Practice Life: The Pastor’s Message for the June 2022 Messenger

There was a three week stretch in May when I never sat down. I know that isn’t actually true since I’m (usually) sitting when writing my sermons, crafting the weekly newsletters, or putting together The Messenger. But there was about twenty one days when I didn’t have a chance to do nothing because there was always something more to do. There were weekly meetings to plan Woodcliff Lake United, a day of service in our town. There were moments helping the amazing volunteers at Trash and Treasure clean old toys, dusty picture frames, and piles and piles of books. Worship, Sunday School, Confirmation Classes, and various committee meetings had to be prepped for and led. We also had our annual New Jersey Synod assembly which included two workshops on communications which I hosted. And, there was the spring meeting of the New Jersey Candidacy Committee where three people were granted entrance into the candidacy process and one was approved for ordination. That doesn’t include all the track practices we went to, the baseball games we saw, the playgrounds that needed to be played in, the food that needed to be bought, the lunches and snacks that needed to be made, and all the bedtime reading that comes with being a parent. I wouldn’t have traded these three weeks for anything in the world, but you know you’re busy when managing an elementary school’s 3-day scholastic book fair is the least stressful thing you do.

May is always a busy month because the signs of new life invite us to cram as much life into all that we do. But practicing life in this way can be exhausting and, if we’re not careful, can increase the burnout we feel. God didn’t design us to always keep our feet on the gas pedal. We need to rest—which is why remembering the Sabbath is on the early side of the Ten Commandments. This rest includes sleep, eating well, exercise, and connecting with your God. Yet it’s hard to rest if we don’t have enough or if we feel guilt for not doing enough. It’s easy to feel as if you’re not providing your kids with the right kind of opportunity since we act as if 4th grade is too late to pick up a new sport. It is also a reality that there are moments when God’s abundance doesn’t feel like it’s being made real in our lives. We need to feel safe, protected, loved, and valued, or else our constant “doing” becomes our “undoing.” We can’t over function our way out of a crisis nor can be, with a wave of a wand, feel loved by those who don’t love themselves.

My security allows me to living out the various vocations God has given to me. And I’m grateful we, as the body of Christ, did our part to help people gain that same kind of security. Your generosity of time, talent, and stuff will let the CLC-Women’s group fund programs all over the world for people in need. Your generosity helped families through the Tri-Boro Food Pantry use their limited resources to buy their kids a new baseball glove instead of saving it for shampoo, dish soap, and paper towels. And, your continuing faithfulness to worship, care and prayer, means that the love of Jesus is being felt through the choices you make every day. I have no idea if life will slow down over these next few months, but I do know that we, together, have each other’s back. Let’s continue to help each other and our neighbors with what they need so that we can live into the various vocations God so generously gave us.

Blessed to be the church with you,
Pastor Marc

Children’s Message: What to do With the Unexpected

So it’s my tradition after the prayer of the day to bring a message to all of God’s children. And today I want to start with using our imaginations. Lets imagine we’re going to the grocery store. Where’s the first place you usually go? For me, I usually visit the fruits and vegetables – making sure to pick up some strawberries, apples, and other goodies. Where would you go next? I then, depending on the store, either get some milk or go pick up cereal that is full of too much sugar. When I go to the grocery store, I usually go with a list and I usually have the same things on the list every week. I might add a new thing every once in a while – but it’s always the same fruits, cereals, pastas, and snacks I pickup each week. My visits to the grocery store are pretty much the same week-to-week. And when I go from aisle to aisle, I tend to be focused on my shopping. But every once in a while, something unexpected happens – and I run into someone I didn’t think who would be there. 

For example, when I was a kid, I might see my teacher at the grocery store. That always felt really weird to me because teachers were supposed to be at school – not at grocery stores! That’s where I saw them, interacted with them, and that’s where I expected them to be. I didn’t expect to see a teacher in a place other than school. Have you ever run into a teacher outside of school? How did it make you feel? It usually made me feel a bit shy, awkward, and I didn’t always know what to say. Those feelings are perfectly normal. When we run into something unexpected – like seeing our teacher outside of school – we might not know how to react to it. It might make us feel surprised or anxious or excited or confused. And when I get that way, I’ve learned that I don’t have to ignore those feelings. I can, instead, just pause and be in that moment with all those feelings. I can be patient, say hello, and go with the flow to see what happens next. 

