imam here?!’ Even tonight … There are just so many stereotypes of Muslims.” He said that he hopes these interfaith gatherings will help diffuse any tension between local religious groups.
As part of the effort to keep the service non-denominational, there was no instrumental music performed; the speakers were instead accompanied by an interfaith choir that performed Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu songs, among others.
Most exciting, though, was the number of children and young people who showed up. In the reception hall after the service, a gaggle of kids played and ran around the room. “No kid looks at someone else and says, ‘Hey, what religion are you?’” the imam observed. “If we all had the innocence of kids, the world would be a better place.”