LIVINGSTON, NJ — For the first time, three of Livingston’s volunteer organizations brought together the world’s five most prominent religions under one roof for a celebration of Livingston’s diversity.
Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism were all represented during the Religions of the World ceremony, which was hosted by the Livingston Committee for Diversity and Inclusion (LCDI), Livingston Vision 20/20 and the Livingston Clergy Association and featured various activities for local youth as well as informative breakout sessions led by five religious leaders.
In a joint statement, event chairs Mike Ramer and Saba Khan said they were “delighted with the success of the event” and would like to see it become an annual occurrence. In fact, they expressed the hope to inspire religious leaders from different faiths to participate as panelists so that they can expand the educational portion of future events.
“We were very happy with the turnout and pleasantly surprised for a Thursday school night to see so many parents and children of all ages come out and want to learn about Livingston’s changing demographics,” they said. “We learned that when we get to know each other, acceptance occurs, we like each other, and it is impossible to hate.”
The two Livingston residents added that they received particularly positive feedback about the children’s puppet show, which was provided by Livingston Kiwanis, and the question-and-answer session with the religious leaders.
One question wielded a strong response from all five panelists about whether they believe the five religions have more similarities than differences and how people can “promote more understanding and unity within a society.”
“I think there is a common ground that we all believe in developing a love for one another and a love for God; I think that’s the goal of all religions,” said Pandit Dasa, a Hindu leader and motivational speaker. “If we focus on that instead of all the differences—not that we ignore the differences—but we can learn to respect the differences and also really focus on the similarity…because how can any religion say that you have to hate someone else? It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Imam Dr. Ibn-Ahmed, founder of the Be a Mercy Foundation, said the Religions of the World event was “one step in the right direction,” but encouraged community members to attend more events where they can be “educated on various levels of interfaith.”
He urged the audience to “take it one step further” and host more informal events where the participants can “chisel the ice” by exchanging numbers, becoming friends on Facebook, meeting up at a Starbucks and getting to know each other.
Dan Martian, a pastor at the Presbyterian Church of Livingston and a member of the Livingston Clergy Association, added that one of the things that the association’s members do to bring all the regions together is to “get everybody involved in certain charitable acts.”
“One of the things we do, especially in the Livingston community, is get involved,” he said. “Doing any type of activity within the community brings people together from different religions. Once we start talking with one another and fostering conversation—getting to know one another and hearing the stories—we’re sort of finding out that we’re not too different.”
Simeon Cohen, an assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, expressed that “increased interfaith education” and “educating each other about each other’s customs and traditions and teachings” is the best way to promote togetherness within the community.
“Ultimately, while there may be differences […], we’re all striving for the same goal, which is loving our fellow human beings and loving God,” he said. “Even if our means to obtain that end are slightly different, the end is really the same; and through increased discussion—like we’re doing tonight, but hopefully on a more consistent basis—I think that will become evidently clear to anybody who engages in that kind of dialogue.”
Carolyn Somerville, an associate professor at New York University’s Hunter College who specializes in International Relations and Comparative Politics, added that the practice of Buddhism is “all about helping people to become happy [and] to become the best they can be,” which she believes is the central purpose of all religions.
“I think that’s the purpose of religion: to serve people and to help people live the best kind of life that they can live,” she said. “It really is about us have dialogue with everyone. We can learn from everyone, we can appreciate everyone because in the end we’re all the same.”
Following the Q&A, which came a few hours after a trivia session with the attendees, Khan told those in attendance that if they learned even one thing that night about another religion, then it was worth coming.
As Mayor Al Anthony closed the event and sent the attendees off to dessert provided by various local vendors, he said he was “the proudest mayor in New Jersey.”
“I think we all learned a lot tonight, and these are the types of programs that make us such a great town,” said Anthony, who also thanked attendees for being so open-minded and willing to learn about other religions and cultures. “Programs like this demonstrate that in our little corner of the world, we are getting it right.”
Anthony, Khan and Ramer were also presented with a citation from Congresswoman Mikie Sherill, who has officially been represented at every LCDI event in 2019, beginning with her in-person appearance at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service in January. Her citation recognized the township for hosting this inclusive, interactive event, which was the first of its kind.
LCDI co-chairs Billy Fine and Keith Hines said they “had a blast” planning this “End of Year” program with Ramer and Khan, who Fine said “knocked it out of the park bringing this first-of-its-kind event to Livingston.” Fine said the event has “garnered much acclaim from those who attended and who had seen posts about it after the fact.”
The organizers also acknowledged the support from the Livingston Township Council, Livingston Board of Education, the township manager’s office, Livingston’s Department of Public Works, the township communications office and various other local dignitaries who attended, including Essex County Freeholder Pat Sebold.
A list of financial and dessert sponsors can be found in the photos above.
“This event showed the impact of community involvement and proved why the first step to understanding others is to show up,” said Fine. “We hope that during the remainder of 2019, people utilize the holiday spirit in reaching out to their neighbors and to those they meet and interact with in an effort to further bond our community here in Livingston.”
Rabbi Cohen led those in attendance in a universal prayer for a day “when a great peace will embrace the whole world, when nation will not threaten nation, and mankind will not again know war, for all who live on Earth shall realize that we have not come into being to hate or to destroy, but rather that we have come into being to praise, to labor and to love.”
“Then and only then will creation’s harmony be restored; then and only then will redemption become reality,” they prayed. “May that day come soon.”