This year’s Rabin Peacemaker Award goes to…

Way back in 1979, during a period of tension between African Americans and Jews, Rabbi Amiel Wohl and Rev. Vernon Shannon of New Rochelle started the Coalition for Mutual Respect.

They brought together members of Temple Israel of New Rochelle and St. Catherine AME Zion Church to talk things out and get to know one another better. Before long, many others in New Rochelle were getting involved.

A statement from the new group emphasized that “we are peoples tied together who can achieve more working in concert than in our separate ways.”

The coalition also began to award the annual Yitzak Rabin Peacemaker Award. This year’s honoree is the Rev. Martin L. Nelson, senior pastor of Bezer Holiness Church in New Rochelle.

I had the chance to chat with Nelson, a soft-spoken gentleman, several times over the years at various events. I think I saw him last at an interfaith seder.

He always stuck out to me because you don’t often see pastors from evangelical churches at interfaith events (at least around here). The Protestant ministers are generally from mainline traditions.

According to a press release from the coalition:


Pastor Nelson firmly believes in the church serving and improving the local community by becoming involved. In pursuit of that vision, in 2009 he founded and launched New Life Outreach, a faith-based program that aims to help individuals with harmful addictions as well as provide after care support to those recovering from substance abuse in New Rochelle and surrounding communities.

His passion for and commitment to helping others and improving the community is evident in his contributions through multiple organizations. He currently serves as President of the Interdenominational Pastor’s Council. He is former treasurer of the Inter Religious Council of New Rochelle and is a member of the Coalition for Mutual Respect. He is a New York State certified Chaplin and serves on the Board of Trustees for Isaka Memorial Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides essential services to children orphaned by AIDS in Kenya, Africa.

Born on the island of Grenada, West Indies, he migrated to Antigua where he served as an Officer in the Antigua Police Force, rising to the ranks of Special Agent to the Prime Minister. He received Advanced degrees in Religious Education from Anchor Theological Seminary in Texas and the Manhattan Bible Institute in New York. He is also a graduate of New York School of the Bible and Nyack Mission College. He is currently pursuing a license from Lehman College as a substance abuse counselor.

God made you do what?

Got a copy of a new book by New Rochelle resident Marc Hartzman called “God Made Me Do It.”

Some people will think it’s real funny.

Others might not.

n259329031859_7728Hartzman compiled over 200 examples of ridiculous things people have done because they said God told them to.

Each anecdote gets a page or two — complete with a short, snarky headline, a quotation from someone and a few paragraphs of explanation.

What did people do because of divine requests?

Become a stripper. Toilet paper a police station. Get bit by a poisonous snake. Walk on a high wire. Shoplift. Mutilate a brother. Lead police on a high-speed chase. Open a porn shop. Not bury the dead. Swim the English Channel.

And on and on.

Many of the people quoted seem to be…not quite right.

There are a lot of quotations like: “God came to me in a dream and gave me this sauce.”

And: “God told me to open a shoe repair shop in the bus.”

And: “The Lord specifically commanded me to rob the banks…”

And: “God spoke to me and said ‘Maybe a wedding chapel will be a good thing to put in that pawnshop.’ ”

Hartzman includes the tales of a bunch of famous people, such as (obvious target) Pat Robertson, told by God to run for president, Oral Roberts, told he would be “called home” by God if he didn’t raise enough money, and former boxing champ Evander Holyfield, told by God that he would win a fight in the third round (but didn’t).

Yeah, it’s all pretty irreverent.

Hartzman seems to dismiss the idea of God telling anyone anything.

In the book’s “Opening Sermon,” Hartzman writes that he witnessed a “healthy patch of shrubbery spontaneously burst into flames,” after which God told him to write the book.

He quotes God as saying: “Write the book, sell a million copies, and buy yourself something nice. Like I said, I command thee.”

My colleague Rich Liebson interviewed Hartzman not along ago. The story should be on LoHud any day now.

A Salesian’s reflections on Haiti

My colleague Hannan Adely recently wrote about the Salesian Missions office in New Rochelle coordinating the Catholic order’s emergency response efforts in Haiti.

The Salesians have served some 25,000 young people in Port-au-Prince through schools, orphanages, and other programs.

More than 200 children died in one Salesian-run schools. Nine of the order’s buildings were destroyed, including their HQ for Haiti.

tjndc5-5gqfoacbvev1cfl40jg9_layoutThe worldwide leader of the Salesians, Father Pascual Chavez, visited Haiti last week to see the wreckage himself and offer his support (that’s him at the Marian Shrine Don Bosco Retreat Center in Stony Point in 2007). He’s written a letter about the experience, which includes this:


While I listened to the accounts of those who survived, especially those who managed to escape death after hours or days being trapped between floors, ceilings, and walls, and gradually as I looked at the buildings and homes destroyed, I tried to hear the voice of God which, like the blood of Abel, cried out with the voices of the thousands of the dead buried in mass graves or still under the rubble. I tried to listen to God, who was speaking through the dull sound of the thousands of people struggling to live under the tents, those distributed by the international organizations or those made of rags somehow put together. I tried to open my ears and heart to the cry of God, which could be heard in the anger and feelings of powerlessness of those who see everything that they had built up – either great or small – gone up in smoke, into nothing. It is estimated that the number without a roof over their heads is between 300,000 and 500,000.


