Peace, Love, Understanding Are Themes of Interfaith Forum

St. Mary’s Parish in Manahawkin Hosts Event
By VICTORIA FORD | May 03, 2017
Photo by: Victoria Ford

Eight religious leaders representing different doctrines came together last week for a thought-provoking Interfaith Forum at St. Mary’s Parish Center in Manahawkin to share their thoughts on diversity, humanity and love, in an event organized jointly by the Ocean County Human Relations Commission and the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office. The first of such meetings was held in October at the main branch of the Ocean County Library in Toms River.

In the pursuit not of answers but of understanding, the presentation illustrated the idea that Ocean County is not a monoculture.

“Bottom line is this is a wonderful county, and we need to make it even better yet,” according to Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato. Assistant Prosecutor Rory Wells moderated a discussion among the spiritual leaders.

The commission’s mission, to improve relationships among the diverse communities that make up the county’s whole demographic picture, is based on the belief that “sharing experiences, points of view, listening and asking questions create opportunities for growth, learning and change.” The vision is one of welcoming, acceptance, celebration and anti-discrimination. Its programming and activities are designed to educate and unite in the fight against hate and bias along lines of race, religion, sexuality or heritage. Other strategies include catalyzing community mobilization.

Wednesday evening’s forum drew a large crowd eager to listen and ask questions of the panel members: the Rev. Terry Chapman of the Forked River Presbyterian Church; Pastor Angela Denton of Unity by the Shore in Neptune City; Rabbi Moshe Gourarie of the Chabad Jewish Center in Toms River; Jewish Community Center of LBI’s Rabbi Michael Jay; Pastor Jason Jennings of New Bethlehem Church in Toms River; Fr. Anthony Lipari of the Good Shepherd American National Catholic Church in Toms River; the Rev. Bill McGowan of Zion Lutheran in Barnegat Light; the Rev. James Occhipinti, chaplain of the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office; Imam Maqsood Ahmed Quadri of the Toms River Islamic Center; and St. Mary’s own the Rev. Msgr. Ken Tuzeneu.

County historian Tim Hart introduced the forum with an informative slide show. Defined as non-Europeans, minorities accounted for 10 to 13 percent of the U.S. population (now 300-some million) from 1900 to 1970. As of 25 years ago, that percentage had jumped to 20. Currently it’s calculated to be 34 percent and the projection for 25 years from now is 46 percent. By 2030, New Jersey is expected to have a “minority majority.” Already it’s ranked the nation’s fifth-highest immigration destination.

Ocean County, too, is changing dramatically, Hart said. But it has always had a rich religious history. Lanoka Harbor was the birthplace of Unitarian Universalism in 1770. Waretown founder Abraham Waier was a member of the Rogerines or Quaker Baptists. Lakewood has its Orthodox Jewish community. Today more than 1,000 Hindu families live in Ocean County.

The first question for the panel addressed how faith might drive a person’s political views. Tuzeneu was the first to speak up.

“I think we have to be who we are,” he said. “I don’t think we can separate our private selves and public forum.” The trouble, he says, lies in learning how to disagree without hate.

Why shy away from the so-called taboo topics of politics and religion? McGowan asked. He thinks they’re the two most important topics to talk about, hand-in-hand, to work toward the goal of peace, love and compassion. “That’s part of being a community.”

In a contentious society, Wells posed, what can be done about mutual intolerance?

Chapman said the key is humility – and an understanding that all beliefs are contextual. People need to ask each other, “What’s it like to be you?”

Relatedly, Jay noted the wisdom of Hillel the Elder, which echoes the Golden Rule and familiar biblical principle: Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you. In his comments, Gourarie referenced the verse from the Book of Leviticus, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” then added, some would say, that one line is the entire Bible – the rest is commentary. Always remember, he said, the way you see the world is not how it actually is. If more of us could look beyond the human façade, we might see that inside every person is something beautiful.

“If we can’t see it,” he said, “maybe that’s on us.”

Later, in addressing the question of how to disagree respectfully, he talked about shedding the vestige of hate, first to love, then to educate. “No two people think alike,” he said, and “words that come from the heart enter the heart.”

Then the discussion turned to acceptance of the LGBTQ community.

Lipari said when he was a Roman Catholic priest, he had a hard time having to say “no.” Now that he’s with the American National Catholic Church, he’s happy to say “yes”. For insight, Denton turned to an age-old question: If we are created in the image of God, is there any who is least among us? A person should strive to be a model of love, she said. If faith is rooted in love, how can anyone be labeled “other”? Jennings invoked the story of the woman at the well, the lesson being, “Jesus meets us where we are,” he said.

As a society, can we force others to change their views? Quadri called upon the Quran, the holy book of Islam, which teaches that everyone has full authority or choice to worship as they believe. (He also cleared up some common misconceptions about Muslims. Not all Muslims are Arab. The largest population of Muslims live in Indonesia. He is from Pakistan. Still, many Arabs are Christian.) Nonetheless, he said, too often people look for what makes them different rather than the same, he said.

Tuzeneu said goodwill has a lot to do with attitude. Rather than an attitude of judgment or dismissal, people should wish each other well. St. Thomas Aquinas has said love means wishing well; on the flip side, though, disagreement does not mean wishing ill.

Occhipinti suggested it’s important to consider the Holy One has 70 different emanations or paths, each one valid. He shared anecdotes about two decisions he has made that he felt were right, though not necessarily popular with his fellows: One was to officiate a Christian wedding for a Hindu couple, and one was to christen the adopted baby of a same-sex couple. The overall message there is, “Our theology may separate us, but God’s love keeps us together.”

Chapman posited that to make real progress in opening minds, dialogue is not enough. He touched upon the notions of “prophetic ministry” and “speaking truth to power.” The keystone of a harmonious society, he suggested, is where justice meets compassion.

Denton agreed that words have great power. But “to force” has a violent connotation and, in her experience, rarely successful are attempts to force anyone into certain thought or action. More effective, she said, is “to stand with humanity, in love.” Our leaders are a reflection of ourselves, she added, which raises the question: Where does change begin? With the leaders, or with the people they lead?

Gourarie said in matters of persuasion, care should be taken to address, analyze or criticize a concept, not to attack an individual. In other words, speak to a concept with conviction in your beliefs, speak to an individual with love. For a how-to, look to kids, he said. Why is it that adults bear grudges and little children don’t? Kids choose being happy over being right.


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