Old Whalers' Church in Sag Harbor Hosts Interfaith Thanksgiving Gathering - 27 East

Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor Hosts Interfaith Thanksgiving Gathering

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Faith leaders from across the area gathered at the Old Whalers First Presbyterian Church in Sag Harbor on Thursday night for an inter-faith service and Thanksgiving celebration. CAILIN RILEY PHOTOS

Faith leaders from across the area gathered at the Old Whalers First Presbyterian Church in Sag Harbor on Thursday night for an inter-faith service and Thanksgiving celebration. CAILIN RILEY PHOTOS

Faith leaders from across the area gathered at the Old Whalers First Presbyterian Church in Sag Harbor on Thursday night for an inter-faith service and Thanksgiving celebration. CAILIN RILEY PHOTOS

Faith leaders from across the area gathered at the Old Whalers First Presbyterian Church in Sag Harbor on Thursday night for an inter-faith service and Thanksgiving celebration. CAILIN RILEY PHOTOS

Congregants and faith leaders had pie and coffee after the interfaith service on Thursday night.

Congregants and faith leaders had pie and coffee after the interfaith service on Thursday night.

Faith leaders from across the area gathered at the Old Whalers First Presbyterian Church in Sag Harbor on Thursday night for an inter-faith service and Thanksgiving celebration. CAILIN RILEY PHOTOS

Faith leaders from across the area gathered at the Old Whalers First Presbyterian Church in Sag Harbor on Thursday night for an inter-faith service and Thanksgiving celebration. CAILIN RILEY PHOTOS

Faith leaders from across the area gathered at the Old Whalers First Presbyterian Church in Sag Harbor on Thursday night for an inter-faith service and Thanksgiving celebration. CAILIN RILEY PHOTOS

Faith leaders from across the area gathered at the Old Whalers First Presbyterian Church in Sag Harbor on Thursday night for an inter-faith service and Thanksgiving celebration. CAILIN RILEY PHOTOS

Faith leaders from across the area gathered at the Old Whalers First Presbyterian Church in Sag Harbor on Thursday night for an inter-faith service and Thanksgiving celebration. CAILIN RILEY PHOTOS

Faith leaders from across the area gathered at the Old Whalers First Presbyterian Church in Sag Harbor on Thursday night for an inter-faith service and Thanksgiving celebration. CAILIN RILEY PHOTOS

Faith leaders from across the area gathered at the Old Whalers First Presbyterian Church in Sag Harbor on Thursday night for an inter-faith service and Thanksgiving celebration. CAILIN RILEY PHOTOS

Faith leaders from across the area gathered at the Old Whalers First Presbyterian Church in Sag Harbor on Thursday night for an inter-faith service and Thanksgiving celebration. CAILIN RILEY PHOTOS

authorCailin Riley on Nov 22, 2022

In her welcoming remarks to the congregants and visitors who came out to the First Presbyterian (Old Whalers’) Church in Sag Harbor on a chilly night last week, the Reverend Nancy Remkus referenced both the Bible and a Taoist metaphor to set the tone for the Interfaith Thanksgiving service being hosted by her church that night.

She first quoted scripture, the book of John, Chapter 14, where Jesus says, “In my Father’s house are many mansions: If it were not so, I would have told you.”

She went on to add a story from the Taoist belief system which uses the idea of a mansion to make a similar metaphor.

“The world is like a mansion with many rooms, each room representing a particular religious tradition or spiritual path,” she said.

She then asked the people gathered in the pews to picture each room with a window looking out at “the beautiful garden of divinity surrounding the mansion.”

“Every view is beautiful, and every view is somewhat different,” she continued, pointing out that only certain features of the garden are visible from any particular room.

“This, I believe, is not unlike how different faith traditions have distinctively different perspectives,” she said. “Some of the guests prefer to stay in their room and don’t want to go into someone else’s room to look at the view from there. Some guests welcome the chance to visit as many rooms as possible — they believe that admiring the special beauty from each room will offer an understanding of the garden’s magnificence.”

She concluded, “Today, it is my hope that we have a small opportunity to look out some of those other windows, in love and not in fear. We each share this miracle of life, this beautiful and amazing Earth, this family under one sky.”

Interfaith Thanksgiving services have been a tradition in the greater Sag Harbor and Bridgehampton communities for several years now, although Thursday night’s gathering represented what felt like a triumphant return to normal after disruptions caused by the pandemic. The service was held remotely over Zoom in 2020, and while it was in person last year, everyone was wearing masks, there was no food, and it was much more sparsely attended.

The sense among those who gathered at the historic Presbyterian Church on Thursday night was that it was delightful to be together again, sharing in a tradition that has become meaningful for those who have attended in the past. For those who were in attendance for the first time, there was a sentiment of deep appreciation for the kind of community building effort they agreed the world needs now more than ever.

Thursday’s gathering represented the first time that Remkus, who took over as pastor of the church earlier in the year, had organized the event, although she had participated in the past in her former role as an interfaith minister. Remkus was joined at the pulpit by 11 other faith leaders: Rabbi Dan Geffen of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor; the Reverend Adrian Pratt of Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church; the Reverend Kimberley Quinn Johnson of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork; the Reverend George Dietrich of Hamptons Lutheran Parish; Dr. Asma Rashid of the Islamic Center of the Hamptons; Imam Ahmed Essam Ibrahim of St. James; the Reverend Michel Engu Dobbs, a Zen priest with Ocean Zendo in Bridgehampton; Sister Ann Marino of RSHM Cormaria in Sag Harbor; Father Jim Irwin of St. Ann’s in Bridgehampton and Christ Church in Sag Harbor; Robert Diederiks, a pastoral associate with St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Sag Harbor; and Walter Klauss, the music director and organist for the Old Whalers’ Church.

