Faith and Hope to Fight Hate

Faith leaders in Jersey City.

No matter where you went or what you did you could not escape the reality that played Jersey City this week.

The echoes of a hundred shots fired at a Jewish supermarket on MLK Drive continued to reverberate through the community long after the guns ceased, leaving four innocent people dead and deep wounds in a city that had previously prided itself as being diverse and welcoming.

Although tributes and vigils took place in nearly every corner of the city, one of the most meaningful took place only a few blocks from the murder scene, as faith and civic leaders gathered at the Mary McLeod Bethune Center Community Center to take a pledge to do more to fight the hate that led up to incident on Dec. 10 when two radical extremists targeted Jewish victims and cops.

Unlike the parade of press conferences that included everybody from Gov. Phil Murphy and Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal to Mayor Steven Fulop and Public Safety Director James Shea, the gathering of religious and civic leaders sought a more fundamental answer to the dilemma facing what will soon become the largest city in the state.

The event was hosted by a committee, comprised of local community organizers, faith leaders and Jersey City Council members, the participants included Rabbi Avi Schnall, Rev. Nathaniel Legay, David Rosenberg, Pastor Luis “Lipe” Fernandez, Pastor Donovan Shoemaker, Bishop Kevin Knight, Council President Rolando Lavarro, Council At-Large and Pastor Joyce Watterman, and Ward F Council Jermaine Robinson.

While over the last few years there has been a lot of talk about white supremacism and racism that has contributed to violent acts elsewhere in the country, this incident shook the community in a way few others could, and these leaders came together to find a way to deal with a different homegrown variety of hate  that may have been inspired by a clash of cultures.

This part of the city is being encroached upon not just by the usual poverty and the sense of hopelessness that often comes with unemployment and drugs but also development that is stretching its long arm out from the richest part of the city and breaking off chunks of what used to be neighborhoods dedicated to the poorest for the city.

While some officials try to deny the reality of growing tensions as a result of redevelopment as well as changes in the demographic inside this part of the city, these leaders acknowledge the need to better communicate with each other and their constituents to smooth the transition and allow African American, Jewish and others to live side-by-side in peace.

Truer in southern portion of Jersey City than in other parts, religious leaders of every denomination have more power here than many of the politicians who come and go, visiting for press events or other things. At the end of the day, it is the churches in the synagogues that have the most impact on people’s lives here and so must be the ones to help them heal now.

While the wall of cameras of national media focused in on every dire expression every fallen tear, these leaders knew that at some point when the cameras got turned off and the reporters went on to look for some new breaking story elsewhere, Jersey City would have to live on with the reverberations of this slaughter and its implications to the future.

“We have to be more than just yesterday’s news,” said Rabbi Avi Schnall.

This is a hard lesson to learn since hatred hides behind many masks, disguising itself with different ideologies and faces of many shades – and even briefly fooled some national leaders who mistakenly blamed this attack on white supremacists rather than a more local variety, inspired by local tensions and ignorance.

This is a crime hit heart of one of the most progressive cities in the nation, a place that prides itself in diversity, and the crime revealed an under belly of terrorism no one expected to see.

Unlike other vigils elsewhere in the city, this gathering of a religious leaders was a show of force to prove that love overcomes hate, and that those who work day in and day out on behalf of good must do a better job reaching out to each other and the community.

“Tuesday was a horrific day for Jersey City,” Lavarro said. “This act of violence was an act of hatred.”

He said people in the city are in shock and some in denial, and many are aimless and confused, and may want to respond with hatred and anger.

“There is a danger the grief will turn into anger,” he said. “It’s important for people to repudiate hate and turn in support each other.”

Rev. Nathaniel Legay, who heads the Jersey City chapter of the NAACP said it is time for leaders to have a dialog with each other.

“We need to pull ourselves together,” he said. “It is not time to characterize. We must be grateful to law enforcement for restoring the peace. But we must avoid taking actions that would inflame. It is time to bring together, not divide.”

Pastor Donovan Shoemaker said this violence hurt people in the community, even people who did not personally know the victims.

This sentiment was echoed by Rabbi Avi Schnall who said this violence impacted every person in the community.

“Jersey City is one community,” he said. “While media is covering this as a big story, its attention will move on while residents will live on with its impact. We should not become yesterday’s news. We have to live on. We are Jersey City proud, Jersey City strong and Jersey City is a united community.”

Former Councilman and current Lincoln High School Principal Chris Gadsden said he struggled with these issues.

“The question that comes up in my head is – am I my brother’s keeper?” he said “Yes I am. And we need to stand together to deal with the traumatic experience. This will leave a legacy on our souls and the souls of our children.”

He said every life is valuable.

“One person lost affects the whole community,” he said.

Rev. Nathaniel Legay said this group of people needs to come up with a plan, an agenda to be able to come together at need, to talk to each other regularly, to become aware of what the community is going through.

But he and others said the crime that took place a few blocks south of where they stood is not an indictment of Jersey City or indicative of its values.

“We live in pockets of time,” said Gadsden. “We need to meet the challenges of our time. We are just human, but we must have a dialog in order to grow.”

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