Special prayer intentions for those affected by the ongoing Israel-Hamas war will be the focus of the South Bay Interfaith Service of Thanksgiving annual event scheduled for Nov. 21 at American Martyrs Church in Manhattan Beach.

Organizers of the multireligious service admit there have been tense conversations about how to show a unified front in light of fighting in the Middle East that flared up in early October. But their back-and-forth discussions have led to productive ideas on how to best address the situation through a focus on religious commonality.

Rev. Alexei Smith, who for more than 20 years has been the Ecumenical and Interreligious Officer of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, will be one of the officiants at the event that brings together Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons, and Baháʼí faith groups.

“In past years, there has always been one crisis or another in the world, but this year’s situation in the Holy Land dominates our thoughts as it has intensified,” said Smith, the pastor at St. Andrew’s Russian Greek-Catholic Church and St. Paul Melkite Greek Catholic Mission, whose parishioners will be attending. “There are contrary narratives and different approaches to the same reality on both sides of the Middle East. This is a quest to defuse that.

“It is imperative we stick together as a human family. Sadly, we see that denial and fail to recognize that we are created in the image and likeness of God, and it becomes dehumanizing. We have to mirror to the world that we may have disagreements, but we can still stay united.”

Smith was part of the South Coast Interfaith Council when, in 2004, it widened its reach from just a Christian focus. SCIC has been the umbrella group of South Bay Interfaith, which began in 1972.

The South Bay Interfaith group meets at St. Lawrence Martyr Church in Redondo Beach in 2017. (South Bay Interfaith)

At that time, then-American Martyrs Church associate priest Father Peter O’Reilly was able to convince his pastor, Msgr. Robert Deegan, to join with Rev. John Calhoun of Manhattan Beach Community Church and Rev. Richard Parker of St. Cross Episcopal Church in Hermosa Beach to have its first event at Thanksgiving time.

The conflict then had to do with the Vietnam War and a desire to listen to the country’s youth.

O’Reilly, who turned 89 last October, remains the only living member of that first group more than 50 years ago. He said the synod process in Rome that Pope Francis has called for continues to help create a positive message about listening and discerning with all religious communities, not just Catholic.

“Synodaility is meant to be a shared experience of the whole believing community,” said O’Reilly, who has been retired since 2005. “To me, it’s essential we be open or we can fall into a trap. We have to be able to navigate choppy waters.

“My experience is that when we talk together and discuss issues, there is a common awareness about the dignity of each person. We also have a history of doing harm to people and need to learn forgiveness. And it can’t be rushed or it won’t happen.”

The Service of Thanksgiving event rotates each year. In addition to the Catholic churches at American Martyrs and St. Lawrence Martyr in Redondo Beach, it has been held at Temple Menorah synagogue in Redondo Beach and at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Torrance. It also took place virtually during the pandemic.

O’Reilly said his retirement discernment trip to Jerusalem helped him better understand the current situation in the Middle East.

“If we were bringing Vatican II into the modern world, we needed to ‘read the signs of the times,’ ” he said. “There is a word in ancient Greek, ‘Xenos,’ which means ‘stranger,’ or ‘host.’ But that can easily be misinterpreted in different contexts to mean ‘enemy’ in a highly tribalized society. That is the danger.”