Today in our story about Jesus, we’re going to listen to someone do something unexpected to Jesus [John 12:1-8 – Mary’s anointing of Jesus]. Often our stories in church tell about how Jesus kept doing unexpected things – like eating meals with people he shouldn’t, or including people others want to exclude, or by healing those who needed help. But this story is about a friend of Jesus, named Mary, doing something unexpected to him. She is going to offer him a gift that some of Jesus’ disciples said she shouldn’t have. It was unexpected – yet Jesus shows us one way we can live with that unexpected thing. We can pause. We can ponder. We can accept the gift of the unexpected because it might impact us in small ways. We might, for example, remember that teachers are people with their own families, lives, and things they like to do. We can celebrate teachers for being more than just one thing – just like we, as kids and students and beloved children of God – are more than one thing too. And we can do that because, as we’ll see in two weeks at Maundy Thursday worship, this unexpected gift invites Jesus to keep doing unexpected things too. 

Each week, I share a reflection for all children of God. The written manuscript serves as a springboard for what I do. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, 4/3/2022.

Every Nook and Cranny: How Smell Reveals Jesus

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

John 12:1-8

My sermon from the Fifth Sunday in Lent (April 3, 2022) on John 12:1-8.

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A couple weeks ago, the Paris Review of Books, published a conversation between three scholars about how to choose a perfume. They talked about the power of gimmicks, how weird perfume commercials actually are, and how not everyone gets to choose their smells. Our sense of smell is the most sensitive of our senses and its one we process almost spontaneously. When we smell, the odor enters into our bodies which we then respond to in a very embodied way. Smells do more than just tell us if something is sweet or stinky. They also remind us we don’t live in a void or a vacuum. In the words of Jude Stewart even, “air’s existence… becomes palpable because smells ride on air.” Smells extend our environment, connecting us to a world that’s much bigger than what’s in front of us. Smells also have the power to collapse time, transporting us into the past while keeping us rooted in the present. A sniff of a cherry pie, the scent of an ocean breeze, and even the fragrance of a flower in bloom can connect us to those moments and the people that changed us. Smells can announce our arrival before we enter the room and they grow, change, and evolve depending on what other smells they run into. And overtime the intensity of a smell drops off unless it was cause by a 3 year old who emptied an entire bottle of perfume in her room one spray at a time. We know how powerful our sense of smell can be because when we lose it, either through age or accident or an illness like COVID-19, our engagement with our lives fundamentally changes. It’s difficult to put into words the totality of smells and our sense of smell. Yet we know how smells soak into every nook and cranny around us. Smells have their own potent kind of power which might be why the gospel of John was very specific in our reading today about the kind of smell that interrupted a dinner party for Jesus. 

Now the story about Jesus being anointed with perfume appears in all four gospels. Jesus, while at a dinner, ends up being interrupted by a woman with a jar of expensive perfume. After she pours it on him, the disciples and other guests in the room tend to get a bit ornery. Jesus, in response, simply says to leave her alone. Jesus, while very much alive, experienced a ritual typically reserved for a person after death. This general outline fits every version of this story. Yet I’ve often found that it’s in the difference where we discover a bit of what this story might mean. Three of the gospels place this story in the village of Bethany, 2 miles outside of Jerusalem. The dinner party was held in either the home of an unnamed Pharisee, a leper named Simon, or in the home of Lazarus and his sisters. The perfume, typically identified as nard, is always described as expensive but only John says it was worth nearly a year’s worth of wages. Both Matthew and Mark describe the woman pouring the perfume over Jesus’ head, soaking his entire body, while Luke and John limit the action to only his feet. In the other three gospels, the woman is never named. But John, however, chose to give us a name. With that name, he also gave us an entire story. And so the Mary we meet is a sister who just a chapter before sent word to Jesus that her brother was ill. 

By the time Jesus arrived at their home, Lazarus had already died. He stood outside the tomb and cried. He wept for his friend, showing us that grief, tears, and sadness aren’t things unknown to God. And after expressing with his body just how much Lazarus meant to him, Jesus then told him to come out. Jesus didn’t stick around very long with Lazarus’ family and soon headed towards a village far away. But when the holiday of Passover drew near, Jesus turned and returned to Jerusalem. When he neared the city, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus invited him over for dinner to do all the things we do when we share a meal with a beloved family friend. As the meal stretched on, Mary left the table to retrieve a very expensive bottle of nard. And when she returned, she did for Jesus that one thing she had actually done for her brother just mere weeks before. 

