Looking out to an audience of Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and other religious people, Dr. Tulsi Maharjan said Somerset County has become a “small global village” since he arrived 25 years ago.
“We all came in different boats, but now we are in the same boat,” he said.
Tulsi, the president of the Somerset County Cultural Diversity Coalition, and other community leaders spoke about religious diversity and the importance of interfaith dialogue at the 13th Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Dinner & Diversity Award Ceremony Nov. 22 in Raritan Valley Community College’s Grand Conference Room.
The event celebrated diversity through a flag ceremony led by Boy Scout Troop 185 in Branchburg, NJ, a spiritual sing-along led by Tim Burke of Fanwood Scotch Plains Rotary, interfaith prayers, thanksgiving dinner and a diversity awards presentation. The Rotary Club of Branchburg, Somerset County Cultural Diversity Coalition, RVCC Rotaract Club and Friends of Nepal New Jersey sponsored the event.
Tulsi said that when he moved to Somerset County it took him one hour to drive to the nearest Buddhist temple, whereas it now takes just ten minutes. That meant that his son, Anil, grew up with few Buddhist friends.
“To put it bluntly, [I was around] a lot of white guys,” Anil Maharjan said. “I’m sorry that’s the best way to put it.”
Since Tulsi’s arrival, the county has evolved. According to the United States census, Somerset County’s white population declined nearly ten percent to 70.06% between 2000 and 2010. In addition, more places of worship have been built in the county, some of which have cost over $10 million to construct.
“Sometimes we’re in our comfort zone and say we’re fine with our own,” Tulsi said. “But the world has changed…and sometimes it’s difficult for us to change with it.”
Anil said that growing up, he thought a lot about how he needed to expand his borders. “And luckily, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do so,” he said. “One thing I’ve always thought about is how important interfaith dialogue is. Because…if you’re not willing to have your mind open to those conversations, you’ll continue having the same friends.”
Global interfaith dialogues
Cy Thannikary, chairman of Erasng Borders, and Charlotte Bennett Schoen, creator of the Faith Space Photo Exhibit, held presentations at the event and discussed ways they are promoting interfaith dialogues.
Thannikary said the goal of Erasing Borders is to bring peace to Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. The organization will do this, he said, three ways.
The first is by promoting economic opportunities and building educational projects for the youth, who make up over 50% of the population in these countries. “Good education means good jobs. Good jobs mean less violence,” Thannikary said. “We want children to grow up to rebuild the country within.”
The second is by organizing an “interfaith communal harmony summit.” But because of the conflict in the region, Thannikay said, “It’s a rough road.” So far, the group has received help from community organizations, the United Nations, religious groups and universities.
The third is by sending out “peace briefings” to newspapers around the world. Thannikay said despite plenty of instances of people from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India working together, the media focuses only on bad news in the region.
Schoen, peace and conflict chair of Rotary International District 7490, showcased a 44-poster pop-up exhibit that originated in Burma and features people of different faiths and beliefs.
The exhibit is meant to show how, in a diverse society, people can live together, help one another and celebrate the differences that make a strong society.
Schoen’s work over the last four years with non-profit organizations in Southeast Asia inspired the idea for the exhibit. While in Burma, she worked with the non-profit organization Smile and helped document the murders of Muslims by Buddhists.
She was also inspired by the film The Lady, which she saw in Thailand. The film documents the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, chairperson of the National League of Democracy in Burma and winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize for Peace. Schoen showed this film to the District Interact Conference in 2013.
Schoen has also traveled with “Faith in Action graffiti boards” – boards that contain words of peace written in different languages – which she displayed at the event.
Three organizations and five individuals received awards.
RVCC Rotaract Club received the Youth Leader award. Members have completed over 3000 hours of service in the past five years, and graduates of the club are continuing their work at other colleges. This year, former RVCC Rotaract president Yasha Patel established a Rutgers Rotaract Club for the first time in the university’s history, and work is underway to establish one at Kean University.
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Somerset Hills (UUCSH) received the Faith Community award. Since its beginning in 1996, UUCSH has conducted peace seminars, World Peace Day celebrations, interfaith forums and fundraised to support both national and international projects.
The Philippine Chamber Rondalla of New Jersey received the Community Service award. The mission of the chamber is to elevate the performance standards and repertoire of Rondalla musicians in the New York metropolitan area and to promote appreciation of the rich musical heritage of the Philippines.
Toni and Naulchavee DeStefano received the Community Volunteers awards. They are founding members of the Thai Association of Northern Pennsylvania, whose mission is to preserve Thai culture.
As a Vietnam veteran, Toni volunteers as an outreach coordinator for Operation Chillout, an organization that provides care for military veterans and homeless people. Naulchavee helps with Operation Chillout’s fund raising activities.
Rotaract members Joel Reyes and Jorge Moran-Nestor received the President’s Volunteer Service Award for completing over 150 hours of service work.
When asked how it felt to receive an award signed by President Obama, Moran-Nestor said it felt good, but he has been volunteering since middle school and has never done it to get awarded. “Just knowing that someone else is doing better makes me feel good,” he said.
When asked the same question, Reyes said, “I feel a little indifferent. The award is great, but I didn’t do it for the award, and until recently, I didn’t even know about it.
“I value community service a lot. This developed when my parents separated. I saw them struggle. I knew the only way we would get through this was if we worked together. I wanted to bring this through to the community.”
Rotaract’s history and the coalition’s diversity ceremony
Nemanja Nikitovic, the Rotaract Club advisor and professor of mathematics at RVCC, received the Peter Biondi Education Award.
Nikitovic has had a long history with the Rotaract Club, beginning when he left Serbia to live in the United States two weeks after the September 11 attacks.
“I did not understand any of it. No friends. It was challenging,” Nikitovic said. “But I came to RVCC, and I found Dr. Tulsi. Well, he found me. He opened the door and said try this out.”
What Nikitovic tried out was the college’s newly formed Rotaract Club, of which Tulsi was the advisor while working as the director of government relations at RVCC. Nikitovic eventually became the second president of Rotaract.
Meanwhile, Tulsi’s response to the September 11 attacks was to have Rotaract and the Somerset County Cultural Diversity Coalition—which he was a founding member— organize an event at RVCC to remember those who lost their lives. The event became known as the Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Dinner & Diversity Award Ceremony.
However, a few years later, Rotaract became inactive at RVCC and the event was held elsewhere. Nikitovic realizes that sustaining an organization at a two-year college can be challenging because students leave quickly. But he insists that the current members have already shown sustainability, and, he says, “Rotaract is a way of life.”
This article was edited on 12/2/14.