Disasters spark interfaith service
By Rich Pollack
It was a gathering born out of tragedy, disaster and divisiveness. Yet when the interfaith service “Peace, Unity and Thanksgiving” in Highland Beach last month was over, many of the 400 people who attended walked away feeling hopeful and connected to one another despite the impact of horrific events — hurricanes, a mass shooting, and earthquakes and fires — that surrounded them.
“This was one of the most significant events that occurred in the town in the last decade,” said Highland Beach Vice Mayor Bill Weitz. “There was a real bonding.”
The Oct. 18 service, sponsored by the town and by St. Lucy Catholic Church, which hosted the event, not only brought residents closer together, it helped its two sponsors strengthen their relationship, which hit a hurdle or two earlier this year.
In January, the Town Commission voted to move its municipal election from the church, which had served as the polling location for decades, to Town Hall. Several commissioners at the time said they thought it would be better for the town if the municipal election were not held in a place of worship. Now, however, it appears the town will move the election back to the church, in large part due to the strengthening of ties during the service.
During a meeting late last month, commissioners indicated they would now support holding the March 2018 municipal election back at the church, which has more parking than Town Hall and a spacious voting area available.
In addition, town leaders tentatively agreed to have the church host Highland Beach’s annual Light Up the Holidays celebration next month, which has been in the Town Hall parking lot for several years.
“Prayer always produces results,” said the Rev. D. Brian Horgan, priest at St. Lucy Catholic Church. “When people pray together, barriers tend to fall away and we realize we’re not as different as we thought we were.”
Horgan said the church and the town always had a good relationship and that the strengthening of that relationship during and after the service will benefit the town.
“We’re constantly seeking ways to bring unity into a world that’s fractured by fear and division,” Horgan said.
The service was a result of conversations between Horgan and Highland Beach Commissioner Rhoda Zelniker.
Rabbi Aviva Bass, of Temple Sinai in Delray Beach, and Dr. Bassem Alhalabi, president of Islamic Center of Boca Raton, joined the priest in leadership during the service.
Community members were called upon to read passages honoring many faiths, including Hindu, Mormon, Buddhist and recognizing Native American traditions. Following the hourlong service, guests gathered at the parish hall, where they shared food prepared by residents and the church. A collection at the service and church contribution raised $1,000 for the American Red Cross for disaster victims.
“We had an opportunity to make new friends and get to know one another,” Horgan said.
The idea for an interfaith service had been discussed years before by Zelniker and Horgan but never came to pass.
Soon after the shootings in Las Vegas and after Hurricane Irma and two others, as well as the earthquakes in Mexico and wildfires in California, the pastor reached out to Zelniker.
“He said, ‘This is the right time,’” Zelniker recalled. “All the events had left people feeling sad. We wanted to unite everyone, so we could pray for peace and all the people who were suffering as a result of the disasters.” She said by the time everyone left, there was a strong sense of connection.
“It was unbelievable,” she said. “The love in the room was exceptional.”
For 16-year resident Louise Mirkin, the service was uplifting and calming at the same time. “I left feeling hopeful that people really could get along,” she said. “I saw that there was a true spirit of unity in the town.”
Zelniker came away with a similar impression.
“It was just a beautiful service,” she said. “For me, it was the best day ever in Highland Beach.”