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Churches Gather for Thanksgiving

Eighth annual Shepherd's Center interfaith Thanksgiving service held at Wesley.

Charles Coyle, a member of the Unity of Fairfax congregation, insisted that thankfulness was not just a holiday sentiment but the root of happiness. "Find things that you are thankful for," he told a full house of almost 300 people at Wesley United Methodist Church during the Shepherd's Center's interfaith Thanksgiving service Tuesday, Nov. 21.

Coyle said he was thankful for his renewed faith. In 2003, he said, he was experiencing business and marital problems and decided to begin attending church again. He found what he was looking for. "Through thankfulness, I'm happy, and I'm at peace in my life," he said.

Members or clergy from eight different area churches actively participated in the Thanksgiving service. Several shared their personal messages of gratitude.

Carol Downs, executive director of the Shepherd's Center of Oakton-Vienna, the peer-run senior center that sponsored the service, brought a treasure chest to symbolize what she called the three greatest treasures in her life — awareness of the interconnectedness of all people, a sense of family and "having a sense of purpose in my work."

HUNG SU LIM, a seminarian from Wesley United Methodist, cited man's place in a vast and incomprehensible universe as something to be thankful for. With six million people living, "God takes care of all the people on the earth," he said.

"In our contemporary lives, we are more separated from the people who bring us our food," pointed out Rev. Bill Welch of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax. He reflected on the long process of raising, packing, delivering and preparing food and encouraged those present to give thanks for all of the people involved in the process.

Jeremy Shelton of Vienna Baptist Church said he was thankful for his church, the Shepherd's Center, his friends, his family and "the life and love of my wife, Charlotte, who passed away nearly two years ago." He briefly recounted the relationship that had brought great joy to his life.

He met her when he was young. She was 7, he said, and intolerable. They began dating years later. "To be with her when I was in high school, I would cut study hall with impunity, because it was taught by a teacher who, it was said, had taught Caesar, and she couldn't see past the front row," he recalled. After 44 years of marriage, said Shelton, a fellow Metro rider once asked him and his wife if they were newlyweds.

"I tell you this lengthy story because I want to show you the miracle of love," he said. "It is love that God has given the world freely." Shelton said love was given to man to help people connect with each other, to give meaning to life and to "eradicate the numbness of life."

THE COLLECTION at the service went to benefit Our Daily Bread and the Committee for Helping Others, two local groups that provide food to the needy. Over $1,800 was collected.

Shepherd's Center Vienna-Oakton is a branch of a national, interfaith organization offering free services to those aged 50 and older. However, not all branches offer an interfaith Thanksgiving service. "I don't know of any other Shepherd's Center in the country that does this," said Downs.

Bill Kirby, vice chairman of the center's board of directors, noted that the Thanksgiving holiday allows the service to be opened up to all faiths, including non-Christian religions. Only Christian churches were represented at this year's service, but Downs said the organization has been working to reach out to members of other faiths.

Most of the celebrants at the service were seniors who have participated in the center's activities, although there is no official membership at the center, said Downs.

Each year, the celebration is held at a different church. "We fill the church, wherever we're at," said Rich Duesterhaus, chairman of the board of directors.

The Shepherd's Center of Vienna-Oakton is about to enter its 10th year, and this is the eighth year the center has held the Thanksgiving service. As the chair of the center's Congregational Advisory Council, Julius Hankin has organized the service each year.

"Every interpretation of the Bible is represented here," said Hankin. The ministers of the participating churches "find this as an opportunity to come together, and they all have a message to present," he said. But more important, he said, "is that the members of the congregations look forward to it, and their friends come."