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File photo by Rachel Shapiro

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

It’s hard to believe that another school year has ended and the high school class of 2016 is in the midst of moving on. This class, like all classes before them, has made a powerful impact upon all of our communities. There are a record number of seniors going off to Ivy League colleges on scholarships. There are an exceptional number of young people going off to the service academies and enlisting in the military.

This year’s high school seniors have made their mark scholastically as well as athletically. An impressive number of sports teams have made it to the states with significant numbers bringing state titles home to their high schools in our local communities.

However, what is most impressive about the Class of 2016 is how many seniors, in addition to all their school activities, are involved in community service. Yes, many school districts have a mandatory requirement, but many don’t. More significant is the number of students who complete their obligatory number of hours and continue to give of themselves without expecting anything in return and the countless number of seniors who give of themselves with no compelling obligation.

This past year there have been so many different campaigns to help the sick, the poor and the terrorized, not to mention the various specialized needs of people who have suffered terrible tragedies due to hate, violence and terror.  So many of our seniors from the Class of 2016 gave from their hearts.

It is a commitment to community service in the spirit of inclusiveness that is refreshing, especially since we live in a world that seems more grounded in narcissism and self-centeredness, rather than thinking about others first, especially those in need.

Seniors, as you continue your journey, do not let the social filters of our time enable bigotry, exclusivity and social injustice. Showing compassion and understanding rooted in justice is more significant than a science formula. These are difficult lessons to learn because they demand that you risk all that you are now for what you could become tomorrow.

Teach love to those who know hate and let that love embrace you as you continue in the world.

Look around you! We are living in a very challenging world. A new revolution is afoot. Your generation is moving away from the indifference and complacency of yesterday and moving toward a new idealism of freedom and responsibility. Despite the recent act of terrorism and hate in Orlando, Florida, where 50 innocent young people were gunned down because of hate, it still gives me hope that tomorrow can and will be better.

As you graduate from high school, keep these simple thoughts in mind: May you discover enough goodness in others to believe in a world of peace and to work for peace grounded in justice.

May a kind word, a reassuring touch and a warm smile be yours every day of your life. Remember the sunshine when the storm seems unending. Teach love to those who know hate and let that love embrace you as you continue in the world.

May the teachings of those you admire become a part of you so that you may call upon them. It is the content and quality of who you are that is important, not merely the actions you take.

Don’t judge a book by its cover, or stop at the introduction. Read it through, seek the meaning and messages it offers for life, for everyone’s life is sacred, and even those who are different from you or whom you do not like.

Be more inclusive than exclusive. Don’t be blinded by those who tend to use shame, blame and guilt to shackle people down and divide them. Set people free with your respect and nonjudgmental way.

May your moral compass be grounded in respect for all human beings, no matter what their color, their race, their creed or their sexual orientation. May this compass guide you on a path that is committed to working for peace and social justice. As Gandhi once said, “Be the change you hope for in the world.”

Congratulations graduates of the Class of 2016. Thanks for making the world a little richer, a little brighter and a better place to be!

Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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Residents read the names of all Charleston and Orlando victims, who each had a candle lit in their memory. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

On Friday evening, a diverse group of pastors and residents showed that, in the wake of unspeakable tragedy, there is more good in the world than evil.

They gathered together at the Mount Sinai Congregational Church to honor the nine churchgoers who were killed a year ago in a shooting spree during a peaceful Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, as well as the 49 killed in an all-too-similar fashion in a gay nightclub in Orlando last week. While both massacres are products of hatred and bigotry, those who attended Friday’s service united under a theme of love and acceptance.

The service of remembrance was organized by the Mount Sinai church and the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Setauket, where a North Shore family related to one of the nine people shot and killed go regularly and last year’s service for victims was held. Just a week after 21-year-old Dylann Roof sat down in a Charleston church, participated in the readings, engaged with others, and ultimately stood up to open fire and take lives, the Three Village community showed up in droves to pay respects.

Greatly touched by the healing that took place, Bethel AME pastor Rev. Gregory Leonard and Mount Sinai resident Tom Lyon were quick to ensure this year’s anniversary service and, in light of another mass murder, a call for unity and support seemed necessary now more than ever.

Willie White, a Setauket resident, holds up a picture of his second cousin, a victim in the Charleston shooting. Photo by Kevin Redding
Willie White, a Setauket resident, holds up a picture of his second cousin, a victim in the Charleston shooting. Photo by Kevin Redding

“It’s important that people of goodwill come together,” Leonard said to the intimate and emotional crowd. “We have to build bridges and get to know each other. As I press on in years, I think about the legacy that we will leave, and I hope all of us can say at one point that we were building some bridges, we came together and we cared and didn’t just let a moment pass us by.”

Setauket church member Willie White held up a picture of his cousin, the Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, one of the victims in Charleston, and spoke at length about dealing with a tragedy that hits so close to home.

His family in Charleston had to wait hours after news broke of the shooting before they knew anything, he said, reduced to unbearable panic trying to call and get hold of their loved one, who would soon be confirmed as one of the fallen.

He called to action the importance of not seeing one another as different, saying that we are capable of avoiding future tragedies if we stand together. This is something he notices often in the aftermath of a traumatizing incident.

“I saw people of all walks of life hugging each other,” White said. “Why can’t we live like that every day? On that particular night, Charleston changed. The people changed. Unfortunately, it took nine lives for a change. I’m sure there’s gonna be a change in Florida. But look how many lives it took. We can think back on so many lives that have been taken with guns. And still, guns are on the market.”

Emotionally battered and certainly passionate about a need for change, Shahina Chaudry, a Muslim from the area, stood up and explained that her brother was among the 67 people killed by terrorists in the 2013 Westgate shopping mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, and she understands exactly what the grieving families are going through.

“May God be with them, may God make them strong,” she said. “And may there be big, big changes in this country and may we all be part of those changes. I’m happy to be with all of you.”

A resident named Ira Apsel then stood up and faced Chaudry, offering his condolences.

“An old Hebrew prayer is ‘shalom aleichem,’ meaning ‘peace be with you’, and the response is ‘aleichem shalom,’ meaning ‘and also with you’… Shalom aleichem.”

“Aleichem shalom,” Chaudry responded.

Apsel composed himself as much as possible when he said that everybody has so much in common, and the evil in society must not be allowed to keep everybody apart. Leonard helped solidify this notion by leading the church in a sing-along of “This Little Light of Mine” before the names of each and every victim of Charleston and Orlando were read and honored with lit candles.

Before the service ended and people took time to commiserate with each other, Mount Sinai pastor Ron Wood drove home the importance of acceptance.

“Places where you gather with others like you, essentially, are sanctuaries,” he said. “Where you can be who you are without judgment. Pulse was a sanctuary. AME Church was a sanctuary. A sanctuary isn’t a place to escape. It’s a place to be strengthened and nurtured.”

As everybody filed out of the church, they were holding each other, laughing and smiling, and appearing even more unified than they were upon entering only an hour or so prior. In the wake of a tragedy that should destroy all hope and joy, the Mount Sinai Congregational Church was certainly a place to be strengthened and nurtured.

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