Interfaith Group Moves Thanksgiving Service After Church Forbids Non-Christian Prayer on Property

A Muslim-led interfaith Thanksgiving service in Austin, Texas, was forced to move to another location at the last minute after a Baptist church objected to non-Christians worshipping on its property.

The Austin Area Interreligious Ministries, the largest interfaith organization in the city, was told last Wednesday that it wouldn't be allowed to hold Sunday's annual Thanksgiving celebration at a recreation center belonging to the Hyde Park Baptist Church because the parish has a policy of prohibiting non-Christians from praying on its grounds.

For 23 years, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Baha'is and others have been invited to worship together at the Thanksgiving service.

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Sunday's event was the first to be co-hosted by members of the local Muslim community, though they have participated in the service for several years, according to Adeela Gill, president of the Central Texas Muslimaat, a Muslim women's organization that takes part in the celebration.

Gill said she didn't know whether the Baptist church's abrupt about-face was because of the prominent Muslim presence this year.

"I hope that they would have made the same decision for any other organization that is different in belief, but I don’t know," she said. "I’m hoping that this decision does not have to do with the fact that it was Muslims."

Planning had been in the works since July, according to AAIM Interim Executive Director Simone Talma Flowers, but it crumbled in the 11th hour when the Baptist church told the group to find another venue.

"They notified us four days before to say that we could not have the Thanksgiving service on their property," said Flowers. "They said they did not realize that we'd have non-Christians at the service." Church officials told her they thought "interfaith" meant different sects of Christianity.

Hyde Park Baptist Church defended its decision and asked for understanding in a statement it released about the dispute.

"The event was cancelled when Hyde Park Baptist Church became aware via a postcard on Monday afternoon, November 12th, that the event was not a Christian oriented event," the statement said. "The postcard promised space for Muslim Maghrib prayer and revealed that the event was co-hosted by the Central Texas Muslimaat, the Forum of Muslims for Unity, and the Institute of Interfaith Dialog ... The church cannot provide space for the practice of these non-Christian religions on church property."

Associate Pastor of Administration R. Kent Jennings declined to elaborate further on the matter when reached by telephone.

Gill said she found the church's statement "shocking" and "blatant" in its repeated references to the Muslim groups in attendance, and believes the explanation implied that Hyde Park's sudden cancellation was linked to the Muslim community's involvement.

Hyde Park Baptist Church is not a member of AAIM and has never sent an official church representative to the annual Thanksgiving service in the past, according to Gill.

It was unclear why the church didn't realize that it would be an interfaith event before last week, or whether its decision was, in fact, related specifically to the Muslim community's leading role in the service.

Gill said much of Hyde Park's concern was over some of the actual prayers that would take place on the premises.

"The fact that there was going to be a prayer service caused them concern," she said. "The space for our prayer afterward, that's what caused the most amount of alarm. That was influential in making their decision."

Flowers also couldn't say whether the church canceled the event on its property because of the prominent Muslim presence.

"It might have just been a really honest error — they just didn't realize it was non-Christians also," she said. "I believe that. We respect their decision. If we had known that, we would not have rented the facility."

Flowers, who is Christian, said she originally tried to convince the church to let the celebration go on as scheduled, since there was little time to find an alternate venue.

But Hyde Park didn't budge, so the AAIM instead found a Jewish synagogue willing to open its doors for the event, which drew between 1,000 and 1,200 participants.

"I was a little disheartened," Flowers said. "But the synagogue was very gracious. They accommodated us on every level. This has been a blessing in disguise."

Members of Hyde Park were invited to the Sunday service at Congregation Beth Israel, she added, but no official representatives attended. Gill said there has been talk that some Hyde Park congregants were disappointed that their church decided not to provide its facilities for the event.

"What I’ve heard is that the congregation was disappointed, especially because many of them do not feel this way," she said. "There’s a whole community that goes to this church — it’s not their fault."

The Interreligious Ministries service blended traditions from the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Baha'i, Sikh and Buddhist faiths, among others. It began with a procession of leaders of a variety of religions, followed by customary Muslim and Jewish calls to prayer, and a Christian bell choir signaling the start of worship. There were offers of gratitude to God in the Christian, Muslim and Hindu traditions. A Buddhist ritual closed the hour-and-15-minute celebration.

"It was filled with love, it was filled with gratitude and it was filled with hope — hope that we can live and work together," said Flowers. "It was just beautiful."

Though the group has had some complaints about its mixing of religious traditions in the past, this year's last-minute location shuffle was unprecedented.

"I don't think we've ever had a situation where the service has been canceled," Flowers said. "We are all about bringing people together to have dialogue."

That dialogue is far from over, as the fallout from the flap continues.

Letters to the church have already been drafted by people who want to express their concerns and opinions, Gill said. Central Texas Muslimaat plans to invite Hyde Park leaders to its center in the hopes of sharing ideas.

"Hopefully they’ll come, learn," she said. "We're not trying to change their minds. We're trying to create understanding."