The Gerald Ryan Outreach Center's Director, Noelle Campbell has achieved special recognition from State Senator Phil Boyle, and will be receiving an award on Thursday, February 4th. Noelle is one of 12 outstanding contributors to our region of Western Suffolk County--in connection with Black History Month (February). Noelle's hard work, dedication and determination are well-known to anyone and everyone connected to the Ryan Center, and so it is with great pleasure that we congratulate Noelle and applaud her very tangible achievements.
By BART JONES firstname.lastname@example.org
Two dozen tables were laden with traditional Passover food: the mixture of apples, walnuts and wine called charoset symbolizing the mortar Hebrew slaves used to build pyramids in Egypt, and the saltwater representing the bound ones' tears.
But the setting Wednesday night was not a synagogue, temple or Jewish home. About 150 Jews, Christians and Muslims gathered at a Catholic church in Wyandanch for the ritual seder -- two days before the start of Passover and Good Friday -- in celebration of their beliefs' common ground.
The commemorations, which this year fall on the same day, "should be bringing us together, helping us to be more understanding of different traditions," said the Rev. William Brisotti, administrator of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Catholic Church, where the dinner was held.
"There is so much division and hostility in the world based on religious groups," he said. "We're trying to come in from a whole different angle. We're all ultimately children of the same God."
The interfaith seder also drew congregants from the Dix Hills Jewish Center, Temple Beth Torah in Melville and the Turkish Cultural Center of Long Island, a mosque in Deer Park. The supper included food prepared by members of the temple, as well as kosher-style Hispanic, African-American, Haitian and European foods. A "Noah's pudding" dessert was provided by the Turkish center.
"I think it is wonderful they are honoring the Passover seder and the fact Jesus' last supper was a seder," said Judy Roth, a member of Temple Beth Torah.
Those at the gathering ate as leaders recounted -- in Hebrew, Spanish, Haitian Creole and English -- the story of Passover and the Hebrews' historic exodus out of slavery in Egypt 3,300 years ago, led by Moses. The Hebrews were instructed to place the blood of a slaughtered lamb above their doorways so that a plague sent by God to punish the Egyptians would "pass over" their homes and spare their firstborn sons.
Diana Weaver, a middle school computer teacher in Brentwood, said she was attending her first seder.
"I'm interested in learning something new," said Weaver, who belongs to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Huntington.
Her husband, Roger Weaver, who described himself as a nondenominational Christian, said, "It's good to get out and see the way other people do things. Otherwise, you get too insular."
Many Christians believe Jesus' last supper with his disciples, on what now is known as Holy Thursday, was a seder. Jesus, who was Jewish, most likely "went to the seder many times in his short life," said Rabbi Charles Klein, head of the Merrick Jewish Centre and a past president of the New York Board of Rabbis.
Good Friday commemorates the day 2,000 years ago that Jesus was crucified by the Romans. Christians believe he rose from the dead three days later, the Resurrection celebrated annually on Easter Sunday.
For many people, Klein said, Passover and Good Friday share the commonality of making the seemingly impossible a reality: the Hebrews escaping from slavery in ancient Egypt, then the most powerful nation on Earth, and Jesus' Resurrection.
"Both religions are saying what might seem to be impossible is not, so long as God plays a role in our lives," he said.
Of Long Island's nearly 2.9 million residents, about half identify themselves as Catholic and about one-quarter as Protestant, said the Rev. Thomas Goodhue, executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches. Those of other faiths, including Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, make up the remainder.
A growing number of Christian churches are holding "model" seders on Holy Thursday to help instruct the faithful about Passover and Christianity's common roots with Judaism, he said.
It is not highly unusual for the two holidays to fall on the same day, because they generally occur around the same time each year, Goodhue said. The last time Passover and Good Friday coincided was in 2012.
Rabbi Steven Moss, president of the Suffolk County Board of Rabbis, noted the coincident dates offer the opportunity for "communities coming together and sharing their culture and traditions."
"It's nice when these things happen," Moss said. "They don't happen enough in our world."
