UNION COUNTY, NJ - The Union County Interfaith Coordinating Council recently held a "speed dating" event at Suburban Golf Club in Union to allow its member congregations to interact with people with disabilities and at-risk youth who are not currently associated with a religious community, telling them about their faiths and organizations and offering them the opportunity to join.

The first-of-its-kind event – called Faith in Action – allowed members of Community Access Unlimited (CAU) who are not currently affiliated with a house of worship to meet with representatives of more than 20 churches, synagogues, mosques and temples to determine if they might be a good fit for them, according to Sid Blanchard, CAU executive director. More than 90 CAU members attended and there were more than 50 "matches," he added.

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 skills and life-skills training, education, advocacy and recreation.

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The Union County Interfaith Coordinating Council, is an organization comprising more than 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.

"Some of our members have long been disconnected from any organized religion," Blanchard said. "In fact, in the past some have been bullied and shunned and made to feel unwelcome. Our mission is to enable our members to live fully integrated lives within the community and for many people an affiliation with a religion and a house of worship is an important part of community. We wanted to create an atmosphere that would facilitate that."

Carmine Pernini, pastor of the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rahway and coordinator of the Interfaith Council, said houses of worship often are homogeneous communities that may feel less than welcoming to newcomers, especially those who are perceived as different, which runs counter to the natural message of inclusion that should be the foundation of all religious communities.

"There is a difference between saying all are welcome and welcoming people as long as they behave the way we want them to behave," he said. "It's really about welcoming people and adapting ourselves to who they are. When you have a new person enter a religious community everything changes anyway. Each person brings their own personality and experiences and that's a good thing."

Beverly Williams, a CAU member with disabilities, attended the event because she had a bad experience with one religion when she was younger – she said she was asked to leave – and now attends a local Evangelical church but does not feel part of their community.

"I learned a lot," she said. "I learned they all talk about the same God and we all come into the world the same way and we go to the same place. I enjoyed learning about the different religions."

Asia Lee, a youth member of CAU, said she found the event informative and thought-provoking. Lee does not attend any church but now thinks she may start attending a Lutheran church.

"I'm not really a big religious person," she said. "But I'm open minded. I learned a lot about each religion and it helped me make a decision on which religion to choose."

About CAU

Community Access Unlimited (CAU), celebrating its 37th year in 2016, supports people with special needs in achieving real lives in the community. CAU provides support and gives voice to adults and youth who traditionally have little support and no voice in society. CAU helps people with housing, life skills, employment, money management, socialization and civic activities. CAU also supports opportunities for advocacy through training in assertiveness, decision-making and civil right. CAU serves more than 6,000 individuals each year. For more information about CAU and its services, contact us by phone at 908.354.3040, online at www.caunj.org or by mail at 80 West Grand Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07202.