GIVE thanks to God. Care for the poor and hungry and less fortunate. Pray for peace. These are some of the messages that religious leaders of all faiths are sharing with their own congregations and others as America prepares to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Established each year through presidential proclamation, Thanksgiving has both spiritual and secular significance. ``It's the `religious' event of the year which is also the most `civil,''' points out Protestant theologian Martin Marty. Professor Marty explains that Thanksgiving is a unique occasion when ``national meaning and religious meaning come together. ... It's the most interfaith of all our holidays.''
Most of those asked to comment on the importance of giving thanks emphasized the opportunity for the nation to express gratitude to God for His unlimited bounty. But they also stressed the need for individuals to put their love and goodwill into practice through human outreach to others.
Philip R. Cousin, head of the National Council of Churches - the nation's largest Protestant interdenominational group - says that Christians must put a quest for peace ahead of their personal agenda.
``Let us now give thanks for the amount of peace we are already enjoying,'' Bishop Counsins adds. ``And let us hope that all the factors that are divisive and abusive - [among them] racism, poverty, insensitivity - will be removed from the national and international scene.''
Rabbi Henry D. Michelman, executive vice-president of the Synagogue Council of America, says that Jews who celebrate Sukkot, a biblically ordained festival of Thanksgiving, ``are reminded how ultimately dependent we are on God for His bountifulness.''
That is why there is an obligation ``to clothe the naked, house the homeless, and feed the hungry,'' Rabbi Michelman explains.
At this Thanksgiving period, the Synagogue Council is issuing a call to its 2,500 congregations nationwide to become directly involved in providing shelter and relief to the homeless and hungry in their local communities.
The Most Rev. Arthur N. Tafoya, who chairs the Campaign for Human Development Committee of the US Catholic Conference, also stresses the importance of helping the poor. Roman Catholic churches across the nation have participated in a Sunday-before-Thanksgiving collection to support self-help grants for the needy.
``At this season of the year, it is particularly fitting that we give thanks for the generosity that helped make these grants possible,'' Bishop Tafoya explains.
Other Thanksgiving messages are focusing on ``growth in grace'' and the spirit of selflessness. Some stress global outreach.
``To give thanks to God entails sharing the blessings of God,'' says the Rev. James Nash, a Methodist minister and executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Mr. Nash says that the ``whole point of Thanksgiving is to express gratitude for the gift of life and love.''
The Rev. James Dunn, a Baptist minister and an official of the Washington, D.C.-based Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, will take the pulpit in Wheaton, Md., on Thursday morning and talk about God's grace.
``God's grace extends to us unconditionally,'' Mr. Dunn says. ``And we respond to the grace of God with expressions of gratitude [and] prayers of Thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving experience is as basic to the spiritual life as the falling of rain ... is to the physical universe.''
Another Baptist minister, The Rev. Paul Huss, director of a center for pastoral counseling at the Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts, has taken as his theme at a pre-Thanksgiving interdenominational service, ``Thanksgiving as a time of grace.''
Referring to a Bible passage from Deuteronomy, Dr. Huss talks about the ``sense of abundance being greater than material and physical'' and the importance of ``being fed spiritually.''
Many churches and religious groups around the nation are involved in distribution of food to the poor at Thanksgiving time. Some provide meals at their places of worship for the needy or those away from their homes and families.
Members of the First United Methodist Church in Starkville, Miss., invite international students from nearby Mississippi State University to share in a Thanksgiving lunch. ``This is the first Thanksgiving for many of them,'' the Rev. Wayne Webster, associate pastor, says.
This congregation and others in Starkville also ``adopt'' needy families during the holiday season and provide food, clothes, gifts, and shelter for them.
``Giving thanks is a major part of our journey of faith,'' Mr. Webster says. ``It helps to move us on that journey. And if we don't gives thanks, it slows our journey.''
Many church and religious leaders point out that providing food for the hungry and extending a hand to the poor must extend beyond the holiday period.
SEEDS, a Christian network in Decatur, Ga., concerned about hunger, helps communities across the nation establish year-round programs to aid the needy. ``Our message [at this holiday period] is that people aren't hungry only at Thanksgiving and Christmas,'' stresses Leslie Withers, the group's education director.
The message that SEEDS is trying to convey nationally the Lutheran Church - through its world relief program for Africa - would like to extend on a global basis.
``We need to realize that the earth is a global village,'' says the Rev. Robert Cottingham. ``Too few people have too much.'' His Thanksgiving message is that ``the United States needs to seriously wrestle with the root causes of hunger and famine all over the world.''
National Bible Week, November 23-30, coincides with Thanksgiving this year. And officials of the Laymen's National Bible Committee say this is not coincidence.
``The Bible is a source of strength and comfort for personal living,'' points out John B. Carter, president of the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the US and National Bible Week chairman. ``Its principles of fairness, justice, and equity underlie the structures by which we live,'' he adds.