Community: Speaking at the Local School Board

I spoke at the November 5 meeting of the Pascack Valley Regional High School District’s board meeting. A local rabbi reached out to me and asked me to be there. Nazi graffiti was recently found at the local high school and some families were going to be there. Antisemitism is ungodly and unholy. The response of the Christian community is vital in combating this hate and evil. The school paper wrote this article after the meeting. The morning after, more swastikas were discovered at the school. I’ve reprinted the article from the school paper below.

Superintendent confirms anti-Semitic graffiti Swastikas found in PV bathrooms
Madison Gallo, Rachel Cohen, and Josh DeLuca – November 6, 2018

At the Pascack Valley Regional High School District Board of Education meeting held on Monday, Nov. 5, Superintendent Erik Gundersen addressed the two “isolated incidents” of anti-Semitic defacement that were discovered Sept. 27 and Oct. 18 inside of Pascack Valley High School.

Two swastikas were found etched into bathroom stall partitions. The first, discovered in September, was located in the second floor boys bathroom. The second, found in October, was in the boys bathroom in the cafeteria.

Gundersen said he does not know who first found these images. He added that all custodians and other staff members have been asked to go into bathrooms to see if there is any symbolism to hopefully narrow down who is responsible for it.

Pascack Valley Regional High School District Superintendent Erik Gundersen addresses a parent at the PVRHSD Board of Education meeting on Nov. 5 at Pascack Hills High School. Multiple parents spoke regarding multiple incidents of anti-Semitic defacement at Pascack Valley.

According to Gundersen, after the Anti-Defamation League educated the district years prior on how to combat hate in the school, they [the PVRHSD] knew to immediately shut down the bathroom on the second floor. The police, the PV law enforcement officers Hugh Ames, Mike Niego, and Chip Stalter, and the student resource officer, Mike Camporeale, are also conducting an investigation.

“The reason why it was locked is because we don’t want to subject students to that type of imagery — we don’t want them to see that type of symbolism,” Gundersen said.

Although he did make it clear that he believed the swastikas were drawn by one person, Gundersen declined to comment about any potential leads as to who drew them.

Hillsdale residents and parents of PV students Michelle Silver, Sharon Alessi, Caroline Reiter, and Pastor Marc A. Stuzel of the Christ Lutheran Church in Woodcliff Lake expressed concern regarding the incidents and criticized the district for not informing parents and members of the community during the comments from the public section of the meeting. The parents said they heard about this matter from other parents who were informed by their children.

“The idea of saying nothing and not addressing it, when clearly people know about it, and the kids are talking about it and parents are talking about it, and nothing is being said by the school,” Reiter said. “…[It] unrightfully so gives off the impression that the school tolerates it.”

Administrators did not brief the community about their findings, and, when being interviewed for another Smoke Signal story on Oct. 24, PV Principal Tom DeMaio was asked about the second floor bathroom being closed. He said it was “under repair from some damage that was done.”

“I did not send something out to the community because I did not believe our students were in danger, and we really have to balance the fact that the student body is not in danger based on the evidence that we have along with the fact the person we believe has done this is doing this solely to disrupt the school,” Gundersen said. “They’re looking for people to react in this manner because they take pleasure in seeing people react to a very cowardly act.”

Rather than sending an email to the community, Gundersen explained that PV Vice Principal John Puccio had a discussion with the Student Government Association at Valley relating to this topic.

“Any speculation that the administration was trying to hide this is simply not the case. Our administration had an open conversation with the Student Government Association,” Gundersen said. “But we purposefully lock it because we don’t want to expose students to that symbolism — it’s just inappropriate, it’s hurtful, and it’s insulting.”

These recent incidents are only nearly four years after a white supremacy scandal plagued the school in the May of 2015.

“We’re aware that school is a reflection of society in general as well. Our students develop certain attitudes, language, and behaviors based on what they see from the adults that they look up to,” Gundersen said. “Unfortunately, we have students that will say and do inappropriate things. Now certainly, the appearance of a swastika takes it to the extreme…And we’re doing our best to educate students and make them aware that how incredibly painful that symbol is.”

This was also made public just over a week after the synagogue massacre at the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh that killed 11 Jewish people during a religious ceremony on Oct. 27.

“I’m Jewish myself, I have two Jewish daughters who came through Pascack Valley, I know how they would’ve felt,” PVRHSD Board of Education President Jeffrey Steinfeld said. “I think we have to recognize that their concern is genuine, and we need to validate it and we need to address it.”

