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Winterfaith series honors diverse religious holidays

Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Illinois organizes interfaith series on winter holidays.
By Donald E. Skinner

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If you live in Mt. Vernon, Ill., a small city of 16,000 in southern Illinois, and don’t know much about winter religious holidays, that’s about to change. The Mt. Vernon Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, an emerging congregation of 20 members, has embarked on an ambitious program to spread the word not only about Unitarian Universalism, but about other religions as well.

The fellowship organized a two-month long series of interfaith events, called “Winterfaith,” that will start this Sunday, December 2. Services will feature different religious groups and the winter holidays that each celebrate. The idea emerged from a church adult education forum, said Shannon Green, a member of the fellowship’s program committee. “We were talking about all of the holidays that happen this time of year, not only in Christianity, but in other religions, and how it was a shame most people don’t know anything about them.” Thus, the idea for Winterfaith was born.

This Sunday a rabbi from a Jewish Reform Temple will explain the custom of lighting a Hanukkah menorah and give a sermon on the themes of Hanukkah. On that day the congregation will also hold a ceremony recognizing the first Sunday of Advent, the Christian season of penitence in preparation for Christmas. The first candle will be lit in an Advent wreath.

The following Sunday, December 9, a Buddhist group will come to recognize Bodhi Day, a Buddhist holiday and will lead the congregation in a brief meditation. December 16 is given over to the Muslim holidays of Hajj and Eid al-Adha. Hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims who are physically and financially able are required to carry out at least once in their lifetime. Eid al-Adha is a religious festival in conjunction with Hajj. The Catholic holiday of Posadas Navideñas, the Mexican reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s unsuccessful search for an inn in Bethlehem, will also be remembered on that day.

Some of the Winterfaith services include representatives of specific faiths and others will see fellowship members reading sermons or presenting other readings and music that reflect on the specific holidays that occur.

On Sunday, January 6, the congregation will recognize the birthday of Sikh Guru Gobind Singh as well as the Christian holy day of Epiphany (a celebration of the revelation of God to humankind in human form). In addition, a water ceremony related to the Great Blessing of the Waters of the Eastern Orthodox Church will be held on that day.

On January 13 a Hindu swami will talk on “The Harmony of All Religions.” There will also be remembrances in that week of the Hindu Lohri Bonfire Festival as well as Pongal, an Indian thanksgiving festival, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

Sunday, January 20, is World Religion Day, a holiday of the Baha’i faith. The final day of Winterfaith, January 27, remembers the birthdays of author Lewis Carroll and musician Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Carroll and Mozart are being recognized “just because their birthdays came at the right time,” and not for a particular religious reason, said Green.

Green said organizing Winterfaith was a challenge for the small lay-led congregation. “It did galvanize a few new volunteers into getting involved and I think it’s made the fellowship more cohesive,” said Green. “And it’s been fun getting the word out into the community about Unitarian Universalism and other religions. It also gives us special events that we can invite friends to.”

The fellowship will also be running interfaith ads in the two local papers. The ads will not advertise the series, but will simply wish a happy holiday for Hanukkah, Bodhi Day, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

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