Latter-day Saint apostle calls New York interfaith group a model in its influence for good
N.Y. Commission of Religious Leaders helped stop a proposal to legalize prostitution: ‘We came together as one voice which could not be ignored by government.’
When New York state considered legalizing prostitution in 2019, the Rev. Que English already was the head of an anti-human trafficking organization seemingly named for the moment: Not On My Watch, Inc.
She was grateful that Not On My Watch didn’t have to stand alone. By her side were her influential colleagues on the New York Commission of Religious Leaders.
CORL released a joint statement and successfully opposed the proposal. The statement’s signees included the Catholic Archbishop of New York, the pastor of a Christian megachurch in Brooklyn, the executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis and a new member — an area seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“We came together as one voice which could not be ignored by government,” the Rev. English said Thursday night at BYU’s Hinckley Center during the final session of the Religious Freedom Annual Review.
CORL also is positively impacting maternal mortality rates, prison reform and food insecurity in and around New York City.
That interfaith collaboration is a model for how religion can make a positive difference, Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said as he moderated a panel discussion by CORL members.
The commission’s president and vice president met Thursday with the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ. Presidents Russell M. Nelson, Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring presented each with the First Presidency Medallion.
Elder Cook congratulated CORL for “the excellent religious leadership you are providing in New York City. I believe it is an excellent example to many places in this and other countries. You have our love and our appreciation.”
Thursday’s conference included a session on building interfaith alliances and networks to support religious freedom and engage in social causes like hunger, homelessness and criminal justice.
“I liken it to us being trusted messengers in our city with the power to influence for good,” the Rev. English said in an interview with the Deseret News. “It’s one thing to go in as one religion. It’s another thing to go in as interfaith. When interfaith is represented and you have those who are voices already in their individual faith come together under one roof, change is inevitable or impact is inevitable.”
CORL added a Latter-day Saint representative in 2018, Elder David L. Buckner, an area seventy. In his first meeting, he was impressed as he watched the religious leaders discuss New York’s biggest issues and counsel with each other and with city leaders.
“I remember the Rev. Al Sharpton saying something to the effect of, ‘Elder Buckner, we might be in different ships, but we are in the same storm,’” Elder Buckner said. “And it was at that moment that I realized that this table was not only inclusive, but it counseled together.”
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis and vice president of CORL, said the religious leaders can help government find solutions.
“CORL is a very significant organization, a group of respected faith leaders in the city of New York that sit with government officials and has a voice in policy,” he said. “We’re independent. We don’t need government to give us anything. We want to make sure that we can give government the support they need in confronting the challenges of life, whether it’s homelessness, crime — there’s a host of issues; we don’t lack for problems.”
The CORL delegation said the addition of a Latter-day Saint leader has added to its ability to address issues and make an impact.
For example, the Rev. A.R. Bernard, president of CORL and pastor of the Christian Cultural Center Megachurch, said his church was feeding 25,000 people a year before the pandemic increased the need. It is now feeding 100,000 a year, with help from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which also provided volunteer missionary labor to help distribute the goods.
“We have a kindred spirit for service and the kingdom,” said Bishop Victor A. Brown, senior pastor of Mt. Sinai United Christian Church and a member of the College of Bishops of the World Council of Independent Christian Churches.
He said that after Elder Buckner showed an interest in food insecurity, Bishop Brown showed him his church’s food pantry. Elder Buckner arranged a $32,000 gift to purchase a new commercial refrigerator, new shelving and non-perishable goods to stock them.
“We’re excited and I definitely see it as an ongoing partnership,” Bishop Brown said. “I’m just incredibly impressed with what I have seen thus far in terms of the mobilization efforts. It’s as if they’ve covered all the bases. They’ve thought about every need that a person could ever have and said we’re going to put something in place.
“They have truly incarnated the mission of Jesus Christ in terms of being accessible and available to the least of these.”
Elder Buckner said CORL helps the church provide aid where it is needed most.
“You are where the rubber hits the road,” he said. “You know the people. You know exactly what’s needed. We didn’t, but we could offer the partnership of food to be delivered and to offer some manpower.”
Latter-day Saint missionaries help serve hand out food to 400-600 families each week at the Christian Cultural Center’s Long Island outreach campus, said Annette Bernard, the center’s executive director of community affairs.
“They come in with such energy and such focus and such love,” she said. “They change the atmosphere.”
Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, said his organization and those they help have benefited from the important help of hundreds of Latter-day Saint missionaries.
He and Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, CORL’s vice president, said they were happy to have had their charities included in the Latter-day Saint Light the World Giving Machines in New York City.
“People could buy a basketball for kids for after-school sports or they could buy a food package of groceries that could benefit a family for a week or so. They could buy some MetroCards so that people couldn’t take take the subway,” Monsignor Sullivan said.
Elder Cook emphasized two of the benefits of religious freedom.
“The first is the way religious accountability benefits secular society,” he said, noting that faith inspires people to be morally upright and obey laws. “The second is the multitude of good works that religion inspires people of faith to perform on behalf of others,” he added.
He and the other religious leaders said they do not compromise their theologies by working together.
“We can walk on separate paths to our respective houses of worship,” Rabbi Potasnik said, “but there comes that moment when all of us know we have to walk on the path of humanity together as one family.”
The Rev. English said they simply work together to meet human needs. She encourage those attending the conference to start interfaith groups to influence governments in their own communities.
“Everywhere we find Jesus operating in scripture, where he was moved with compassion, he followed with action,” she said.
The annual summit drew religious leaders, advocates and legal experts from across the nation. The president and CEO of Christianity Today sat on a panel with a reporter from The Atlantic who is Jewish, a Muslim professor from Long Island University and the CEO for the Center for Public Justice.
The conference also included three tracks of specialized training or discussion:
- On one track, three sessions focused on what people can do in their own local communities. One was about building bridges with LGBTQ groups. Another was about building interfaith partnerships. The third was about building local religious freedom coalitions.
- Another track centered on religion making a positive difference, with sessions about preventing genocide, welcoming the stranger and helping with criminal justice.
- A final track specifically for attorneys included three sessions on recent legislation and court cases across the country.