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Hillsboro News

Distinctions unimportant at Thanksgiving service



In his head, Rod McAfee understands the meaning of the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service he will be participating in Sunday -- but not in his heart. "When we talk about this 'interfaith,' where is the separation?" he said. "You still use the same Mother Earth; you still use the same four directions; you still breathe the same air." Sure, people grow up learning different religions, he said, but "it shouldn't make any difference. Why do they say 'This way is better than this way?' It's basically the same supreme being. They just call him different names." McAfee, an Akimel O'otham elder who grew up in Arizona but has lived in Portland since 1965, will be the first Native American to participate in the service, held in Hillsboro at the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ. Now in its fifth year, the Washington County Interfaith Thanksgiving Service started with readings from the Christian, Jewish, Baha'i and Unitarian Universalist faiths. Last year, in an effort to reach out to the Muslim community after the Sept. 11 attacks, the service added a reading from the Qu'ran.

Reader Shahriar Ahmed, president of the Bilal Mosque Association of Beaverton, is returning this year as the main speaker.

Ahmed, an Intel engineer, is the perfect antidote for anyone who stereotypes Muslims as haughty, American-hating religious fanatics. Warm, loquacious and self-deprecating, Ahmed has spent the months since 9-11 building numerous interfaith bridges with Christians and Jews who have grown deeply fond of him.

Way of living His talk Sunday will skip politics and focus on the philosophy of the Muslim, which he describes as "every moment of our existence, from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep, is all a mercy from God." As a result, Thanksgiving should be a nonstop way of living, he said.

In Islam, this attitude is encouraged by the five daily prayers required of each Muslim, from just before sunrise to a few hours after sundown.

In summer, sunrise comes early, about 5 a.m. That means getting out of bed, even on weekends, and climbing back in when prayers are over. Sometimes Ahmed, 47, raises his voice while saying prayers, hoping his children in their bedrooms overhead will hear and join him. Like many parents, he wants them to share and cherish the family's religious traditions.

Three summers ago, when his two oldest children were 10 and 13, he neared the end of morning prayers feeling despondent that they had slept through the ritual. Then he heard the floorboards creaking overhead and realized they had started praying before him and were now climbing back into bed. Filled with gratitude, he lingered long on his knees.

Muslim prayers involve a series of postures, from standing upright to bowing at the waist to kneeling on the floor. Sometimes, when Ahmed is distracted or hurrying off to work, he bobs quickly up and down through the postures. "The meetings are at 7 o'clock at Intel, so I'm going through my prayers like a chicken."

Loving spirit in all McAfee, 70, has a less formal attitude toward prayer. "I really don't know what a prayer is," he said.

The prayers he was taught when he was a boy and forced into the Christian religion didn't mean anything to him, although he has nothing against organized religion these days. "Some of my people used it to better their lives," he said.

But for McAfee, the "natural way" (he doesn't like to call it the "Native American" way) is not a dogma or a scripture or a set time for doing things. It is respecting and loving the spirit in himself and in other living things through every moment of daily life.

He will call on that spirit when he begins speaking at the service Sunday. "It's not me," he said. "It's how I open up and get the guidance. It comes through me."

McAfee does not write down what he will say. There is no sacred book he can read from. Words become stale the instant after they are written, whether in a prayer or a newspaper article, because they are frozen, he said.

"In order to be real, it has to change," he said, because life is changing, too.

Jill Smith: 503-294-5908;

©Copyright 2002, The Oregonian

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