Listening to the speakers at the annual CommUNITY Prayer Breakfast last week at the Catholic Life Center in Baton Rouge brought a sense of hope and encouragement to Cornelius Hilliard, of Opelousas.
Hilliard was among the crowd of about 300 at the breakfast, which featured the lighting of candles and prayers for the Baton Rouge community as well as a special tribute to the three black, Opelousas-area churches burned to the ground earlier this year. The theme was “BR Healing: Naming our Story" and stressed listening and sharing stories to help healing.
Featured speakers were Bishop Michael Duca, of the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge, and Thich Dao Quang, of the Tam Bao Buddhist Temple. Other speakers included Rabbi Jordan Goldson, of Congregation B'nai Israel, and East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome.
"It was a blessing to be there and to see that they gave some emphasis to Opelousas, and they were serious what happened to us in Opelousas and the loss of the churches," said the 69-year-old Hilliard.
Although his church was not among those burned, Hilliard said he was one of the guides when the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge Executive Director the Rev. Robin McCullough-Bade, federation President Niloufer Mohamed and Vice President Dr. Kenneth O'Rourke visited the three churches during Holy Week.
"They came. They went around to all of the churches, and they viewed all of the churches," said Hilliard, who is an associate minister at Mount Olive Baptist Church.
"No words to describe what we saw," McCullough-Bade said of the scenes at St. Mary, Greater Union and Mount Pleasant Baptist churches in St. Landry Parish.
Hilliard said the concern of the Interfaith Federation, a group of about 50 congregations of various faiths, meant a lot to his community.
"It doesn't matter about denominations, but it's love for one another," he said. "When churches come together, and when God is in the midst, there is nothing that can stop the progress of the church."
Churches must continue to find a way to be united, Hilliard said.
"It's a very dangerous time in which we live," he said. "When people don't have any regard for the church and when people have a desire to destroy God's church, there's a sadness about it. We are in a dangerous situation, a dangerous world, a dangerous time."
McCullough-Bade spoke of the challenging times Baton Rouge has faced in recent years with floods, hurricanes and violence.
"We are living in a post-trauma time, but the good thing (is) you and I, we have been created for resiliency," she said. "We have been created not only to survive but to thrive by the grace of God. … Our story is powerful. … There's something free and appealing as we name our story."
McCullough-Bade shared the story of the three-legged stool. She said the stool is the most sturdy of all chairs, a symbol of resiliency, and she remembers sitting on the stool around campfires.
"This stool reminds us of a time when we used to pause, and listen to each other and tell our stories."
She said the stool offers a lesson about resiliency, and the three legs represent the three layers needed to help individuals and communities move forward: others, hope and meaning.
"Anytime we go through challenges in life, which we all do, we need all three of those," she said. "We need others, hope and meaning. But when you think about it, isn't that what happens in a church, in a synagogue, in a mosque, in a temple, in a house of worship? People come to find community. They come to find a message of hope and to get meaning."
There are about 650 congregations in Baton Rouge, McCullough-Bade said.
"What if each house of worship became a listening post for the wounded to come and to tell their stories, a place for people to come and tell their stories over and over and over until they find healing," she said.
The story of the three Opelousas churches was told in two moving original songs composed by Charlie deGravelles. The songs were "Conflagration Blues" and "You Can't Take My God From Me."
Duca spoke on "Giving Words to Our Story."
"It's only when we're willing to go beyond ourselves and tell our stories to others and let them tell their stories to us that we begin to gain understanding, begin to build hope, begin to build an answer to how to move forward," Duca said. "The telling of a story is really an act of grace."
Quang, who became the first Buddhist monk in Baton Rouge in 2003, talked about "Letting Go … or Not."
"I dream to bring all people in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, together, work together, help each other and enjoy living in peace and harmony and happiness, and let go all negative thinking, all negative energy, including thought, behavior and action," he said. "I believe in all persons, I believe in all views and together we can make Baton Rouge become a place where everyone can learn to live in love and peace."
Lighting the candles were Broome (prayer for those who work in government); Nancy Bourg, Louisiana World Peace Day, co-chairwoman (those who daily wage peace); Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul (police, firefighters and first responders); Dr. Quentina Timoll, assistant superintendent of East Baton Rouge Parish schools (educators, school administrators and staff); Rachel Hebert, president/CEO of Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response (victims of trauma); and the Rev. Anthony Monteleone, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church (faith communities).
"We can make an impact as it relates to our story here in this community and our healing in this community," Broome said. "And it starts very simple with one practice, and I'm going to ask you all as your mayor-president to join me in this practice, and that is to love God, to love your neighbor without exception. I believe that if we practice that as a community, we could see transformation take place."
The Catholic Life Center was the site of the group's first prayer breakfast in 1987. The Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge was formed in 1986 to serve as a catalyst for communication, coordination and collaboration among the local faith community.
For more information about the Interfaith Federation, visit ifedgbr.com or call (225) 267-5600.
By the side of the road
God bless the preacher trying to share the gospel with passersby near a major intersection recently. He held his Bible while standing near a white cross with the name of "Jesus" in red letters and a sign that read, "Where do you plan to spend eternity."
While I applaud his efforts, I wonder how effective that John the Baptist, prepare-ye-the-way-of-the-Lord-style preaching can be these days. It would seem that instead of considering the question of eternity, most drivers would consider those who preach the gospel on street corners to be eccentric, pretentious, weird or just crazy. That may be the case sometimes, but the question is a real one: Where do we plan to spend eternity? For those of us who have accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we are confident of the answer.
Revelation 22:1-5 says, "And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. There shall be no night there: they need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. And they shall reign FOREVER and EVER."
Like that preacher on the side of the road, we do bear much responsibility as children of God to share the gospel that others will live a life of hope and know for sure where they will spend eternity. We don't have to go on a street corner, but we can share right where we are and by the way we live.