Thanksgiving Eve is generally associated with culinary preparations, not prayer.

But since 1981, Marlton's houses of worship have hosted an interfaith observance on the night before the day of turkey, football, and pre-Black Friday frenzy.

This year's Community Thanksgiving Service is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday at St. Joan of Arc Church. All are welcome, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof. The church is at 100 Willow Bend Rd.

"We're appealing to our common religious background, and to nonreligious [people] as well," says Rabbi Gary Gans, of Congregation Beth Tikvah, which helped establish the Marlton tradition.

"People don't have to know the prayers," he says. "They can just walk in. Our hope is, people will say, 'Let's give this a try.' "

Thanksgiving "is an American holiday," notes St. Joan's pastor, the Rev. Richard LaVerghetta. "One of the traditions is sharing with neighbors. Isn't that what happened at the first Thanksgiving?"

The Rev. Brett Ballenger, pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, says local clergy people and their flocks don't usually mingle, much less worship together.

"We're extremely busy with our own work in our own congregations, and we can get isolated in our little bubbles," he notes.

Outside of Thanksgiving Eve, there have traditionally been few if any organized interfaith activities, says LaVerghetta.

But the Evesham Police Department's year-old chaplains program has helped energize overall interfaith cooperation, Ballenger says.

"We reached out to every faith community in town," says Capt. Tom Reinholt, who oversees the program. "We got a great response."

'Big fan'

Evesham's 11 chaplains, including Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish clergy, are trained to work with police in emergency situations. To hear that interfaith relations also have gotten a boost as a result "is the nicest compliment," Reinholt adds.

Three decades of shared prayers and post-service socializing on Thanksgiving Eve also have helped forge personal bonds across faith differences.

"You really get to know the pastors and a lot of their parishioners," says Pat Brothers, who lives in Marlton and is a secretary at St. Joan of Arc.

"We've gotten to be very friendly, and we help each other out, like when there was a fire at Beth Tikvah. And when Rabbi Gans' father died, some of us went to the funeral," Brothers adds. "It's what community is about."

"I'm a big fan of the service," Roseanne Lemansky of Mount Laurel, a longtime Beth Tikvah congregant, says.

"I love going into different houses of worship and seeing how other people celebrate," adds the retired Philadelphia teacher. "My children are grown now, but we used to go to the service as a family. We always found it so lovely."

A blessing

Some Christians may feel hesitant to attend a service in a synagogue, and some Jews might shy away from praying in a church.

But Ballenger says his church members "are always interested in how other people understand the mystery that is God."

Says Gans: "Thanksgiving is a common-denominator opportunity to pray with our neighbors. It's almost as if there's like an American civil religion. Thanksgiving is something we all understand."

The 45-minute service includes choral music and a sermon. LaVerghetta will do the honors this year.

"In light of the recent events in Paris, this is a really good opportunity for us to come together and give thanks for the freedom to pray and worship as we wish," he says.

"It's such a blessing, for all of us, to reaffirm that freedom, and to come together to pray for peace. In our world, and in our own lives."


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