Now imagine what that moment must have felt like for everyone in that room. The smell would have reminded them of one of those most awful experiences they had lived through. The grief and sorrow that filled their soul while they watched their brother grow ill would have been mimicked by how that scent seemed to fill every nook and cranny in the room. Martha and Mary would have remembered pouring the perfume over their brother’s body and how its smell changed as it gradually soaked into his skin. Once Lazarus was sealed in this tomb, the smells had nowhere else to go. Everything would have lingered in the air with the expectation no one would sniff that specific combination of smells ever again. But when Jesus told Lazarus to come out, the first thing Lazarus’ body would have processed was the smell. From that point on, the smell of nard would have been permanently connected to that moment in his story. Lazarus knew what that smell was used for. Yet he also experienced a new promise where, in the words of Rev. Karoline Lewis, “the life that God provides will be present even in the reality of death.” Later, while gathered around a shared table, that promise sat with them too. The smell of nard still represented what it was typically used for. Yet because Jesus was there, it reaffirmed their connection to love that would never end. 

We might not have a story like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus where the promise given by God was made palpable in a way others could see. We might feel as if our life exists in its own kind of void – one empty of connection, healing, wholeness, and a sense that all of this has meaning. I’ll admit that I sometimes feel lost, especially when the horrors of war, violence, anger, and fear reveal how talented we are at being as unloving and hurtful as possible. I wish we all had the opportunity to sit at a table with Jesus to let his presence soak into every nook and cranny in our world. We need his love and grace to be more than something hanging in the air. We need it to be palpable, tangible, and real – like a smell reminding us what’s always around us. And that’s one reason why we have baptism and faith. It’s why we were given the ability to pray; to worship; and to belong to the community that God knows can’t be what it’s supposed to be without us. We need reminders, especially when we doubt, or question, or find ourselves overwhelmed by what’s around us, how God’s love is what truly holds us through. It’s why we have a table – the Lord’s table – where we are welcomed and fed not because we are perfect or because we know everything the Lord’s supper is about. We are included because we are loved. It’s a love we haven’t earned or one we’re entitled to. It is, instead, a love freely given because that’s who God is. At this table – one that extends to wherever and whenever you are – you are gifted a promise that makes you brand new as it soaks into every nook and cranny of your imperfect, but fully known, life.

Amen. 

What Does it Mean to Gather?: The Pastor’s Message for the February 2022 Messenger

A few Sundays ago, everything was cold. When I drove to church, the thermometer gauge on my car read zero, and the engine whined because it didn’t want to be working. When I walked into the sanctuary, it was a toasty sixty degrees, and I quickly got setup for worship. David Scance soon arrived and got ready to use music to share the gospel. Together, we readied ourselves to hang out with Jesus and you. When the clock hit 9:00 am, David and I were the only ones in the building. No one was in the pews, yet I noticed that roughly a dozen households were watching online.

Prior to our livestream days, worshipping in the sanctuary on cold mornings was
pretty lonely. Yet, because you made the commitment to gather using your
smartphone, TV, computer, or even by calling in – we didn’t feel alone. Instead,
we felt like the body of Christ gathering in a new way so that we can all keep
following the Way. Prior to the pandemic, I often said the easiest way to grow the church is to be at church. We connect best to a faith community when we see the life happening in that place. For a first time visitor, seeing people of all ages gathered with each other means a great deal. It isn’t always easy to share our faith, but we can show up for our faith. Yet this pandemic has shown how the idea of “gathering” has changed. We have taken care of each other while worshipping with each other in a variety of ways. I lament I didn’t do enough before this point to better engage those who have been worshipping at home for years. And I have had to grow in my own
understanding of what it means to show up for your faith. Yet, I’m hopeful we are finally putting into practice at our church a clearer expression of how expansive and inclusive is the body of Christ.

Over the next few months, we’re going to learn how to share the vitality of CLC even though our gathering together is more decentralized than it was in the past. I’m not exactly sure how to do that, but I know that we, together, can make the body of Christ visible in new ways. When Jesus said “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” we invested our energy in the “where.” It’s now time to focus on the “gathered” because no matter how we gather, it is Jesus himself who is uniting us as one.