Stuzel, whose congregation includes students who attend PV, was in attendance after a rabbi reached out to his interfaith group with news of the anti-Semitic incidents. He was “more than willing to come and speak and support” as he believes that it is important for Christians to “say this is not right” and denounce “hateful” acts.

“Anti-Semitism isn’t something that we should only allow the Jewish community to deal with,” Stuzel said. “It’s a wider community issue.”

Silver, Alessi, and Reiter believe that the district should send an email to the community and host a speaker from an organization, such as the ADL, to discuss the issue of anti-Semitism at the school.

In addition to listening to the concerns of the parents, Stuzel, who is an active member of the local interfaith community, would be willing “to come in and help teach,” “lead programs,” and “talk about the faith community response.”

While Steinfeld did suggest that the district might look to incorporate more involvement from faith leaders, he did not go into specifics as to how the district planned to respond.

“I think Erik [Gundersen] and I will probably speak further about this and will have a greater discussion about what else we want to do and how else we want to address this moving forward,” Steinfeld said.

God Talk. From Pastor Marc – My Message for the Messenger, November 2018 Edition

When was the last time you talked God? Jonathan Merritt, a contributing writer to The Atlantic, recently wrote an article for The New York Times (based on his new book Learning to Speak God from Scratch) about the decline of our spiritual vocabulary. He sponsored a survey of 1,000 American adults to see how we talk about our faith, spirituality and God. Here’s a bit of what he found: This study revealed that most Americans — more than three-quarters, actually — do not often have spiritual or religious conversations….More than one- fifth of respondents admit they have not had a spiritual conversation at all in the past year. Six in 10 say they had a spiritual conversation only on rare occasions — either “once or twice” (29 percent) or “several times” (29 percent) in the past year. A paltry 7 percent of Americans say they talk about spiritual matters regularly . . . But here’s the real shocker: Practicing Christians who attend church regularly aren’t faring much better. A mere 13 percent had a spiritual conversation around once a week.

Why are we so afraid to talk about God? There are a lot of different reasons. For some, these conversations create tension or arguments. They sometimes feel “too political.” Others don’t want to appear religious, sound weird or seem like “that person” who is trying to get you to convert. We might feel as if we don’t know enough to share our faith or feel as if talking about our faith is someone else’s job. But it isn’t. As a beloved member of the body of Christ, you have been called to love God and love your neighbor.

One way we love our neighbor is by sharing what’s important to us. If your faith makes a difference in your life, then we should offer that to our friends and family. You don’t need a theology degree to share Jesus. All you need to do is share your story. You might not believe that’s enough when it comes to talking about God but it is. And Jesus believes you can do it.

One way to help us talk about God is to start noticing God at work in the world around us. On the following page, I’ve shared a God bingo-card created by Rev. Sarah Taylor. Take a look at where God is at work in the world – and let us know how you feel it out!

See you in church,

Pastor Marc

A Colorful Faith. From Pastor Marc – My Message for the Messenger, October 2018 Edition

What’s your favorite color?

When I was little, my mom was very specific about how she dressed her identical twin boys. She put me in red clothes; my brother in blue. My parents never needed help in knowing who was who. But when I look at old pictures, the color scheme is usually the only way I can tell who I am. This color, somehow, became imprinted on my soul. Red has been, and is still, my favorite color. I don’t know why certain colors become our favorites or why our favorite colors sometimes change. But I do know we live in a vibrant and dynamic world full of color. And as we move into fall, the color around us is going to grow.

One of our blessings is our climate. Every spring and fall, the world around us changes. Trees will turn from green to red, gold and purple. Fields will pop with orange pumpkins, and trees will be heavy with pink, light green and bright red apples. The days will grow shorter which means we will be awake during the golden hours of the day: dawn and dusk. Through the glorious colors of this season, we’ll celebrate holidays like Halloween and Reformation Sunday. I can’t imagine a fall without color. And I can’t imagine a fall without church.

We’re restarting Sunday School on October 7 and continuing our new adult education programs on Sunday (The Essential Jesus) and Thursday (Being Lutheran in a multi-faith world). A new organization devoted to serving senior citizens in our area will meet for lunch and conversation on October 17, 11:30 am. Our joint program for high school youth connecting Lutherans from all over northern Bergen County will meet on October 19. We designated Sunday, October 21 as our God’s Work, Our Hands Sunday, and we’ll spend time after church serving our community and neighborhood. We’ll end the month wearing red on Reformation Sunday, October 28. These are just some ways we’re being church this month. If you haven’t attended these programs yet or want more information, keep an eye on our weekly e-newsletter for details. You can also call the church office (201-391-4224) any time.

