More than 100 people of different denominations listen March 2 to faith leaders and lawmakers during the “Burlington Unites” forum held in Nolan Hall in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, Maple Shade. Photo by William Cain / Burlington County Times

More than 100 people of different denominations listen March 2 to faith leaders and lawmakers during the “Burlington Unites” forum held in Nolan Hall in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, Maple Shade. Photo by William Cain / Burlington County Times

By Jennifer Mauro, Associate Editor

In the wake of an increasing number of anti-Semitic threats and vandalism, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, Maple Shade, hosted “Burlington Unites” March 2 – an interreligious evening of dialogue that featured local church and faith leaders, lawmakers and community members speaking out against bigotry and hate.

“Throughout the centuries, history has recorded sad stories of slaughters and holocausts of innocents persecuted and killed because of their religion, their ethnicity or the color of their skin,” Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, said in his address to the roughly 125 gathered in the parish’s Nolan Hall.

“How and why could these tragedies have occurred? One reason is that in times of crisis, too many citizens have remained silent,” he said.

The interreligious gathering comes after recent state and national threats, including overturned gravestones Feb. 26 in a Jewish cemetery in suburban Philadelphia and a bomb threat Feb. 27 at the Katz Jewish Community Center, Cherry Hill, and Ku Klux Klan recruitment leaflets found in the past month around Maple Shade, Cinnaminson and Moorestown.  

Deacon Brannigan, who is assigned to St. James Parish, Pennington, was invited to speak by lawmakers who organized the event: state Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D-Burlington/Camden), state Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) and U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1). Other speakers included Rabbi Nathan Weiner of Congregation Beth Tikvah, Marlton; the Rev. Stanley Hearst, Bethel AME Church, Moorestown; Imam Morshad Saami Hossain, Voorhees Islamic Center, and other state and municipal elected officials.

Father Richard Vila, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, began the evening with prayer. He said his parish hosted the event with the blessing of Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.

“The recent attacks and threats in our community aren’t against just one religion – they’re attacks against all of us. Christians, Muslims, Jews, and people of all faiths are standing together to take a stand against this hatred – it has no place here or anywhere in America,” Norcross said during the evening forum.

Said Singleton, “Our gathering tonight demonstrates that Burlington County has and will always stand together and speak in a strong unified voice against intolerance, bigotry and discrimination.”

Deacon Brannigan stressed that communities cannot remain silent in the face of hatred and racism.

“Today is a time for all people of good will to speak out against hatred, racism and xenophobia,” he said. “We must realize that there is great danger for society if its citizens – especially faith leaders – fall victim to the apathy of silence.”

Parishioner Stephen Steglik, chairman of the Burlington County Young Democrats, said Deacon Brannigan’s talk resonated with him.

“It’s about practicing what you preach,” he said. “I think it’s important for Catholics to stand up for other faiths being attacked by both policy and other citizens.”

Molly Kohler, parish business operations manager who attended the event, said the evening’s message was one of tolerance.

“People are all different, but you don’t have to fear them,” she said, urging others not to “be afraid of something you don’t understand.”

Steglik said he felt called by his faith to attend the evening of open dialogue, adding that it was moving to hear similar messages of tolerance come from Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders.

“I wanted to makes sure as a proud, practicing Catholic that I stood together with all faiths,” he said. “I think it’s important to remember this country is founded on the diversity of faith and that it’s OK to practice a faith that’s different than yours and talk about it, too.”

Correspondent Christina Leslie contributed to this report.