By Mary Morrell | Correspondent
A traffic accident between two men of different races and religions ends in a hateful confrontation with racial slurs and epithets buffeted be tween them; a racially motivated assault on a local freelance photographer leaves him in critical condition; white supremacist fliers targeting Jews are left on car windshields in a parking lot and distributed on school campuses; swastikas are painted on Jewish homes, businesses and places of worship.
These events are but a small portion of episodes, many of them violent, stemming from hatred, racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism – events that are growing in number across the state.
“It’s evident in all that we see, hear and read,” said Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato. “It causes one to question, ‘What is happening?’” he said, adding, “Our values are disappearing in front of us. We need to stand up and address this. We need to reclaim our humanity.”
With that resolve, and the collaboration of law enforcement officials and religious leaders, a new campaign is being launched for Memorial Day weekend: “‘Love Thy Neighbor’ A Pulpit Proclamation,” an initiative sponsored by the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office and taking place in houses of worship across Ocean and Monmouth Counties. The campaign is being conducted by religious leaders, including Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., who are asking their congregations to stand up against racism, hatred and anti-Semitism, and to pray and work for peace in their own neighborhoods and on social media.
Father John Bambrick, pastor of St. Aloysius Parish, Jackson, explained that the campaign developed out of a recent meeting called under the auspices of the state Attorney General, facilitated by the U.S. Department of Justice and hosted by the Ocean County Prosecutor. Participating officials included the chiefs of police and chaplains from the Brick, Jackson, Howell, Lakewood and Toms River Police Departments; New York Regional Office Department of Justice; Prosecutors’ Offices of Ocean and Monmouth Counties, Ocean County Sheriff’s Department, and U.S. Homeland Security, along with religious leaders from more than a dozen denominations.
As a member of the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office Human Relations Commission, Father Bambrick was part of what he described as a “proactive initiative” to confront the growing number of hate crimes related to racism, anti-Semitism and other affronts to human dignity.
Bishop O’Connell’s message was sent to Ocean and Monmouth County parishes to be posted or read at Masses on Memorial Day weekend and will be shared across diocesan media. In it, he addresses the issues that gave rise to the campaign: “At a time when division and polarization and prejudice seem to mark our society anew, we need to look deeply into our hearts again to renew our commitment to the freedoms that are ours to own and to share together as neighbors.
“Hatred and discrimination based on race or religion, national origin or culture or whatever distinguishes us from one another throughout this great land are the antithesis of our national heritage and our national motto ‘E pluribus unum ... out of many, one.’”
“I was heartened by the Bishop taking this important message and making it available to his flock,” said Coronato, who is himself Catholic and a member of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River. The prosecutor spoke of the power of the religious communities to do great things and to help others “rise to a level of humanity, dignity and respect for others.”
In addition to the Bishop’s message, the campaign will include a public service announcement that will be released to the broader community. The announcement was developed by the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office and includes dozens of religious leaders, among them Father Bambrick and Father Scott Shaffer, pastor, St. Joseph Parish, Toms River.
A Matter of Faith
“It makes complete sense to encourage people to love thy neighbor, though it seems like it should be automatic for people of faith,” said Father Shaffer.
“Jesus said, ‘Love thy neighbor.’ We should do exactly what Jesus says and not rationalize our own pettiness. We don’t live in a homogenized society … [but] we do live in a country that promises freedom for all,” he added.
“Peace is our commission,” said Father Bambrick. Catholic social teaching calls the faithful to “promote and bring about the common good for society, not just the Catholic good … we can honor people’s diversity and still keep our beliefs and way of life,” he said.
Rabbi Moshe Gourarie, Chabad Jewish Center of Toms River, said he believes there is great benefit to the “Love Thy Neighbor” campaign. “There is an expression that the best disinfectant is sunlight, and shining a light on something, to speak about it and bring a positive light and energy to it,” can transform a situation.
Even if only two or three people in a community hear the message and make a change, it can be the start of a ripple effect, said the rabbi, adding that “you never know how far the ripple will go.”
Rabbi Gourarie will speak to his congregation using the teachings of Jewish Scripture and the Jewish sages, which reveal that “all humankind is made in the image of God … this is something that unites us.”