By Lois Rogers | Correspondent
The critical issues that impact peace in the world, including the threatened use of nuclear weapons by North Korea and the ongoing violence in the Middle East, were closely examined and discussed during an interfaith gathering Nov. 12 in Princeton.
More than 400 representatives from area agencies, churches, temples, mosques and other religious institutions took part in the 38th annual Conference for Peace, sponsored by the Coalition for Peace Action, a multi-faith organization dedicated to diplomacy.
Representatives from three Mercer County parishes – St. Ann, Lawrenceville; St. Anthony of Padua, Hightstown, and St. Paul, Princeton – were among 43 organizational co-sponsors of the daylong interfaith service and civil discourse conference held in Princeton University Chapel.
Reza Aslan, a religious scholar, author and commentator, who is a tenured professor at the University of California, Riverside, and serves on the board of trustees for the Chicago Theological Seminary, kicked off the day with an interfaith service that spoke on the Gospel and Pope Francis.
“He asked us to consider the Letter of James and [its] call to do works of justice, not just simply say, ‘I am saved by faith’ and do nothing for the poor, the immigrant and the suffering of our world,” said Father Gabriel Zeis, diocesan vicar for education and catechesis, and chaplain of the Aquinas Institute, the Catholic Campus Ministry of Princeton University.
Father Zeis participated in the service, offering the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis. He described the keynote by Aslan as insightful and challenging.
“He quoted Pope Francis, who bluntly challenged the Christian community by saying, ‘It is better to be an atheist than a Christian who does not live the life of the Gospel,’” Father Zeis added.
Following the service was a Conference for Peace held nearby in Nassau Presbyterian Church, Princeton. Speakers included U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12), a longtime advocate for economically and socially disadvantaged populations; Elayne Whyte Gomez, representative of Costa Rica to the United Nations; Suzy Kim, Rutgers professor of Korean studies, and Harvard professor Elaine Scarry.
Father Zeis called the conference a “great opportunity for people to learn about the Coalition for Peace and assist those in parishes to network with those who can help broaden the conversation about peace and peacemaking.”
Capacity for Good
Scarry, Watson Coleman and Whyte Gomez each offered insights on the horrors posed by the threat of nuclear war.
Whyte Gomez is president of the United Nations conference that negotiated a groundbreaking, legally binding document July 7 to prohibit nuclear weapons. Among the 122 signatories, casting its first vote as a member and voting in the affirmative, was the Holy See.
Whyte Gomez called the treaty a “statement that [nuclear weapons] are not what we want for the future.” She said “the most important thing is to build a bridge of dialogue” that results in the recognition of the treaty documents.
She also spoke of the need for a coexistence that is woven into the fabric of society, one that reflects “the inherent dignity of human beings and human rights.”
The treaty, which must be ratified by each nation that signed, is “not aspirational,” she said. “It is a realization that all of us have the capacity to do maximum good.”
To that end, she said, “it is the responsibility of all the citizens of the world … a requirement for them.”
“Act of faith,” she urged. “The community of faith has an important role to play. Remember this every single day. The role of the faith community in this most important development,” she said, cannot be overlooked.
Bringing it Home
With its international scope and expert presentations, faithful of the Diocese said they felt the day’s talks offered much to those who want to be involved with humanitarian causes on a parish level.
Martha Andrade of St. Ann Parish, long a pilgrim for social justice concerns, is originally from Ecuador and devoted herself to such causes in California, Canada and New York before settling in the Lawrenceville area. With parish approval, she is currently devoting her energies toward getting an active social concerns program started again in the parish after some years of inactivity.
After listening to the speakers, Andrade said she came away from the conference with a “good sense that diplomacy works. We need to communicate. We need to learn and be involved in the process. We need to involve youth in the process.”
Grateful that her faith “has exposed me to what loving the poor is all about, I still feel that people have so much to learn. Peace is about helping those in need, helping them get educated. The world is not going to be a happy place if we don’t. For me, there’s a lot of prayer in the process. I need to know where God is leading me in this move toward peace.”
Elaine Rafferty and Mary Louise Hartman, also of St. Ann Parish, are seeking more involvement in advocacy on a parish level. “I was looking at the biographies of the speakers,” said Rafferty. “I signed up because St. Ann was a sponsor. This was the first peace conference I attended.”
“It’s just such a crazy world now, and I thought the conference gave a real rallying call for people to get involved,” Rafferty said.
Hartman helped found a chapter of Pax Christi International in the Mercer-Monmouth area with Toni Malone, which was active in the ‘80s and ‘90s. With hopes of helping to reactivate it, she signed up for the conference. “Personally, I got a wealth of information out of it. The average person isn’t privy to a mix of scholars, activists, diplomats, scientists and religious people all at once like this.”
Such gatherings, she said, are important to “helping one to form a good conscience.”
Lee and Lenore Isleib, of St. Anthony of Padua, Hightstown, were enthusiastic about the program. So much involvement by so many people of different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds gave them hope for the future, Lenore Isleib said. She felt many of the presentations broadened their horizons.
They were looking forward to sharing what they had gleaned with fellow parishioners. First to hear their report will likely be, she said, the newly formed Senior Advocates for Justice. The group of about 50 members meets the second Sunday of each month to discuss particular issues that might benefit from their advocacy.
Committees have formed on immigration, foreign affairs and the environment. “We all meet and give reports and decide whether to go to a rally of some sort or write letters. It energizes you. You know that you are not alone.”