Sacred Song Service to celebrate family of Abraham

The Sacred Song Service is usually a Christian program, but the rest of the Abrahamic family will share the Amphitheater stage this week.

The weekend’s service will be a reprise of the annual program “The Family of Abraham Shares Sacred Space,” which was first developed in 1999. The service will be held at 8 p.m. Sunday in the Amp.

Former Director of Religion Ross MacKenzie, who wanted to “find some common ground between Christians, Muslims and Jews,” first proposed the idea for a shared Sacred Song Service, Institution organist Jared Jacobsen said.

Since then, the program has developed several traditions, including the use of five large paper-lace banners designed by Nancy Chinn. These banners depict the family of Abraham, consisting of the patriarch, Sarah and Isaac, from whom Christians and Jews believe themselves to have descended, and Hagar and Ishmael, through whom Muslims trace their heritage.

“Nancy specializes in large-scale works of art to take mundane spaces and turn them into worship spaces,” Jacobsen said.

While Chinn designed the banners, they were created by Chautauquans, as the designs and materials were left in denominational houses. Visitors were then able to cut out the designs with Exacto knives.

The interfaith dimension of the service will be filled out by the coordinators of the Abrahamic Program for Young Adults, who represent all three Abrahamic traditions and choose a theme that represents their time at Chautauqua. This year’s theme is “Salt,” which serves to connect the traditions because it is mentioned in all three religion’s sacred texts.

“Salt is highly evocative,” said APYA Jewish coordinator Sam Kaye. “It’s ancient. It causes people to have distinct images that come to mind of both things that are negative and harsh, but also distinctly religious and traditional and necessary in our existence.”

Salt is mentioned as a merciful aspect of creation in the Quran, Muslim coordinator Taha El-Nil said.

“Salt as an inherent mercy in creation, meaning that it’s one of the simple substances that are required for life — somewhat like water,” he said.

Each of the coordinators will offer a reflection on the theme and their work with APYA during the service. Muslim coordinator Alyshah Aziz will be present electronically, as she has left the grounds to return to school.

Calls to prayer will be offered in each tradition’s language. Songs in English, Latin and Hebrew will also be sung, while El-Nil will offer recitations from the Quran in Arabic.

Each APYA coordinator will receive prayer shawls decorated with a cross, a star of David, and a crescent and star. These shawls were made by members of Knitting4Peace, and they have been provided for the service since 2007.

Knitting4Peace founder Susan McKee said the APYA shawls began as a prototype requested by a Knitting4Peace volunteer in Georgia who happened to be spotted by Jacobsen. Jacobsen immediately asked if the shawls could be replicated for the service, and McKee worked through the season to create them.

Knitting4Peace has made shawls for the APYA coordinators ever since, though the design has evolved over time.

“They have become the way in which we can represent the Chautauqua community to these young people that come and give of their hearts and experiences so that Chautauqua can become a more interfaith community,” McKee said.

APYA Christian coordinator Heidi Thorson said while she hopes this Sacred Song Service will not serve to merely “check off the box” for an interfaith service at Chautauqua, she is glad for the opportunity for Chautauquans to encounter unfamiliar beliefs.

“I think that what we do is kind of a microcosm for what everyone should be doing, which is learning about people who are different from you,” she said. “There’s always going to be little rough patches when we try to put together this kind of Frankenstein of religious traditions, but I think it’s worthwhile. If you’re excited by religious difference, then that’s enough.”