OLEAN, NY – Many people of different religious backgrounds gathered Thursday evening in St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Olean to pray for peace in the aftermath of a gunman's opening fire in two New Zealand mosques and killing 50 worshipers a week ago.
The service began with a universal prayer from the Rev. Kim Rossi, the pastor of the church. Rossi, a proud member of the Olean community, said she is encouraged by the support of the locals.
"It touches my heart," Rossi said. "It gives me faith and brings me joy in this community where people of different types of faith can come together and pray together in unity. It also gives me great pride that I live in a community in which such an event is allowed to happen and not just allowed to happen, but also supported and well attended. It gives me a really good sense of peace and joy to be in the community of Olean, where we do these things for each other and with each other."
After a solemn call for peace and unity, the floor was opened to those in attendance.
The Rev. Michael Calabria, OFM, director of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at St. Bonaventure, said the New Zealand shootings were attacks on everyone, regardless of faith.
"I feel what has happened in New Zealand is a crime against all of us," Calabria said. "It's a tragedy that we all share."
Calabria said he is "deeply connected" to the Muslim community in Olean and believes that everyone needs to come together to end the hate.
"We all must be aware that this is a concern that we all share," Calabria said. "We must all stand together against violence, racism, islamophobia, anti-Semitism and against all forms of hatred in the world. It's something that all people of faith must unite in love in order to vanquish."
The efforts of other faiths to condemn the hateful terror act have not gone unnoticed by those in the Muslim community.
Asad Syed, an Olean resident since 2001, expressed his gratitude to the other faith communities.
"We cannot thank the people of the community enough," Syed said. "It's very beautiful to see people of all different communities gather and pray for us and pray for everybody. It is very beautiful. It is very nice and very moving and strengthening at the same time that we see that we are not alone."
Syed, who is also the treasurer of the Islamic Society of Southern Tier, welcomes all who lack knowledge of Islam to visit the center to learn more about the faith.
"The more we know each other and make an effort to know each other I think will remove barriers and increase understanding among people," Syed said. "I think as community members that's what we can do. We strengthen the communities from within. When we strengthen the community, we strengthen everything. Everybody stands together."
Bruce Levine, a participant in the interfaith community in Olean, said he believes that there is more he can do about ending hate in the world, rather than complaining.
"I was very unhappy with the way things were going in our society," Levine said. "I needed to find some way I could work to make our community and our world a better place. This seemed to be something that was dear to my heart."
Both Rossi and Levine said that the best way to bring about change in the world is to bring people together. They believe that through unity and prayer the world can become a better place.
"That's why I began here with the interfaith community, just trying to draw people together and to bring unity to a divided world and divided country," Levine said.
"We gather together in times of great happiness," Rossi said. "We break food together. We pray together and share our various faiths together. I think that brings a level of understanding, relationship and connectiveness. With those types of things, I think that helps to bring a community together that focuses on peace and love."