Area’s religious leaders take heart at show of unity in New London

New London — A rabbi, reverend and monsignor who spoke at Sunday night’s annual interfaith service at the Pequot Chapel said events in the city in recent weeks are examples of what can be done to achieve a common goal, such as help overcome violence in society.

The three men said residents showed a sense of community during OpSail 2000 and then fought for what they believed in by convincing the school board to reverse its decision not to extend Superintendent of Schools Julian Stafford’s contract.

Rabbi Carl N. Astor of Congregation Beth El, the Rev. Dr. Benjamin K. Watts of Shiloh Baptist Church and Monsignor Robert L. Brown, the chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Norwich, joined together as they have done each summer over the past decade to lead the service. This year’s service, which had a theme of nonviolence, also kicked off the chapel’s effort to help raise money for the Primerea Iglesia Bautista Hispana, a bilingual church being forced to move from Fort Trumbull.

About 120 people of all colors and ages filled the pews of the Montauk Avenue Chapel for the service, which also featured music by Pam Akins and a choir from the Shiloh Baptist Church.

The service began with Brown asking everyone to turn to the person next to them and wish them peace.

Astor read a Biblical passage from Isaiah in Hebrew and then English ending with the quote, “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” That phrase became the theme of the remarks from the three men.

“What a crazy idea Isaiah had. People living in peace and no more war on Earth,” Astor said. “Perhaps it’s the sheer craziness and insanity of such an idea that makes it so desirable.”

He pointed out that over the past two weeks what was once thought to be a crazy idea, Israelis and Palestinians negotiating peace and how to divide the holy city of Jerusalem, was taking place.

Astor said he just returned from a bicycling trip to Colorado, where he met people from Columbine, the site of last year’s high school massacre. He said it reminded him of the senseless death of so many children.

So many guns

Astor said he did not want to get political at the service, but he questioned why there is a need for so many guns and automatic weapons in the country that have led to so many senseless deaths.

“Let’s think the unthinkable. Just because this is the way it is, it doesn’t mean it has to be this way. People can speak up and make a difference,” he said. “Stand up and speak out about the proliferation of weapons, against the violence. The time has come for us to speak up for a safe society.”

Watts said the coming together of whites , blacks and Hispanics to support Stafford can be a catalyst for change in the community.

“We were all together and spoke with one voice. It was the most awesome display of community I’ve seen,” he said.

Watts said cable television, video games and the Internet have resulted in proliferation of violence that has numbed people. It has also created an appetite for more violence. He said education is needed to combat that violence because people will not give up those forms of entertainment.

“People of good will have to come back with equal force. We have to fight things that cross the line,” he said.

Compared to the more soft-spoken Astor and Brown, Watts’ voice rose and quickened as he talked about the violence he sees every day.

“I’ve gone to too many funerals for young people. I’ve shared the grief with too many mothers and cried with too many siblings who can’t understand why their brothers were taken away so soon,” he said.

Watts said he is sick of the do-gooders, politicians and clergy who talk but never take action and get involved. He said the effort goes beyond speaking out against violence but helping single mothers with daycare and insurance so they can properly care for their children. He urged the people to take action when they leave.

“The reality is we can all make a heck of a difference,” he said.

Brown said peace is a gift from God that people sometimes treat cheaply.

“Peace does not come from a barrel of a gun. It doesn’t come from hostility or from the absence of these things. Peace is a product of our hearts on fire with love,” he said.

He said the Jewish word shalom for peace has a meaning even more powerful than any violence.

“We the people of faith need to be a model of peace, of love, of commitment. If it’s possible here, why not in the wider community,” he said. “We can’t just do it, though, in a part of our lives. We have to do it in all of our lives.”
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