Blessed to be the church with you,
Pastor Marc

A Chance to Wonder: The Pastor’s Message for the January 2022 Messenger

Most days, my route to and from the sanctuary takes me over the dam. That stretch
of roadway isn’t very long, but it is a place where people speed by. The sign
announcing how fast people are actually going rarely matches the 25 mph speed
limit. I’ve always wondered what it would take for the traffic over Church Road to
slow down. The speed limit sign, the police officer sitting in our parking lot and the
occasional flock of turkeys swarming over the road never seemed to do the trick.
Going slow over Church Road was a pipe dream for those of us who go over it almost
every day. But three weeks ago, the impossible happened. For a few strange days,
every car drove below the speed limit while on that road. No one rushed down the
road or tailgated the car in front of them. Every driver and passenger took the time to look out their window. And when they did, they slowed down because the reservoir was full of ducks.

I never thought a raft of ducks would be needed to encourage everyone to slow
down. The water by the dam is usually pretty empty, with only a handful of swans or
a heron keeping watch. Yet on those chilly December days, ducks from all over made
that part of Church Road their home. Those ducks were so unexpected that everyone
driving by had to slow down to see what they were. Instead of being focused on
where they are going, everybody stared at the ducks. Since the drive over the dam
was so quick, people couldn’t see this strange sight for very long. But everyone who
drove by saw something that caused them to wonder.

As we enter a new calendar year, I hope we all get a chance to wonder. There are still many challenges facing us that require us to always be nimble, faithful, and
innovative. That need to always be “on” is really exhausting. Yet God also provides opportunities for us to slow down. We can choose to drive a few miles per hour
below the speed of life and gaze at the grace, love and beauty that are all around us. May 2022 be a year when we can lose ourselves in wonder and notice all the
unexpected ducks swimming next to us.

Why Creativity: The Pastor’s Message for the Summer 2021 Messenger

A few months ago, I joined our local Rotary chapter as their Spiritual Representative. Rotary is a 100 year old organization helping professional and business leaders serve their wider community. It’s a worldwide organization I knew of (and even received a college scholarship from) but one that was a bit of a mystery to me. Prior to my joining, I couldn’t tell you what Rotary did or why they existed. I didn’t know their history or who was attracted to the organization. I knew they existed because their meeting times were posted on signs marking the boundaries of towns. I knew they had a physical presence but I was unaware of what went on in their meeting spaces. It wasn’t until I was invited to participate in the group that I saw their commitment to service and the different projects they support. I’m still learning more about the organization, but I’m looking forward to bringing my Lutheran Christian perspective into a group looking for new ways to nurture our wider community.

At one of their recent meetings, one of the main topics was how to grow the Rotary group. They’re looking to increase membership, and I was surprised with how similar that conversation was to every conversation about membership held in a faith community. People shared their own experiences of the group and how it changed their lives. People also were hopeful the group would grow larger because they wanted others to have the same experiences as them. They also were honest that, a few decades ago, the group was larger, younger and full of a different kind of vitality. But they were also honest that the group wasn’t always welcoming to others. And folks lamented how hard it is for people to commit to things in our modern context.

Many times when conversations like this are held, a lot of energy is spent on wish-casting. We wish things were different, but we’re not sure how to make it so. We feel as if we don’t have the tools, insights or even the permission to make this wish come true. We hope other people with more suitable gifts can do what is needed to make our wish a reality. Our wish is a good wish because we want others to have the same experiences we had. If we felt loved, valued and included, we want others to have the same experience. It isn’t wrong to make wishes, yet we often don’t realize that we already have the gifts needed to invite others into the place that has given us so much grace. What we need is help seeing how that grace has manifested in our lives and how we can, just as we are, invite others to see that same grace also.

That’s one of the reasons why our ongoing sermon-series on cultivating our creative spirit will continue in July. Unlike other organizations, we want to invite others into a deeper relationship with the God who created them, lived and died for them, and will sustain them through all the joys and struggles of life. We can do that by nurturing our ability to see Jesus at work in our lives. Instead of inviting people into church, we can invite them to know Jesus who loves them right now. After we practice seeing Jesus all around us, we’ll move into a short series on joy and happiness (and how they’re not the same thing). My hope is once we near the start of our programming year we’ll move into a series on vocations: what they are, how many we have and how faith is meant for our everyday life. We can, together, learn to see Jesus a little more clearly and in our own particular ways invite others to see Jesus too.

