Fifth annual Interfaith Friendsgiving at Everyday Joe’s Nov. 7

Video of 2017 Interfaith Friendsgiving courtesy CSU Hillel; music performed by Ruthie Gertz.

Strangers are just friends that haven’t met yet, as the old saying goes. For the past five years, the annual Fort Collins Interfaith Friendsgiving has been bringing friends-to-be together to share not only an early Thanksgiving meal but also a sense of community.

Members of the Colorado State University and Fort Collins community will be breaking bread – with a turkey and a whole range of side dishes – together at this year’s Interfaith Friendsgiving on Nov. 7, 6-8 p.m., at Everyday Joe’s Coffeehouse, 144 Mason St. in downtown Fort Collins. All are welcome; no registration required.

An idea that originated with Jewish students at CSU Hillel, the purpose behind Friendsgiving is to bring community members with differing perspectives on faith and belief together in a spirit of fellowship. Student volunteers prepare a meal for about 175 people in the kosher kitchens of Hillel House on Laurel Street, and then serve it at Everyday Joe’s, the community outreach of Timberline Old Town Church.

“The cooking is where the magic happens,” explains Elizabeth Sink, an instructor in the Communications Studies department at CSU and a member of the Fort Collins Interfaith Council, which is now a co-sponsor of the event. “When you have people in the kitchen mashing potatoes or washing dishes together during the four days leading up to the meal, they share stories and get to know each other naturally.”

And the sharing continues beyond the kitchen. At the meal, organizers will be collecting winter gear for Homeward Alliance, for community members who find themselves sleeping outdoors. Coats (especially in extra-large sizes) and other cold-weather items are greatly appreciated.

Tradition continues

The first Interfaith Friendsgiving was put together by Hillel students on an extremely cold day in 2014.

“It was zero degrees outside, and we didn’t think we’d get that many people,” recalls Alex Amchislavskiy, former director of Hillel, “but about 100 people crowded into Hillel House; it was a fantastic evening.”

The next meal was moved to the larger venue, where it has been celebrated every year two Wednesdays before American Thanksgiving, ahead of the University recess.

In some years, like this one, the event takes place the day after an election. The divisive rhetoric on the campaign trail, the uptick in religious bias incidents on campus, and the hate-fueled violence across the country in recent weeks makes this Friendsgiving especially meaningful.

National model

The success of the Fort Collins Interfaith Friendsgiving has captured the attention of Interfaith Youth Core, an organization dedicated to strengthening interfaith cooperation on college campuses across the country. Representatives of the organization will be in town this year to learn from organizers how the idea could be put into practice elsewhere, according to Elizabeth Sink.

“How do we bridge these political divides?” Sink asks. “It has to be grounded in our own lives, in the real circles of our lives, and Friendsgiving provides the opportunity to expand those circles.”

This year’s date also coincides with the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, which symbolizes the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance.

“The Indian Student Association has joined us this year, and we’ve added a vegetarian curry to honor Diwali,” says Sink. The menu has always featured vegan, vegetarian, gluten- and lactose-free dishes as well as the kosher turkey.

Sharing perspectives

But it’s not all about the food. When participants arrive for the Interfaith Friendsgiving meal, they are asked to write their faith identity on their name tags – Christian, Jewish, Ba’hai, Unaffiliated, whatever. Then they are asked to sit beside someone with a different belief perspective to ensure a maximum amount of diversity at each table.

“There are cards on each table with discussion topics and traditional blessings from various beliefs,” Sink says. “The takeaway is how to have difficult conversations with people who are different from you. Over the years, we have seen an increase in such conversations between faith-based communities in Fort Collins as well.”

Unlike political debates (or some family Thanksgivings), the conversations during Friendsgiving may be serious, but they are respectful and convivial. Amchislavskiy says that since that first chilly night at Hillel House, families have made attending Friendsgiving a tradition, bringing everyone from toddlers to grandparents to share the meal and meet new people, including senior leadership from CSU as well as local faith communities.

“It’s great to see people come to dinner and talk and laugh with people they just met,” he says. “It shows us how much more we have in common than we may think.”

Sink agrees.

“Maybe you’ve never known anyone who is Muslim or Buddhist, for example, but after sharing Friendsgiving, you can say you have a friend who is Muslim or Buddhist,” she says.

Turning strangers into friends makes it that much easier to find that common ground.

This year’s Interfaith Friendsgiving is co-hosted by CSU’s Multi-faith and Belief Student Council, the Fort Collins Interfaith Council, CSU Hillel, and Lutheran Campus Ministry, with generous support from Everyday Joe’s Coffeehouse and Coca-Cola.