Thanksgiving brings faiths, pagans together

One of the most memorable sights at Monday night's Inter-Faith Thanksgiving Celebration at Congregation Beth Shalom was Ahmad Kayello, imam of Modesto's Islamic Center, standing under a large Jewish menorah hanging on the wall.

"After all the recent trouble (at Fort Hood) and the trouble around the world between Muslims and Jews, people kept asking me, 'Are you going to the synagogue?' " Kayello told the overflow crowd. "If I had known going to the synagogue would have made peace in Palestine, I would have gone sooner."

The joke brought laughter and enthusiastic applause, which erupted throughout the evening after Scripture sung in Hebrew from the congregation's Rabbi Larry Moldo to a Diwali dance by Hindu mother and daughter team Priti and Sneha Modi, to Alexandra Yacoub's pitch-perfect "Ave Maria" to a pagan chant and Native American drum song.

Participants included members of Buddhist, Catholic, Unitarian-Universalist, Protestant and Baha'i traditions.

It was Alan Blue Heron's first time participating in the Modesto event. He sang sunrise songs from his Cherokee background. He brought applause when he told the audience there is only one human race on Earth and one God.

"In this world today there's so much disunity," he said after the service. "Anytime you can bring people together, it's wonderful."

Andra Greenwald and her husband, Loren Gonella, are members of the synagogue.

"If we had more of this, the world would be a better place," Gonella said.

"When you believe in something bigger than you are, it forms in us a sense of gratitude," said Greenwald, who recently became a rabbi.

Jacie Clark, a Modesto resident who attends Geneva Presbyterian Church, said she was glad she attended the event.

"I loved it -- just everybody speaking as they are and no division. I wish we could live together like this."

Russ and Erin Matteson, co-pastors at Church of the Brethren, which has hosted most of the past 13 services, said the evening was a time for everyone to express his or her thanks in words from a faith tradition. Although each would no doubt say he felt his tradition was best, Russ Matteson said, "We can be one people in one place in one time."

Erin Matteson, his wife, called the service "a model thing for our community, for each of us from so many different traditions ... to be together in our diversity."

Edye Cheeseman of Modesto joined other pagans at the event in an audience participation song-chant.

"This is the first time we as pagans have been invited," she said. "It felt very inclusive, very nice."

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or