I will seeya in the many different ways we are the church!
Pastor Marc

Unity of the Valley – Recipes

My message for the Unity in the Valley Event hosted at Pascack Valley High School on March 19, 2019. Unity in the Valley is a community organized gathering to encourage inclusion and fight back against recent examples of antisemitism and more.

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I want to start my remarks tonight with a simple question: what’s your favorite recipe? Now, it’s okay to take a few moments to think about it because it might not be the easiest question to answer. I’m not asking you to name your favorite thing to eat or what restaurant you like to go to. No, what I want to know is: what’s your favorite recipe? What dish, or meal, do you love to make or, if you don’t cook, what recipe does someone make for you that reminds you you’re loved? Once you figure out an answer to that question, hold onto it, because we’re going to use it in a few short minutes.

Now, as person of faith who didn’t grow up with one, I’m fascinated by the stuff of religion. There’s the big things like the rituals, the prayer books, music, and art. But there’s also the little things – like what faith communities choose to post on their bulletin boards and what little booklets they keep by the front door that no one ever picks up. One of those things I sometimes find in the lobbies of many different kinds of faith communities is: that community’s cookbook. They were usually published at least 10 years before, the pages are now yellowed, and the whole thing is bound together by an oddly colored piece of plastic. In Christian communities, we usually make these as a kind of fundraiser, asking people to submit recipes they want to share with everyone else. And these cookbooks are always filled with recipes you can’t find anywhere else. Sometimes, you’ll read about a chutney or hummus that someone’s mom used to make. But you’ll also find things that are a tad…frightening. As a Lutheran Christian, those kinds of recipes usually involve a casserole dish, jello, a fruit you’ve never heard of, and a can of tuna fish. When you read these cookbooks, you’ll wonder if someone submitted something just to punk you. Yet, you’ll also discover something beautiful. You’ll be invited to make that pineapple cake that someone always brings whenever there’s a funeral. And you’ll be able to taste the rice and beans someone prepares every time a church member is in the hospital, leaving it on the family’s front porch with a note saying we’re thinking of them. These cookbooks are more than just a collection of recipes. They’re a collection of stories – passed down from generation to generation – meant to be shared during incredible celebrations and to bring hope in moments of incredible sorrow. Our favorite recipes do more than tell others what we like to eat; they show our neighbors a bit of who we are, where we come from, and what makes us, us. We all carry within us a cookbook of recipes that lets other people know the entirety of our story.

But the cookbooks we carry are not, I think, meant to be only for ourselves. When we eat, we’re meant to eat together. Many of our faith and cultural traditions are centered at the table, at the place where dishes are served and meals are shared. Because we are invited to do more than just eat. We are here to get to know each other. The recipes we share are an opportunity for us to be vulnerable, to share a part of our tradition, our history, and our soul with someone else. The table is where we get to be human and that creates an opportunity for unity that is honest with itself and its past. The meal we share is how we discover each other’s joys and struggles. But it’s also a moment for confession, when we finally see how our way of life has negatively impacted another. It’s there where we reflect on the fullness of our story and admit the ways we didn’t take seriously the story of the other. It’s at the table when our -isms and -phobias breakdown. Antisemitism, sexism, racism, islamophobia, homophobia, and every other wall we build to deny people a place at our table is undone. When we take seriously what it means to really share a meal with your neighbor, we’re no longer in a position to hate and harm each other. Instead, we’re called to feed each other, to serve one another, and to help each other thrive.

And that calling isn’t always easy. Sharing a meal together will always take risk. We need to be honest and to admit the ways we’ve hurt one another. As a Christian, I have to name, outloud, the ways my faith has been used to hurt and harm people. I have to acknowledge how we have, wrongly, denied people a place at our tables because of who they are, who they love, or where they come from. We haven’t done enough to live into the reality of our faith tradition, about a Jesus who kept getting in trouble for sharing recipes and meals with people he wasn’t supposed to. But we can, and we will, change that. We’re not here to deny someone a place at the table. Instead, we’re here to eat and to be fully human, together.