Thanks to many volunteer chefs and cooks too numerous to mention....and organizers (especially Edith and Elda, Dick and Betsy, Jim and Joe....and many others) we "broke new ground" on April 16th, 2014 by gathering for an interdenominational Seder Dinner and Celebration at the Miraculous Medal (OLMM) Parish Hall.
Tears streamed down the Rev. William Brisotti's face as he watched a fire set by an arsonist consume the outreach center at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Roman Catholic Church in Wyandanch on the night of Dec. 30, 2007.
The raging blaze at the parish he serves was "about the most devastating moment I've ever experienced," the priest recalled.
Today, as hundreds of thousands of Long Islanders at Easter services celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Brisotti and his staff are filled with amazement and gratitude: The Gerald J. Ryan Outreach Center, a vital lifeline for families in one of Long Island's poorest parishes, has literally risen from the ashes and is operating in a new $1.3 million facility.
"They destroyed the building, but they didn't destroy the heart of the parish and this place," said Brisotti, 71, who has worked on and off in the parish the past 40 years.
"At times people thought it would not happen" and the center never would reopen, he said. "I knew the heart of this place is not going to die."
A local man, who had apparent mental illness, was convicted of setting the fire.
That night, Brisotti was en route to the center after visiting relatives when he neared the church and rectory, where he lived, and saw firefighters battling the blaze.
The outreach center was engulfed, and flames were threatening the rectory and the church itself. Brisotti dashed into the church's sanctuary amid the smoke and retrieved the Blessed Sacrament -- the Communion hosts. When the fire finally was extinguished, much of the complex was gutted or damaged.
The long road back
Days later, the outreach center resumed operations, working in the parish hall and then from rented trailers and storage containers in the church parking lot.
It was hardly ideal: There was little privacy, and clients' conversations with case workers -- often including intimate details of family troubles -- could be overheard. To use the restroom, workers and clients had to don jackets and walk through rain, snow or cold to the parish offices.
The parish needed substantial money to build a new outreach center. Fundraising challenges and other problems dragged out the process for years. The 3,600-square-foot center was completed in June 2012, though it was months more before it resumed operations.
Today, it hums with activity, serving about 1,000 families a month. The center provides food, clothing, rental assistance, job counseling, translating and other services. It also runs an after-school program for up to 50 children and a summer camp for another 150 children in grades 1-6.
"We don't just have a building, we have a home," said Noelle Campbell, the center's director. "For me it is God -- God making it happen when there is no way for it to happen."
For many clients, the center is a godsend.
Pamela Beasley, 44, a single mother of two from Wyandanch, said she probably would be homeless if not for the help she has received. The disabled former factory worker survives on about $650 a month in welfare payments and relies on the center for food, clothing and other necessities.
"They did a lot for me when I was down and out in the gutter," she said. "I just love them."
Rebuilding the center and keeping it open has been a community effort, stretching far beyond Wyandanch. Parishioners gave what they could and donations came from many other sources. Twin college-age brothers ran from Montauk to Queens to raise money. Teenagers in Amityville held a dance-a-thon, while others in Nassau held a walkathon.
Some children literally emptied their piggy banks, Campbell said.
The effort also was ecumenical. Temple Beth Torah in Melville, two of whose members serve as chairman and vice chairman of the center's board of trustees, donated funds. So did the Dix Hills Jewish Center.
The Diocese of Rockville Centre became the single largest donor, providing several hundred thousand dollars.
The ongoing fight
Though the center is completed and the church and rectory have been fully repaired -- at a cost of another $1.6 million -- the battle is not over. Miraculous Medal still must pay to keep the center operating, and is running a $75,000 annual deficit, Campbell said.
The center, with four paid staff members and 35 volunteers, has an annual operating budget of about $325,000.
Cuts in government programs, including food stamps, have led to an increase of about 50 families a month seeking help, Campbell said.
One evening last week, the parish held an interfaith seder dinner to raise funds to help reduce the deficit. Jews, Muslims and Christians came together to mark Passover and Holy Week.
"The center is everything we wanted, but the poor are still with us and there are more of them," said Richard Koubek, a member of the board of trustees.
"We've been resurrected, but the truth is we are trying to keep our heads above water."