Dallas Center Explores Thanks-Giving's Meaning

A Texas interfaith organization documents the power of gratitude

NEXT summer, high school senior Laura Edwards hopes to tell people about Jesus Christ by going door to door in Russia.

``I believe that God is about salvation, she says. ``In that moment that we're here, we're obligated to help mankind.''

Recently Ms. Edwards got the chance to use gratitude as a starting point for solving humanity's problems. The Thanks-Giving Council of the Young, composed of students representing a score of Dallas high schools, was formed in August under the auspices of Thanks-Giving Square, a nondenominational organization in Dallas that promotes awareness of the power and universality of gratitude to God.

Elizabeth Espersen, executive director of Thanks-Giving Square, conceived the idea for the council after talking with Edwards. Ms. Espersen calls the council ``an opportunity for young people to have an input into the world that's going to be theirs.'' Replacing crime against one another with appreciation for one another is the first issue the council is tackling. The teens will present their ideas to city leaders next April.

``We hope we can actually make a difference, and not just be all these idealistic kids,'' Edwards says.

Thanks-Giving Square arose from the desire of Dallasites in the early 1960s to preserve an open space devoted to spiritual concerns in the heart of a city that was poised for growth. Thanksgiving was chosen as a theme. A city block was purchased by adjacent landowners for the project. Civic leaders raised the funds to build a public garden, chapel, and Hall of Thanks-Giving.

Espersen says that giving thanks is at the heart of all great religions. Indeed, Thanks-Giving Square's research has found statements of gratitude in such diverse religious traditions as those of native Americans and of a Stone-Age culture in South India.

Thanksgiving, she says, encompasses three truths: God loves us. We love God. We reach out in service. ``God is beneficent to His creation,'' Espersen explains. ``The response that evokes is appreciation and a willingness to return something.''

Understanding this has never been timelier. ``People are starved for authentic spiritual experiences,'' Espersen says. ``Our materialistic times place great demands on human beings. Moments when people might experience the spiritual are removed. We are crying out for greater knowledge of God. We are supersaturated with the material world, and it isn't enough.''

Peter Stewart, the founding chairman of Thanks-Giving Square, puts it this way: ``Praise to God is a fountain of what life is all about, whatever is needed.'' He calls the subject ``deceptively simple and friendly. You could trivialize it, but that would be a mistake.'' The organization hyphenates ``Thanks-Giving'' to emphasize it as an action, and not just a holiday in Canada and the United States. (Thanksgiving days are also celebrated in Brazil, Japan, Korea, Liberia, and Switzerland.)

Thanks-Giving Square has inspired two other efforts to establish similar centers, one in troubled Northern Ireland and the other at the 1996 Olympic village in Atlanta. The organization also prepares the first draft of the National Thanksgiving Proclamation issued by the US president. It frequently brings together preeminent figures from different religions for discussions; sometimes these forums are held abroad.

``You would think that we'd heard everything,'' Mr. Stewart says. ``But new subjects come up all the time, because it gets at the heart of human experience and the relationship of the human to the divine.''

If Laura Edwards doesn't sound like the purposeless, grunge-attuned Generation X-ers whom the media spotlight, that's because the media may not portray her age group accurately, she says. Everywhere Edwards has lived, she has known plenty of kids like herself who belong to religious youth groups, go on retreats, and attend Bible-study classes together.

That's not to say she has been sheltered. ``I'm with my third set of parents at this point,'' says Edwards, whose family was broken up after her father died and her mother was sent to prison for dealing drugs. She has lived with relatives and now foster parents. As for her schoolmates, ``every one of us has friends who have been shot.''

And yet, Edwards says she has much to thank God for, ``even having a roof over my head. I've been given a lot more than has been taken away from me.''

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