So what’s your favorite recipe? Who taught you it and why? Was it your grandma’s cookies, your brother’s chili, your best friend’s gluten-free mac and cheese, or that recipe you found online that you cooked all on your own for the very first time? I want you to turn to the person next to you and take the next minute to share that recipe with them, why it’s important to you, and how you’re going share your table with someone new.

Community Event: Unity in the Valley – Pascack Press Article

Unity in the Valley is comprised of a group of community leaders in the Pascack Valley of Bergen County, New Jersey, united in their opposition to all forms of hate and aggression towards any group or individual. Its mission is to help build tolerance and understanding for all through education in order to foster a safer, more accepting community.

Created in 2018 by local municipal leaders from Hillsdale, Montvale, River Vale and Woodcliff Lake, along with support from the Superintendent of Schools for the Pascack Valley Regional High School District, Unity in the Valley has grown to include a cross-section of religious leaders, student groups, law enforcement and volunteer organizations.

I was one of the faith leaders who spoke at a gathering on March 19, 2019 at Pascack Valley High School. Below is a copy of the article written by John Snyder for The Pascack Press: ‘We Must Push Back’: State’s Top Cop Headlines Unity in the Valley.

HILLSDALE, N.J.—Montvale, Hillsdale, Woodcliff Lake, and River Vale came together in celebrating Unity in the Valley, a kick-off event with far-reaching goals, highlighting the importance of unity and inclusivity throughout our community.

Highlights at the packed event March 19 at Pascack Valley High School included performances by Pascack Valley Regional School District students, messages of unity, a presentation by the Anti-Defamation League, and a keynote address by New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.

Launched in 2018 by area municipal leaders, along with support from the superintendent of Schools for the Pascack Valley Regional High School District, Unity in the Valley has grown to include a cross-section of religious leaders, student groups, law enforcement, and volunteer organizations.

Unity in the Valley says it’s composed of community leaders in the Pascack Valley united in their opposition to all forms of hate and aggression toward any group or individual.

Its mission is to help build tolerance and understanding for all through education in order to foster a safer, more accepting community.

Meanwhile, The Hills/Valley Community Coalition invites parents and their teens to an education program, “Growing up OVERexposed: Helping Teens Navigate in a Hyper-Sexualized Digital World,” on Wednesday, April 3 at 7 p.m. at Pascack Hills High School.

The program features keynote speaker Lauren Hersh, founder and national director of World Without Exploitation

Grewal: ‘Hate against one community is hate against all’

At the March 19 Unity in the Valley kickoff event, one highlight was the keynote by Grewal, a Sikh, the state’s 61st attorney general and the nation’s first Sikh top cop.

In his address, Grewal—who was raised in Westwood and the Township of Washington, said that as attorney general he is “committed to using all of the tools of this office to protect those in danger.”

Calling out recent acts of hate-based vandalism in New Jersey, including in local schools, he said, “We must treat an act of hate against any one of our communities as an act of hate against all of our communities.”

He added, “We must also push back when the federal government fails to protect all of its residents or when it pursues half baked policies that do nothing to make us safer. It’s not just the federal government—we must also hold our local governments accountable.”

Grewal, named to his post by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, has been the object of hate and outspoken ignorance for his religion and his cultural garb. He said he has been accused of being a terrorist and told he should “go home.”

Before rising to AG, Grewal was Bergen County Prosecutor for almost two years. He was an assistant U.S. attorney in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey and for the Eastern District of New York. He began his legal career in private practice.

As Bergen County prosecutor, Grewal made combatting the opioid crisis a prime law enforcement initiative.

He said messages of hate are “no longer being confined to the dark corners of the internet; they are now being said in our public squares,” and called for vigilance and compassion—and for love to set an example.

In July 2018 disc jockeys mocked him on air as “turban man.” They apologized and were suspended.

“It’s not the first indignity I’ve faced and it probably won’t be the last,” Grewal said at the time.

Ghassali’s family has suffered

Montvale Mayor Michael Ghassali, who is Syrian-American and president of the Pascack Valley Mayors Association, spoke of his and his family’s experiences as targets of corrosive hate and bias, explaining that it is a crime.

He said ISIS terrorists killed one of his cousins in 2015, and recounted horrors of the 20th century, where 1.5 million Armenians and 600 Syrians were killed in 195 over their faith and nationality, and 6 million Jews and others were killed in the Nazi Holocaust between 1941 and 1945.

