Another Seat at the Table: Thanksgiving Friendship Dinners

by Lannea Russell

Inspired by my own memories of being warmly welcomed into Azerbaijani homes for traditional holidays during my two years in the Peace Corps, I envisioned international students celebrating Thanksgiving at friendship dinners. What better way to develop friendships between Muslims and Christians than over great food and conversation? The Thanksgiving holiday seemed like a perfect time to include guests from Muslim backgrounds at the table.

Signing up hosts: check! Members of the Mile High Vineyard Church in metro Denver were excited to invite students into their homes. Some people had traveled in Muslim countries or knew Muslim friends, and others were just interested in learning more about the students’ backgrounds.

Signing up students: harder! Event co-planners Keith and Jennifer Rudder decided with me to expand the invitation to include those who were not students. As we reached out to local mosques and universities to invite guests, we were reminded that relationships and trust were a vital foundation when creating bridges. When visiting a mosque, I was invited to stay for dinner. A group of ladies sat me down with a full plate and one young woman (who had warmly greeted me earlier by saying, “I hope you feel comfortable here; this is the chill mosque!”) explained between bites that she thought it was a little weird to invite people to Thanksgiving like this. “What if someone showed up at your church and asked you to come to a Ramadan dinner at their house, just because you were a Christian?” She suggested instead that more Christians visit the mosque so people could get to know them. I took her up on the invitation, visiting the following week with other women who also enjoyed their experience.

However, others quickly embraced the idea as an opportunity to build interfaith bridges through intentional partnership. Nadeen Ibrahim, President of University of Colorado-Denver Muslim Student Association, promoted the event on campus and participated in a friendship dinner. Afterward, she enthusiastically shared, “It was absolutely wonderful! I felt welcomed and comfortable the second I walked through their door. A huge thank you to the host family for respecting my dietary preferences by purchasing halal food!"

After expressing her appreciation for the food, Nadeen talked about the underlying attitude that inspired her: "The hosts were very interested in learning about my values and perspectives. I felt that the hosts and I had one thing in common: a desire to spread the need for an open mind. This was definitely a great experience. I look forward to more Peace Catalyst events! This was an experience that I do not believe any other organization could have mastered to the extent that Peace Catalyst did.”

More than thirty hosts ended up sharing the Thanksgiving holiday with nine guests at several dinners across Denver. Others donated money to purchase halal chickens for guests, excited to be involved even though circumstances prevented them from hosting a dinner. “I hope to have a friendship family to meet them every week,” one student emailed me, saying that he felt included as part of the family during the dinner. Hosts Rick and Jenn Sharp echoed the words of others when they said, “We plan to invite [the student] over again for dinner with our family.”

One Muslim family turned the tables by inviting their hosts over for lunch the following weekend. The host shared that she had originally thought a lot of food was present at her own Thanksgiving dinner, but the generous spread on this hospitable Muslim family’s table was absolutely amazing.

As you look around your table, could you ask yourself if someone is missing, someone perhaps whose perspectives and friendships would enrich your life, and could you see yourself pulling up another seat to the table?