Our worship and service to our neighbors is how we color the world. When we are open and active in our faith, we show everyone how vibrant Jesus can be. None of us will live out our faith the same way. The diversity in how we love God and our neighbors is mirrored in how diverse our favorite colors are. Yet each of us is called to live a faith that is as passionate and vivid as the colors all around us. God didn’t give us a monotone world, and God didn’t give us a monotone faith. God gave us a brilliant world to match a spirited faith.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc

Give Freely. From Pastor Marc – My Message for the Messenger, September 2018 Edition

Let’s try a little exercise. Imagine strangers visiting your home. You’ve never met them before and this is the first time they’ve ever seen you. Instead of introducing yourself to them, you invite them into your kitchen. They open up your refrigerator and cupboards. What would they find?

They might find some old takeout Chinese food you should have been thrown out two weeks ago. They might notice your love of fruity carbonated waters and the imported butter you use for baking. They might also notice you don’t always have all the food you actually need. Our kitchens reveal a lot about our lives. They show what we like to eat and what we can afford to buy. Kitchens reveal the basic items we must have and any health situations we are living through. When we have enough, we are able to focus on our families, studies, jobs, and living the life we want to live. When we struggle, worrying about where our next meal drowns out everything else.

One of our spiritual gifts as CLC is our willingness to feed others. For the past 33 years, our Genesis Garden has produced hundreds of pounds of fresh produce every year for our neighbors utilizing the Center for Food Action in Englewood. Our garden was recently highlighted at the New Jersey Synod Assembly and was shown to the Pinecrest Leadership Camp for Lutheran Youth in the Metropolitan New York Synod. It’s also become a model for other congregations in our area who are interested in giving back to the community. Beyond the garden, the food donations you drop off in the narthex (our church lobby) are combined with financial gifts from Care Committee, CLC-Women, and others to help the Center for Food Action to feed neighbors in Bergen County. We’ve also strengthen our ties with the Tri-Boro Food Pantry based in Park Ridge. Our Vacation Bible School families, as you’ll see later in this edition of the Messenger, donated several dozen bags of groceries to local families in need. By working together, we can help all families in need worry less about hunger and, instead, live their lives the way God wants them to.

September is the month when our programming year begins. Our two worship Sundays kick-off is September 16. Choirs will return for rehearsals, confirmation classes will start; a new adult education program will launch; and our life as a church will get busy. During this time, it’s easy to focus only our personal needs. But our life and faith grow when we keep our eyes looking outwards. As we start a busy September, let’s keep noticing the needs of our neighbors. Let’s keep an eye on Jesus. Let’s keep feeding all our neighbors. And let’s find new ways to serve and love because CLC is at our best when we, like Jesus, give freely and abundantly.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc

High Expectations. From Pastor Marc – My Message for the Messenger, Summer 2018 Edition

I recently experienced something rare: I attended a wedding and I didn’t officiate. Over the last few years, my wedding excursions included rehearsal dinners, writing sermons and pre-martial counseling sessions. This time, however, my only expectation involved tearing up the dance floor. As I sat there in the pews, waiting for the ceremony to start, I realized that

every wedding comes with different types of expectations. Sometimes we are intimately involved with the planning and decision-making. Other times, we’re a member of the bridal party, watching our good friend say “I do.” Occasionally we’re asked to just join in the celebration. Whether we realize it or not, weddings

are filled with expectations. There are the expectations we bring to the big day, like knowing the ceremony will start late and that the lines for bacon-wrapped appetizers will be incredibly long. But weddings also expect us to act, pray and celebrate in specific ways too. A maid-of-honor is expected to give a toast, and the flower boys and girls are expected to throw their flowers in the right spots. A wedding includes more than just the expectations of the wedding couple and their families. Weddings have expectations for all of us.

In a similar way, churches have expectations too. But to notice them, we need to remember that a church is more than a building. A church is the assembly: the people gathered in Christ’s name. When Paul wrote his letters to the Corinthians, Thessalonians, and Romans, he wrote to people. These small groups of disciples met in private homes since no official church buildings existed. The church was (and is!) the people who are brought together by the Spirit to follow Jesus. This following requires faith. It requires grace. And, it also requires changing out expectations because we’re more than a group of people who hang out together. When we come together, Jesus promises to show up with us. This promise isn’t pretend or abstract. Jesus’ promise to each of us, and to the

church, is very real. As people bounded to each other by our baptism and our faith, we are expected to be more than just mere acquaintances. Jesus expects us to be His church, together.