Between the large group of faith leaders, the Old Whalers’ Bell Choir and Worship Committee, and the visitors from the different congregations represented, it was estimated that there were more than 120 people in attendance. There was also a short gathering in the same spirit for teen congregants before the official service got underway.

The faith leaders and congregants gathered in the fellowship hall in the basement of the church after the service to drink coffee and enjoy an impressive spread of pies and desserts that had been prepared by several congregants, and most importantly to connect with each other, get to know each other, and make the quick realization, if they had not already, that despite the different faith systems represented, everyone had far more in common than that which would divide them.

“It’s all about the pie — don’t let anybody kid you,” joked Robert Loesch, an attendee who said that, over the years, he has attended services at several of the different houses of worship that were represented at the service.

“It’s just such a good way for the community to get together,” he continued, taking a more serious tone. “There’s such a divide in the country right now, so to have this group of people get together with all the different faiths represented and different ways of thought, just to have some kind of unity like this, is really fantastic.”

Loesch was enjoying his pie while seated at a table alongside wife-and-husband Heidi Rain and Tom Oleszczuk, and Janet Grossman. Rain said she is a member of Temple Adas Israel but also regularly attends service at the Unitarian Church and sings in the Christmas Choir there.

“To have both those denominations represented, and the other denominations, was great,” she said, adding she was pleased that Johnson, of the Unitarian Church, pointed out in her remarks that the holiday of Thanksgiving, and the traditional narratives associated with it, can be complicated for some, particularly Indigenous people.

It was something Rain said she felt was important to point out and which she said is close to her heart since both she and her husband have been involved in supporting the Shinnecock people in their efforts to get their land back.

Oleszczuk said the service was refreshing and vital, agreeing with what his wife said while also echoing Loesch’s sentiments.

“I think our society is driven in so many different ways, and the fact that so many people came out means that everyone is feeling that,” he said. “We want to be together as a community. I think it was marvelous seeing all the different clerical garb in front of us.

“It’s interesting to hear all the different talks from all the people of cloth,” he continued. “It’s an exposure to other ways of thinking that are important in our multicultural society.”

Grossman, also a member of Temple Adas Israel, said she’s been to the Interfaith Thanksgiving services in the past, but said this year’s was one of the best yet.

“I appreciate that everybody makes this effort to get along with each other and meet with each other,” she said. “It’s so important for the community. And Nancy is so special, and I’m thrilled she’s the minister here. The way this was all organized was largely due to her efforts.”

There was a great degree of appreciation for the service from Dr. Asma Rashid and Imam Ahmed Essam Ibrahim, who was visiting with members of the Islamic Center of the Hamptons from his home in St. James. Rashid, who is part of the medical practice at Hamptons Boutique Medicine, was instrumental in the creation of the Islamic Center of the Hamptons, feeling, she said, a “calling from God” to create a Muslim community in the area after visiting Mecca in Saudi Arabia earlier in the year, during Ramadan. The group has been holding Friday prayer services at the Unitarian Universalist Church.

She said that being part of the interfaith service was “beyond nice,” and Imam Ahmed said the warmth and hospitality he found at the service was beyond his expectations.

“There’s a lot of atrocities happening worldwide, and it’s sort of scary to be out and about and practice your own beliefs,” Rashid said. “But I think in the center of all this, to see that we’re accepted and we’re all feeling that same need, after COVID, and the war that’s currently going on, and the recession. It feels like sometimes the good does start from home.

“It was so beautiful,” she added of the service. “I feel like this is what we all needed.”

Johnson, who has been part of the Interfaith services since she took over the role of reverend at the Unitarian church in 2015, agreed.

“It’s always good to do these kinds of community events,” Johnson said. “We spend so much time in our own programs and doing our own things, so it’s a good reminder that this is actually a very small community and we’re all neighbors.”

A few days after the service, Remkus spoke about why she feels it has become an important and worthwhile tradition.

The service, she said, represented an effort to “bring the sacred into what is more of a secular holiday,” and she explained why that’s a worthwhile pursuit.

“I believe that coming together with many faiths is one step toward understanding each other, respecting each other, and honoring each path, and it’s a step toward world peace,” she said.

She was pleased with the high turnout, and added that “there was a warmth between the clergy and a joy about being together.”

Remkus added she was pleasantly surprised in the days following the service to hear just how much it meant to so many people to be a part of it.

“There were comments to me and on social media, with people saying how attending was very insightful and beautiful, and something that will stay with them,” she said. “I was really impressed by the impact it had on people.”

She said one member of her congregation gave the kind of endorsement that proves just how effective the service was.

“They told me, ‘I really love God, but now I might want to be a Buddhist,’” Remkus shared, with a laugh.

Religious affiliations aside, it was clear from the post-service gathering in particular that the service did exactly what the faith leaders had hoped in bringing together people from different walks of life for the simple act of giving thanks. It was a sentiment expressed with a simple and apt metaphor by Rashid at the end of the gathering.

“I feel like our Thanksgiving table just got bigger,” she said.

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