“As recent as the last few years, 500,000 Muslims and Christians were killed in Iraq and Syria because of their beliefs. We stand here today to declare that we will not stand for hate in any form and toward anyone,” he said.

He said students had the hopes of the majority with them for a better future. “I promise you we are here to cheer you on,” he said.

P. Erik Gundersen, superintendent of schools, gave welcoming remarks on the theme of unity and inclusivity in a time when hatred has easy expression.

Pastor Marc Stutzel of Christ Lutheran Church gave the invocation. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-Wyckoff, sent congratulations and support by video. Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Congregation B’nai Israel spoke on the power of setting intentions.

Students press the message

Pascack Valley seniors Bianca Belmonte and Samantha Nicklas, presidents of the school’s Human Rights League, called on audience members not to back down from hate but rather to act for good.

As reported in The Smoke Signal, the students’ news outlet, “We became infamous for publishing an opinion piece…that addressed the racism and bigotry going on in our school,” Belmonte said. 

“It was the Human Rights League that ripped the Band-Aid off the wound [referring to hateful vandalism] and acknowledged what was happening. But unfortunately, that wound is still blistering,” she added.

“We didn’t want to say that we’ve moved on and everything’s in the past and that it’s all better now. We wanted to be as real as possible and address what is really going on in the school,” The Smoke Signal said they added.

(For the record, The Smoke Signal’s multimedia coverage of this event, including voices from the community, arguably deserves an award. Check it out online.)

Among those representing the high school’s Gay Straight Alliance were Beck Kerdman and Reece Ferrentino.

The Anti-Defamation League sent its New York and New Jersey regional director, Evan Bernstein.

Senior Madison Gallo led an exercise having attendees write down the name of someone who has done something to change their course in life, showing the power of one person making one decision.

State Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-River Vale) was among many area officials to attend.

She said online afterward, “We must all work together across party lines, religious beliefs, ethnicities, gender, sexual identity to stop hate and intolerance in all forms. As a local leader I pledge to continue to speak out against hate and work within our communities to prevent further hate crimes and incidents.”

The National Anthem was performed by the Pascack Hills and Pascack Valley Choir. The One Spirit Club was represented by Rachel Cohen, Olivia Jones, and Isabella Tjan, among others.

Closing prayer was by the Rev. Larissa Romero of Pascack Reformed Church.

Community: Unity in the Valley – PV Smoke Signal

Unity in the Valley is comprised of a group of community leaders in the Pascack Valley of Bergen County, New Jersey, united in their opposition to all forms of hate and aggression towards any group or individual. Its mission is to help build tolerance and understanding for all through education in order to foster a safer, more accepting community.

Created in 2018 by local municipal leaders from Hillsdale, Montvale, River Vale and Woodcliff Lake, along with support from the Superintendent of Schools for the Pascack Valley Regional High School District, Unity in the Valley has grown to include a cross-section of religious leaders, student groups, law enforcement and volunteer organizations.

I was one of the faith leaders who spoke at a gathering on March 19, 2019 at Pascack Valley High School. Below is a copy of the article written by Rachel Cohen and Madison Gallo for Pascack Valley’s Smoke Signal: PVRHSD holds Unity in the Valley event at PV.

New Jersey’s 61st Attorney General Gurbir Grewal is the first Sikh in the U.S. to become an attorney general. Gurbir gave a keynote presentation, along with prominent community members, students, faith leaders, and a message from New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer at the Unity in the Valley event that took place at 7 p.m. in the Pascack Valley auditorium on Tuesday, March 19.

“We’re gathering together to say that we’re not going to let someone else change who were are,” said Pastor Marc Stutzel of the Christ Lutheran Church.

Grewal, a Bergen County native who grew up in Westwood and Washington Township, shared anecdotes of times when he was faced with hate. He was sworn in twice as a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, New York, and Bergen County. Grewal was appointed by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy as the New Jersey Attorney General around 14 months ago.

“As our state’s chief law enforcement officer, I am committed to using all of the tools of this office to protect those in danger,” Grewal said. “We must treat an act of hate against any one of our communities as an act of hate against all of our communities. We must also push back when the federal government fails to protect all of its residents or when it pursues half baked policies that do nothing to make us safer. It’s not just the federal government — we must also hold our local governments accountable.”“

Grewal is a Sikh, which means he practices Sikhism, a religion founded in the Northern Indian region of Punjab. As a Sikh, Grewal covers his head with a turban. He is the first Sikh Attorney General in the nation.  