I’ve been watching out for religious perspectives on the devastation in Haiti — or in Chile or other areas hit by the tsunami. Father Chavez, like many others, tries to hear God with the suffering.

He blames the devastation, though, squarely on human failings:


It is true that an earthquake of 7.5 degrees on the Richter scale produces a shock with a devastating, incalculable force, but it is also true that in this case the destruction and the deaths are even more enormous on account of poverty in every sense of the word. In this situation one cannot rebuild a life worthy of the name, nor even houses which are safer and more resistant in the face of this kind of violent eruption of nature. Therefore the challenge for today cannot be merely to reconstruct the walls of the buildings, the houses, and the churches destroyed, but it is rather to make Haiti rise again, building it on living conditions which really are human, where rights, all rights, are for everyone and not the privilege of some.

The almost total absence of any government leaves the people stunned by the suffering, submerged in anguish and overwhelmed by despair, wandering around the streets without goal or purpose. This constant walking of the people on a pilgrimage in the struggle for life makes quite an impression. But also at church level, the death of the archbishop, the vicar general, the chancellor, 18 seminarians, and 46 religious men and women, with the collapse of houses, schools, and help centers meant a tragic loss of pastors, so extremely necessary for this people.


Chavez also adds this about the response of the Haitian people: “Certainly to be admired is the religious sentiment that leads the Haitian people to gather together in prayer, a sentiment which is now being greatly exploited by the evangelical sects; and in a similar way, one is amazed at the efforts to return to normality when basically everything has changed.”

A Bible-reading marathon in New Rochelle

St. John’s Episcopal Church in New Rochelle held a Bibliathon a couple of weekends ago.

What’s a Bibliathon, you ask?

Just what it sounds like. A marathon of Bible reading.

Between Friday morning and Sunday afternoon (taking off the night time), about 100 people stepped forward to read for 15 minutes each from the New Testament.

They read it all.

I couldn’t be there (as I somehow had four graduation/birthday parties that weekend). But I wish that I had.

A TV show called “Currents,” shown on NET NY, a new “faith-centered” cable TV network based in Brooklyn (and run by the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn), came up to New Ro and did a nice segment on the Bibliathon, which you can see below.

In the show, St. John’s pastor, the Rev. Rayner “Rusty” Hesse, says that everyone had the same reaction to the Bibliathon (which also served as a fundraiser): What a great idea, but why are you doing it?

He explained:

We had to explain the whole idea of what it was like to share a sacred text and also to take a sacred text and put it into action — to say that by reading this text we are showing how serious we are about what is read and stated in the New Testament. And that is to help other people. We are taking the money we are raising today and we are using it for our mission and outreach programs, especially to the hungry and homeless in our area.

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Appreciation for the interfaith seder

Interfaith seders are held everywhere these days. I’ve certainly taken them for granted.

A few days ago, though, when I was looking for a column idea for the Saturday before Passover and Holy Week, I decided to attend the 32nd annual interfaith seder run by the Coalition for Mutual Respect in New Rochelle.

I’m glad I did.

They use a 47-page, special Haggadah that the coalition — led by Rabbi Amiel Wohl — has put together over the years. It incorporates the main prayers from any Passover prayerbook with an assortment of explanations and quotations that give Christians, African Americans and others their own seats at the seder table.

I’ll write about it for my FaithBeat column on Saturday.

Black Baptist leader to visit former adversary in New Rochelle tomorrow

The Rev. William Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention USA — the largest black church group in the country — will be in New Rochelle tomorrow (July 12) to help Bethesda Baptist Church celebrate its 120th anniversary.

He’ll take part in a banquet at the church’s new Dr. C.M. Long Sr. Family Life Center.

pastor-weaver-red-robe.jpegIt’s an interesting appearance because back in 1999, Bethesda’s veteran pastor, the Rev. Allen Paul Weaver Jr. (left), served as campaign manager for the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson when he ran for the presidency of the National Baptist Convention USA.

It was a tumultuous time for the Convention — which has about 5 million members — because its then-President, the Rev. Henry Lyons, had just been sentenced to prison for stealing money from the Convention. A slew of ministers were running to replace him and Mount Vernon’s Richardson was the big favorite.

dr-shaw-photo-blue300×200.jpgBut Philadelphia’s Shaw (right) won the presidency, nipping Richardson.

In 2004, Richardson challenged Shaw’s bid for re-election — but without Weaver at his side. Shaw won easily.

Shaw has been a low-key president, largely invisible in the mainstream media (I was surprised to see on the Convention’s website that he has spoken out about the Barack Obama/Jeremiah Wright flap). At 74, he is a respected leader whose legacy will likely be restoring internal credibility to the Convention.

And he’ll be side-by-side with Weaver at Bethesda Baptist tomorrow.