READINGTON, NJ - It was a cold, rainy Sunday, but the picnic held by Flemington Area Faith Leaders Association (FAFLA) was successful in spite of the weather. Held under the roof of Cedars Pavilion at Deer Path Park here, those in attendance ate and talked and played games.
And some learned a few things.
The picnic opened with an Arabic blessing from Yaser ElMenshawy. He’s the imam of the Islamic Center of Hunterdon County.
“For those who don’t know Arabic ...” he joked as he translated the words, “Oh God, bless us in what you have provided for us and grant us something better.”
A highlight of the afternoon was a rousing game of Jeopardy hosted by ElMenshawy. The questions described a practice or an idea, and the responders answered with the faith represented in the practice described or the verse read.
One of the questions was, “When does the Jewish Sabbath begin?” There were questions about biblical characters as well.
The younger crowd was well-versed about religions other than their own, and Bill Taylor, who teaches Bible study at both Grace United Church of Christ and Flemington Presbyterian Church, had reason to be proud.
Taylor has been involved in the area since 2001, and is supportive of the efforts made by FAFLA.
“Religious leaders (in this area) have always been supportive of each other,” he said. “Evan Jaffe started it, and after he died, the others didn’t let it go. Evan’s message was ‘We’re not going to have this nonsense.’”
Jaffe was the rabbi at Flemington Jewish Community Center who passed away in 2015, but his legacy lives on in the continuation of his philosophy.
“He was much loved around here,” Taylor said.
The members of FAFLA are agreed in their purpose, they explained, which is not to politicize religious differences, but to recognize that Hunterdon County is a community that is made up of people with differing ideas, paths to God, dietary choices and lifestyles. They believe those differences are not consequential issues, and that what matters is that religion is just one aspect of community. They join together in the belief that a community that embraces differences is stronger because of them.
Getting to know each other and understanding and accepting differences is key to community spirit.
“The food, the different flavors, the way everything is marked is respectful,” said Mary Kate Lundquist, whose husband Daniel is pastor at Grace United Church of Christ in Flemington. “The ingredients are listed on each dish to make it safe for everyone, when we share with each other. Food is symbolic,” she said. It helps people to know and trust each other, she believes. “It makes us better able to mobilize when we need to.”
The idea of a cohesive community is popular with the people who were at the picnic and who represented each of the religious centers.
“We have more in common than most realize,” said a member of the Islamic Center of Hunterdon County, who preferred not to give his name.
“People want to interact. Kids are asking, ‘What’s the big deal?’” said another picnic-goer.
Priscilla and Dick Jefferson, members of Flemington’s Calvary Episcopal Church, were thrilled that the event included faith centers that were not Christian.
“Whenever other churches get together, it’s just Presbyterian and Episcopal” and some other Christian churches,” he said, adding that as lovely as that is, “It’s nice to attend a function where other religions are involved. It will open people’s minds.”
His wife agreed. “I think it’s a marvelous opportunity to get out of our own little tent,” she said.
There is already a good understanding between religious organizations, and there are more than a few examples of the effort made by each of the centers to include multi-cultural understanding.
The Rev. Carmela Vuoso-Murphy of Unity Spiritual Center in Asbury has Interfaith guest speakers every month, including Imam ElMenshawy who addressed the congregation in February, and Joshua Cutler of the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in Washington (Warren County) who addressed the audience in March.
Rabbi Joseph Forman of Or Chadash in Readington was invited to speak to members of a group studying Genesis at Calvary and explained the book from the point of view of Jews, said Natalie Whiting, who was thrilled with what she learned from him.
“It was wonderful. He explained some historical background,” Whiting said.” We were talking about the Lord being a shepherd and he said that shepherd in Hebrew isn’t the same as we think of it. In Hebrew, it’s a warrior guard.”
Though specifically speaking about Unity, Vuoso-Murphy encapsulates the philosophy embraced by FAFLA, saying, “We have respect for people of all different backgrounds. It’s not really an issue because we respect everyone and everything.
“The picnic is such a great invitation because we believe in all of it. We don’t see different gods with different manifestations and different ways of believing,” she explained.
Although FAFLA is a relatively newly-organized group, its members have held joint Thanksgiving services for several years. After the one held last year, several of the participants got together and decided to form a group that integrates multi-faith organizations. This picnic was their first event.