A Shrine to Thanksgiving in Heart of Dallas

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At a crossroads in downtown Dallas, amid a thicket of skyscrapers, there's a four-acre parcel of land called Thanks-Giving Square. It's nothing dramatic, just some trees, a fountain, and a tidy chapel with a white cylindrical spire.

But this is no ordinary place. In its 20-year history, this urban sanctuary has borne witness to one of the richest collections of prayer the world has ever known.

Starting at sunrise today, spiritual leaders from 13 different faiths will take turns performing religious rituals here in a day of continuous prayer. It's a Dallas Thanksgiving tradition that has taken place each year since the square and its chapel were consecrated in 1976.

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With help from Episcopalians, Mormons, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Muslims, to name a few, the ceremony will touch on the religious beliefs of the majority of the world's peoples. In doing so, its creators hope, Thanks-Giving Square will come to embody the idea that despite their differences, all people of faith can be united in gratitude.

"In all the major religious traditions, there's some sort of celebration of thankfulness for the gift of life," says H. Neill McFarland, a retired religion professor at Southern Methodist University.

"This day of prayer is meant to demonstrate that, and to celebrate the ways we're enriched and ennobled through human associations."

The concept of Thanks-Giving Square was first put forth by a coalition of Dallas businessmen led by Peter Stewart. Mr. Stewart, who traveled the world during World War II, noticed that most great cities maintained a sacred space devoted to that culture's primary faith. Although America is, by definition, an ecumenical society, Stewart and his associates believed that Thanksgiving, more than any other holiday, reflected the traditions of religious tolerance and diversity the nation's founders held dear.

After years of fund-raising, the coalition purchased the land, built the square, and endowed a permanent Center for World Thanksgiving. Since then, their creation has slowly spread its message across the city, and throughout the world.

Its scope is staggering. In Dallas alone, representatives from a dozen religious communities meet twice a month to discuss world events and share insights. Thanks-Giving Square representatives sponsor programs in 40 area high schools.

Meanwhile, another branch of the project, the National Thanksgiving Commission, invites world leaders to speak here, facilitates an International Proclamation of Thanksgiving each year, and is currently lobbying the United Nations to declare 2000 as a worldwide Year of Thanksgiving. At present, the people of Belfast are preparing to create their own Thanks-Giving Square and as many as a dozen other world cities have sent observers.

"We wanted to create a place where believers will immediately feel at home, and even nonbelievers will feel comfortable," Stewart says. "The concepts of gratitude and thanksgiving don't have any limits."

Stories of the unifying power of Thanks-Giving Square are ubiquitous here. Charlotte Kharas, an active participant, is president of the North Texas Zoroastrians. Hers is one of only 100 families in Dallas who practice Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion with about 200,000 adherents worldwide.

After being contacted by Thanks-Giving Square's director, Elizabeth Espersen, Ms. Kharas says she and her fellow believers have been asked to hold presentations on their faith, speak at dozens of local churches, and host community events.

"Before, when I would tell somebody about Zoroastrianism, they would look at me in a puzzled way and say 'Oh, I really didn't know you were still there.' " she says. "Thanks-Giving Square has given us an opportunity to share our faith and its traditions, and get to know other traditions not represented in our part of the world."

A native of Pakistan, Kharas says she most appreciates the multifaith meetings. "I've seen Jews and Muslims dialogue," she says. "That's something that's not possible in most places. There's so much fighting in the world, it's heartening to see how much fun it can be, and how much you can learn, when people of different faiths come together."

It's an appreciation shared by Marzuk Jaami, public relations director for the Ministry of W.D. Muhammad, an African-American Muslim group. Black Muslims, he says, often believe they cannot trust whites, he says, and many Americans outside his faith view Muslims as terrorists. Through Thanks-Giving Square, he says, many of these misconceptions have been diluted in Dallas, and Muslim leaders have joined alliances with other spiritual leaders that have proved useful in secular contexts.

In recent months, Mr. Jaami notes, Dallas School Board meetings have been plagued by racial tensions, and some groups have caused disruptions. Yet an interfaith community group called Dallas Act of Kind, which includes Muslims, Christians, and Jews, has worked hard to inject a message of kindness into the proceedings that has often quieted disruptions.

It's an outgrowth of the understanding fostered by Thanks-Giving Square, he says, and it's provided civic benefits of immeasurable value. "People need to talk to each other, and that's what Thanks-Giving Square has helped us do," he says. "When it comes to building religious tolerance and racial harmony, I think Dallas is five or 10 years ahead of other cities."

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