This expectation manifests in different ways. You’re expected to meet with your fellow disciples of Jesus on Sunday morning if you are well and able. If Sunday morning doesn’t work for you, then the entire community must do the work to create a new gathering at a different time and place. You’re also expected to keep the community in your prayers, especially the people we name on out loud on

Sunday morning. You might not know what they need prayers for but don’t worry: God knows. You’re expected, as a member of Christ’s church, to financially support the community in a very intentional way. And finally, you’re expected to make a difference in our neighborhood and in our world through our collective ministry or in another meaningful way. These expectations can be challenging but they exist so that our faith can be more than something that lingers in the back of our minds. Faith’s expectations for us are how others will see what Jesus has done for us. In other words, Jesus’ expectations are how we love – and this is the kind of love that will transform us into something brand new.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc

Bigger Than Ourselves. From Pastor Marc – My Message for the Messenger, June 2018 Edition

15. 1500. 30,000. What do these three numbers have in common? They show how we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

June is a month where we will celebrate just how connected we are. When Jesus claimed us in our baptism, he did more than connect us to himself. He united us with everyone else whom he claimed as his own. Our faith is designed to be a team sport. We cannot follow Jesus on our own. We need others to pray for us. We need others to support us. We need others to love because Jesus loved us first. We are called to be people who connect, forming a community that is even bigger than Christ Lutheran Church’s walls.

On June 3rd, we will hold a special congregational meeting to discuss what it takes to be a community of faith. We’ll have one worship service at 9:30 am. Our congregational meeting will take place immediately after. After the meeting, we will then bless our Genesis Garden. The Genesis Garden is in its 33rd year. Together, we will raise over 1500 lbs. of fresh produce to donate to the Center for Food Action in Englewood. When we work together, we make a real difference. On June 10th, Lutheran youth (8th grade and up) from around Northern New Jersey will attend our 9:00 am worship. Afterwards, they’ll share brunch and go for a hike nearby. The first meeting of this new initiative met in May at Calvary Lutheran in Allendale. Youth from CLC had a great time, even discovering classmates at their schools who were Lutherans, just like them. We can’t wait to welcome these amazing kids to CLC. On June 17th, we’ll honor all graduates as we start our summer worship schedule. We’re proud of everyone who completed their schoolwork and are now taking that next step in their lives. And finally, on June 24th, we’ll host our annual Blessing of the Animals. We’ll worship in the Opsal (Fellowship) Hall. All critters, large and small, are welcome to attend. If your pet friend doesn’t like large crowds, feel free to bring a picture (even if it’s on your phone), and I’ll say a blessing over it. We’ll also celebrate our youth and adults who will be attending the ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston where over 30,000 people will gather for worship, service and fun.

This is a month where we will connect as a community. This is a month where we will see how we can do so much when we are together. I can’t wait to see you as a part of it.

See you in church!
Pastor Marc

Porous to the Holy Spirit. From Pastor Marc – My Message for the Messenger, May 2018 Edition

Clint Ramos is an acclaimed Tony Award winning costume and set designer on Broadway. He worked on Violet, Sunday in the Park with George, Sweet Chariot and Once on This Island. When we’re watching a play or a musical, we don’t always think about the set or costumes that much. They set the tone for what we’re watching, but we turn our attention on the acting, singing and dancing. We act as if the set and costumes are secondary in the show itself. We walk away from the show saying “that was a neat set” and nothing more. In a recent interview, Clint was asked what he wished the audience might take away from his work. And he answered in an interesting way.

The set and costumes do more than set the tone for the show. The costumes and set are the first things that draw us into the event. Every button on an actor’s blouse and brick on a fake backdrop wall are designed to draw the audience deeper into the story. The set and costume designer use their talents to draw the audience deeper into the story on the stage. And by bringing the audience into the story, the designers end up uncovering our personal stories and the story of the world beyond the walls of the theater. The set and costumes are clues inviting the audience to look around and see everything in a new light. Clint’s only wish is for the audience, for those of us sitting in the seats, to be “more porous to those clues” that are all around them.

Imagine, for a moment, if we looked at our faith in the same way. What if we were more porous to noticing the God that is always with us? Look around you. In the set that is your everyday life, how are you being drawn deeper into Jesus’ story?

