WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange human relations commissioners took advantage of a sunny Labor Day morning when they and about 60 West Orange residents gathered on Main Street at the steps of Town Hall for the Unity Rally. Organized by Mike Taylor and Simone Shenassa, the event featured speakers from various local religious groups and musical performers who led the crowd in song.
“There have been a few unity events in town in the last few weeks,” Taylor said at the event. “To me, that speaks to the community that we live in and should be proud of. When we started thinking that we needed to do something, it turns out there were a bunch of folks in West Orange who were also thinking, ‘We need to do something.’”
Taylor referred to the vigil for Charlottesville, Va., that was organized by Essex Rising two weeks ago and the upcoming Love and Unity festival to be held at the Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center on Saturday, Sept. 9.
Rabbi Robert Tobin of B’nai Shalom synagogue in West Orange told those gathered that it is vital. when celebrating being American, to remember the origins of the country.
“The legacy of labor, when it comes to America, is a mixed legacy,” Tobin said at the event. “If we reach back to the founding fathers, we hear the echo of truths when we say we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And today we are united in those ideals, but it would be historically fraudulent for us to say that those words meant to our fathers what they mean to us.”
While the Unity Rally was organized to celebrate all who live in the United States, regardless of race, gender or religion, Tobin reminded attendees that the country’s founding fathers did not include all people when they wrote the Declaration of Independence.
“The noble ideals of our founding fathers did not fully encompass all human beings who were living on this continent at that time,” he said. “There’s no disgrace in the fact that history has truths that we look back at and we may say those realities will not be our future. We say we know that the founding fathers had slavery in their midst. We know that the founding fathers did not include women in the vote. We know also, however, that the founding fathers envisioned shores of a nation that would welcome all who were willing to work to build the nation of diversity that we see today.”
Tobin closed his remarks by talking about those who make the United States inclusive and prosperous, saying that they should be viewed as role models.
“The people who get up every single day and go to work and come home every day and don’t get in fights and don’t have causes that want to tear other people down — they are the strength of America,” Tobin said. “They are the beauty and they are the greatness of America, the America that was, the America that we have become and the America that we must continue to be.”
Vocalist Cynthia Cumming, who accompanied keyboard player Mark Paulson and trumpeter Don Batchelder at the event, runs the food pantry at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, located down the street from Town Hall on Main Street. Cumming spoke about a time recently when the food pantry was in need of supplies and a group of residents stepped up to help with the effort.
“In only a day, we had $3,000 raised,” Cumming said at the event. “That says a lot about where we live.”
Rev. Alphonsus Platt from Nia Fellowship Baptist Church in West Orange charged attendees to learn from the past to ensure a bright future together.
“I came today along with so many people because I believe in unity. I believe that united we stand and divided we fall,” Platt said. “We have a tendency to look at the demise or the tragedies or the things that happen around us, but we need to realize that regardless of who we are, we’re all in the same boat together. If we don’t remember our history we are doomed to repeat it.”
Taylor agreed that, while the past should not be ignored, it does not need to define the country’s future.
“This is just the beginning,” Taylor said at the end of the rally. “Like I said, this is the third or fourth unity event in the last two weeks. So it seems like unity is a theme here in West Orange.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic