Interfaith group gathers for Thanksgiving celebration in Little rock

Susan McDougal, director of pastoral care and clinical pastoral education at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, made dressing for Tuesday’s interfaith thanksgiving service. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank E. Lockwood)

With war raging between Israel and Hamas, a diverse group gathered in Little Rock this week to share a meal, swap recipes, offer thanks and pray for peace.

Dozens of people participated in this year's annual interfaith Thanksgiving celebration, which was held at Trinity United Methodist Church.

"There's nothing more powerful than people from different places coming together to share food. It's a universal experience," said Roy Smith, the congregation's pastor.

Bobbye Levy, a member of Temple B'nai Israel in Little Rock, whipped up noodle kugel, a traditional Jewish casserole.

Susan McDougal, director of pastoral care and clinical pastoral education at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, made good old American dressing -- her late father's favorite -- with the cranberries and nuts that her mother would have preferred.

Jennifer Reimer, a member of the Baha'i faith from North Little Rock, brought lubia polo -- a Persian green bean and rice dish -- and offered one of the prayers, asking "the Precious, the Ever Present, the Loving" God to "Let my trust be in Thy will and my deeds according to Thy command."

For meat eaters, the centerpiece was two juicy halal turkeys, killed in accordance with Islamic law and roasted by women from the Arkansas Culture and Dialog Center.

Mehmet Ulupinar, the center's board president, asked Allah to "grant strength to those who have lost their loved ones, and patience to those who endure the hardships of conflict."

"We ask for Your guidance to lead us to the path of peace," he prayed. "Help us to recognize the humanity in each other, and to work towards a world where justice, love and compassion prevail."

With war raging, participants had to weigh whether it was appropriate to gather and feast, he said.

Ultimately, they decided to join together and pray for peace, he said.

This year, they skipped the singing, he said.

Gene Levy, former rabbi at Congregation B'nai Israel in Little Rock, said Tuesday's dinner was an opportunity "to talk, to visit and to enjoy a good bountiful harvest."

Attendance at the gathering, which began around 2012, waxes and wanes.

Regardless of the size, the food is always good and the fellowship is always enjoyable, organizers say.

The prayers come first, so stragglers risk missing out on the blessings. But there's plenty to eat.

Over the years, acquaintances have become friends.

"The same faces keep coming, and we just add more every year," McDougal said. "It's such a closeness that we feel."

The service is an Interfaith Arkansas event supported by Rabbi Levy, Ulupinar and the UAMS Clinical Pastoral Education Department, McDougal said.

Following the departure of Interfaith Arkansas executive director Stephen Copley, McDougal made sure that it kept on going, Levy said.

McDougal encourages participants to contribute a covered dish, and a recipe, which they're willing to share.

Along the way, she has compiled a mini electronic interfaith cookbook.

Her UAMS students are expected to attend, and it delights her when they do.

At this year's meal, guests gobbled up McDougal's homemade dressing.

"It's almost gone," she said approvingly as the night began winding down.

Its a dish her father, James Henley, an Ouachita County native, always savored.

"He grew up in the Depression and they went hungry sometimes. His dad died early in his life and I think food was a major source of his comfort, security, togetherness," she said.

Breaking bread, McDougal maintains, is more than just a culinary experience.

"Food is love," she said.