UNION COUNTY, NJ - Amidst a time of international, national and local violence and crises, leaders from more than 40 houses of faith throughout Union County came together this week for the second Union County Day of Prayer, held Wednesday at the First United Methodist Church in Westfield. More than 300 people were in attendance.
"Praying for peace in the midst of violence" featured readings and comments from religious leaders of a number of faiths, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, as well as music.
The Union County Day of Prayer is an interfaith gathering of the faith-based, nonprofit and government communities to unite people from throughout the county regardless of race, religion or disability and to bring greater awareness of the support services available to them, according to Sid Blanchard, executive director of Community Access Unlimited (CAU), which supports people with disabilities and at-risk youth.
The event is sponsored by the Union County Interfaith Coordinating Council, an organization comprising 40 interfaith congregations and community-based nonprofits, including CAU. The council promotes inclusion of all people within the community, without regard to race, religion or disability, and creates a clearing house of faith-based, nonprofit and government community services available to the public, according to Blanchard.
"We come together to help bring the community together," Blanchard said. "You can't have community unless all people are included in that community and are respected for their worth as humans.
"We see today a lot of violence taking place in the community. For a lot of us, violence is not a one-time occurrence, it's an everyday occurrence," he added, noting that people with disabilities are among the most prevalent victims of violence in the community.
Cantor Matthew Axelrod of the Congregational Beth Israel in Scotch Plains, was one of the religious leaders who participated in the event.
"I think these interfaith events are very important," he said. "They bring the community together and give us access to each other's traditions. It de-emphasizes what divides us and shows us what we have in common, bringing us together."
Pastor Carmine Pernini of the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rahway, said, "There is a lot of violence in community and it's a good sign that various religious traditions can come together and pray. That is a sign of peace. I'm here to pray with my brothers and sisters in a sign of peace."
Father Jack Martin, Priest Emeritus, said, "We debate. We argue. We take sides and defend our rights. Among all the anger and violence, let us remember there is reverence in the face of the other."
Ven. Duhk-Song Sunim of the So Shim Sa Zen Center in Plainfield, added, "The Buddhist teachings are based on kindness and love of all living creatures. The Buddhist view is we are all part of the larger community."
Imam Ali Jaaber of the Masjid Darul Islam Mosque in Elizabeth, said every community must embrace those in the greatest need at times of crises, citing the needs of the 600,000 refugees pouring into Europe.
"We have to reach out to see what support we have and the attitudes and dispositions of people of other faiths. We have to build on that," he said, adding that the mosque will be holding coats drives for refugees and will look across denominations for support, something the Interfaith Coordinating Council has made possible, he said.
"It has benefitted our community," he said. "Jobs, education, training, record expungement. As a person serving the community I have to stay active with those in the county who do the same."
Added Blanchard, "It's great to have a Thanksgiving dinner. It's great to have a holiday collection and a Day of Prayer. But there are 362 other days of the year we have to be here for each other."
CAU is a statewide Elizabeth-based nonprofit providing support programs and services to adults with disabilities as well as youth served under the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to enable them to live independently in the community, in areas including housing, vocational and life-skills training, education, advocacy and recreation.
About the Union County Interfaith Coordinating Council
The Union County Interfaith Coordinating Council is an organization of interfaith congregations and community-based nonprofits with the mission to facilitate regular interfaith meetings in order to make way for the building of bonds between a community of different faiths and to respect the inclusion and encourage welcoming of others regardless of faith, race or disability and to be proactive on social issues. The council's objectives are to sponsor regular engagement opportunities that facilitate the building of bonds within the Union County interfaith community and their congregations; strengthen the Union County religious congregations through involvement, action and education in self-help; and build working relationships between Union County religious organizations and Community Access Unlimited that create opportunities for youth and people with disabilities and their support staff.