Grewal said children have approached him asking for three wishes or if he was Osama Bin Laden while their parents stood by and did nothing. While Grewal was the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of New Jersey, he was stopped at a security gate because the guard claimed he “wasn’t on the list” to speak to young professionals at a corporation in New Jersey; ironically, he was giving a presentation about diversity and inclusivity.

“I have been told to go back home so many times and in such impolite terms, but I know they don’t mean go back to Bergen County,” Grewal said. “I have been called at times a towel head, a rag head, a terrorist. Sometimes, I endure these experiences alone, but unfortunately other times, I’ve experienced them as my three young daughters have watched.”

“[Hateful comments] are no longer being confined to the dark corners of the internet,” Grewal said. “They are now being said in our public squares. We have seen recent acts of vandalism across this county and across the state where individuals have painted the walls of schools, synagogues, and homes of words that we thought long disappeared from our memories. It happened right here at Pascack Valley, and it happened more than once. Just one week after finding those swastikasofficials found racist and homophobic slurs etched onto plaques of the baseball field.”

Personal ties to hate influence Mayor of Montvale

Michael Ghassali, the mayor of Montvale and the president of the Pascack Valley Mayors Association, said that hate is “a crime, an offense like murder, arson, and vandalism with bias against race, color, religion, disabilities, sexual orientation, gender, and nationality” while he was discussing experiences of hate in his personal life.“

One of the instances he spoke about was the murder of his cousin in May of 2015 at the hands of terrorists from ISIS.

“In 1915, 1.5 million Armenians and 600 Syrians were killed because of their faith and their nationality, and between 1941 to 1945, 6 million Jewish people were killed because of their faith and millions suffered,” Ghassali said. “As recent as the last few years, 500,000 Muslims and Christians were killed in Iraq and Syria because of their beliefs. We stand here today to declare that we will not stand for hate in any form and towards anyone.”

Ghassali said that students and children can become “wonders” to the world to make society an accepting place.

“They can cure cancer, they can build bridges and highways to make our lives better, and I promise you,” Ghassali said, “we are here to cheer you on.”

‘The wound is still blistering’ 

PV seniors and co-presidents of PV’s Human Rights League Bianca Belmonte and Samantha Nicklas spoke about the need for individuals to act in order to make a difference.

“We became infamous for publishing an opinion piece on [The Smoke Signal] that addressed the racism and bigotry going on in our school,” Belmonte said. “It was the Human Rights League that ripped the bandaid off the wound and acknowledged what was happening. But unfortunately, that wound is still blistering.”

Belmonte and Nicklas said they want to encourage students to be someone who makes a change by being “proactive rather than reactive.”“

“We didn’t want to say that we’ve moved on and everything’s in the past and that it’s all better now,” Nicklas said. “We wanted to be as real as possible and address what is really going on in the school.”

Belmonte and Nicklas wanted to place an emphasis on depicting the school’s climate genuinely during their presentation, and according to Belmonte, “even the students who aren’t in the Human Rights League know that the [PV] is not in the best shape right now.”

“We understand that the work we do is hard and often unpopular,” Nicklas said. “The Human Rights League is a small group that continues to work tirelessly, and sadly, often times singularly, without as much support from the school or community as we would like. Unfortunately, we cannot force members of the school community to participate. We cannot force people to care.”

PVRHSD Superintendent Erik Gundersen recaps the event

Unity in the Valley, according to Pascack Valley Regional High School District Superintendent Erik Gundersen, is not really an organization. Instead, he refers to it as a concept: “It’s the message, it’s the mission, it’s the symbol.” He intends for Unity in the Valley to be a “larger and louder” message to the symbols of hate.

The organizers of this event are comprised of one city council member from each of the four towns in the PVRHSD: Hillsdale, Montvale, River Vale, and and Woodcliff Lake.

“If we can get the 99.9 percent of our community to rally around Unity in the Valley, that will drown out the 0.1 percent of the individuals that are spreading the wrong message,” Gundersen said. “The student speakers were phenomenal, the faith leaders really have a perspective and an angle that we weren’t able to replicate as a school district, and I thought the representatives from the Anti-Defamation league and certainly the Attorney General just had fantastic and meaningful messages for all of us.”