I tend to read my copy of The Messenger in my kitchen. I don’t always think about how my dishwasher, the pile of dirty dishes in my sink and my dinged coffee grinder can reveal Jesus to me. But the God that created the universe is the same God who is living with you. The sets we build, our homes, offices and school lockers are places where God is truly present. We might struggle to see God in those places but maybe that can be changed.

What’s one small thing you could do to make the room you’re in right now show God’s love a little more clearly? Is there something you need to add or something you need to take away? Whatever you do, remember that Jesus is right there with you—but we can sometimes get in our own way when we try to see him.

This May, spend time helping yourself be more porous to the clues of love that God is always sending you. And let’s re-design the sets in our lives to help us see God more clearly.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc

The Off Season. From Pastor Marc – My Message for the Messenger, April 2018 Edition

Have you ever been some place “off-season?” The times I’ve visited places before they get busy, I’ve always been struck how the energy in the air feels different. There’s a quietness that seems to fill much of the space. This quiet never feels unpleasant. Instead, it feels like the deep calming breath the entire community takes before the large number of people arrive. That deep calming breath requires a peace and simplicity that gives everyone time to prepare for what’s to come. Restaurants and shops have shorter hours and smaller menus. Artisans and entertainers rehearse their craft in an intentional but gentle way. The few visitors that find themselves in these “off-season” places are invited to embody the slower pace, quieting their soul and mind in preparation for the busyness to come. The “off-season” is a perfect time to refresh, recharge and experience familiar places in new ways. And when we engage with places during their off-season, we sometimes surprise ourselves by learning something new about what refreshes our heart, mind and soul.

The Sundays after Easter can sometimes feel like an “Off-Season” for the church. After all the busyness and excitement of Lent, Holy Week and Easter, many of us feel like we could use a break. Lent sometimes feels like a long inhale preparing us for the exhale of Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter. When the Sunday after Easter comes along, we feel worn out and just tired. But Easter is more than just one day. As a faith community, we experience Easter as an entire season. The Sundays after Easter invite us to re-experience the risen Jesus in our lives. When Jesus’ earliest disciples discovered the empty tomb, their faith wasn’t all figured out. They still needed time to discover what living with a resurrected Jesus was all about. The time they spent with Jesus after the Resurrection was an opportunity to connect with the Jesus they always knew but who they now encountered in a new way. They needed to see Jesus in the garden, meet him in a locked room, break bread with him while meeting him on the road, and eating brunch with him on the beach. The season of Easter invites us to refresh and recharge with a Jesus who is always with us, even when we feel like we could use a break.

And this season at CLC will be filled with a baptism, hymn sing and a joint worship service with First Congregational Church and Pascack Reformed Church. See Jesus in this “off-season” and discover new ways to be recharged.

See you in church!
Pastor Marc

Learning New Songs. From Pastor Marc – My Message for the Messenger, March 2018 Edition

Memorizing song lyrics is not one of my spiritual gifts. If you asked me to recite the lyrics to my favorite songs, I would be embarrassed by how many of the words I would get wrong. When I am at a show, standing on the floor and watching one of my favorite bands play, the lyrics to their songs flow through me. But once the show is over, it’s like I never heard those songs before. Lyrics do not stay at the forefront of my mind. Rather, the entire experience of singing – from the music to the lyrics to whom I’m singing with – is how I hold onto this event. I need the music to recall the lyrics and the lyrics to recall how the song made me feel and the emotions from the song to help me remember the music. Songs, to me, are events that are hard to separate.

You might have noticed in worship that new music is entering into our rotation. David Scance is doing a wonderful job finding new contemporary music to introduce to the 9:00 am service. At the 10:30 am worship, we’ve intentionally been repeating hymns every week. The one verse we sing when we bring the bread and wine to the altar is repeated for a month, helping us rehearse a new piece of music. After that, the song is repeated all year long. The hymns we have picked at 10:30 am are hymns written by Martin Luther. Some of these songs might be familiar to you; others might be brand new. These new songs are invitations to discover God’s grace in a new way. New words and new tunes can help us see God’s love for us anew.

The month of March this year is a month that is hard to separate. For 31 days, we are in Lent. The songs of Lent from “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross” to “Ah, Holy Jesus” will carry us into the Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Lent is an opportunity to see ourselves and our God in a new way. Let’s see if the words we sing, even new ones, can help us discover and embody God’s grace in a new way.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc