By Janie Magruder
On a recent warm autumn afternoon, Xhris Castillejo paused in the courtyard of Dayspring United Methodist Church in Tempe before entering Yom Kippur services. Castillejo studied some of the handwritten messages on hundreds of pastel paper tags tied to tree branches and spinning in the breeze.
“I was surprised to see my own intention here,” said Castillejo, a Phoenix resident and member of Temple Emanuel of Tempe. “Mine is for forgiveness, to forgive my mother and myself. My mom passed away in March, and we had a strained relationship. I hold some resentment and anger, but casting that off and starting the new year is what this is all about.”
Castillejo is participating in Temple Emanuel’s and Dayspring’s Blessing Tree Project, a communal activity encouraging people of all faiths to “describe something you will do in the year ahead to improve yourself and the world” on one of the tags.
The project was introduced to congregants in both religious communities in late September, in time for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. For the past three years, Dayspring has hosted Temple Emanuel’s High Holy Days services, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The tags were distributed to members, from children in Sunday School and youth to elderly people and those in an Alcoholics Anonymous group meeting at Temple Emanuel.
The messages then were commingled as an expression of Temple Emanuel’s and Dayspring’s strong partnership. They will hang in olive and palo verde trees at both houses of worship until Nov. 3, the date Dayspring celebrates All Saints Day.
Senior Rabbi Dean Shapiro of Temple Emanuel knew of blessing tree projects elsewhere, and while walking down a tree-lined street in Jerusalem last summer, he imagined them covered with prayers.
“I thought, “That’s it, the High Holy Days are coming, and this would be perfect,” he said. “It’s a beautiful and tangible symbol of humanity. It gives people the opportunity to make a personal commitment to improving themselves and send messages of acceptance, neighborliness and friendliness to the world, despite our differences.”
“And I think the world needs that now.”
Rev. Shirley Wells, Dayspring’s minister of spiritual formation, said the Blessing Tree Project also was embraced by women attending a weekend church retreat in Northern Arizona.
“They really took it seriously—there was a hush in the room,” she said. “One woman wrote that she wanted to become a better listener, and she put that into practice the following Sunday when befriending a visitor at church. That made an impact on both of them.”
Dayspring Sunday School teachers like Andrea Farley, who has first- and second-graders, taught the children that prayers can help people live better and also improve the world.
“They gave it a lot of thought,” Farley said. “They came up with not fighting with their brothers and sisters, not littering, to share better. It’s promising to see the youngest generations being thoughtful like this because they are the future and will be the decision-makers. Appreciation for one another will be a way of life for them.”
Giving back through volunteerism, being more brave and communicating more openly are other intentions on the tags, as well as:
“I will change the law.”
“Ignore the divisiveness! Focus on living!”
“Be kind to everyone, even if they are not kind to me.”
Beyond the expression of individual hopes and goals, the Blessing Tree Project demonstrates that people of different backgrounds and perspectives can be unified, Wells said.
“We are all neighbors,” Shapiro added. “We belong to different houses of worship and have different central stories, but we are all human beings, and we are all neighbors in Tempe.”
Now through Nov. 3, the public is invited to participate in the project by reading the messages at Temple Emanuel, 5801 S. Rural Road, and Dayspring United Methodist Church, 1365 E. Elliot Road.