“Will I get a chance to meet him!?” exclaimed a nine-year old, whose wide eyes were fixed on the entrance of Resorts Casino, as he stood on his toes in attempt to see above the crowd.
Around him, the room filled with the chatter of over 400 people who Catholic Charities welcomed at their 14th annual Justice for All Dinner and Awards Ceremony at Resorts Hotel in Atlantic City – all of whom shared the same anticipation of one exceptional individual’s arrival.
This voice came from Abduljabbar, a young refugee from Syria, who was referring to the evening’s main honoree, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Archbishop of Newark. Abduljabbar was one of tens of thousands of refugees whom Cardinal Tobin has fiercely defended on a local and international level.
The face of another young refugee was pressed against a window overlooking the Atlantic. “I’ve never seen the ocean before,” she whispered, shortly before her younger brother excitedly grabbed her clothing and pointed towards the door.
Beaming from ear-to-ear, Cardinal Tobin entered the room, as heads turned and conversations came to a pause. He gracefully made his way around the room, warmly greeting and conversing with priests and nuns, agency staff, and guests – to the delight of everyone he encountered.
Perhaps no one’s eyes lit up brighter than Abduljabbar’s, whose wish came true, as Cardinal Tobin and Bishop Sullivan approached him and the other refugee families in attendance. These were families, forced to flee their homelands due to war and persecution, who had come to South Jersey from across the globe and recently resettled in South Jersey through Catholic Charities.
Staff made the introductions, as Tobin humbly bowed his head, and reached out with both hands to greet and welcome each and every one of them. Two bothers’ jaws dropped as they exchanged looks when Tobin spoke a few words to them in Arabic.
As guests made their way to Resorts’ Starlight Theater, they were treated to the sounds of Holy Spirit High School’s choir and musicians, positioned outside the entrance, filling the halls with “God help the Outcast”.
CBS newscaster and reporter, Pat Ciarrocchi, served as the emcee for the evening. Dinner was served following a welcome and invocation by Father John Thomas, Pastor of Saint Monica Parish in Atlantic City.
As the awards portion of the evening begun, Kevin Hickey, Executive Director of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden, explained just how consequential the fundraising dinner was to the 33,000 individuals assisted by Catholic Charities annually. Referencing Matthew 25, he explained the core mission of his agency: providing aid to the poorest and most vulnerable.
“This includes mothers and children who are victims of domestic violence, veterans coming home from war who need housing and employment, refugees who arrived here with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and people who have lost their homes to disasters.” Hickey also explained the significance of the Share the Journey campaign – a two-year campaign that was launched by Pope Francis in support in migrants and refugees in light of the global refugee crisis.
Offering first-hand testimony to the tragedy and triumph of immigrants who come to this country, was Moustafa Aloodri – an Iraqi refugee who now works full-time at Catholic Charities.
“My family and I had a nice life in Iraq. We owned a business. But with the war came violence, and we were forced to leave to stay alive,” Aldoori explained. “I’m honored to be here, and I’m just one of thousands of migrants who have come to this country to contribute, to start a better life.”
A part of the event, five local honorees from across the Diocese were recognized as “Disciples of Mercy” for their exemplary spiritual and corporal works of mercy in the Camden Diocese: Margaret Steadman of Saint Monica Parish in Atlantic City; The Gardening Angels of Mercy Community Gardeners of Mary, Mother of Mercy Parish in Glassboro; Nancy E. Whatley Griffin, Esq. of Sacred Heart Parish in Camden; Michael Ciccotta of Saint Thomas More Parish in Cherry Hill; and Joseph Sosnowsky of Saint Damien Parish in Ocean City.
The evening continued with Bishop Dennis Sullivan taking center stage. He spoke, first thanking the audience for their support of Catholic Charities. “Whether responding to Superstorm Sandy victims, unemployed workers fighting through economic downturns, the growing opioid crisis, refugees and immigrants, or people suffering from food insecurity or unable to meet their basic needs, Catholic Charities has been there, on the front lines.”
In warmly introducing the event’s main guest of honor, Bishop Sullivan began, “To our newest resident of the great state of New Jersey, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, thank you for joining us today. We are honored by your presence. Your work on behalf of refugees and immigrants is exactly the message our sisters and brothers, and especially our elected officials, need to see right now. You have shown us, in a very public way, that it is one of our most important responsibilities to always welcome the stranger.”
Bishop Sullivan presented the Cardinal with a crystal plaque of the Saint John Neumann award. Saint John Neumann, former Bishop of Philadelphia, is the patron saint of immigrants.
Four teenage refugee girls from Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan unveiled a personal gift for Cardinal Tobin – a clay sculpture that they crafted of four people holding hands on top of a globe. The sculpture rested on a wooden display stand made by a Syrian refugee carpenter. Moved the gift, he thanked the girls, and the room fell silent as he spoke.
Placing his hand on the gift, he said, “It’s humbling to see this very touching symbol and to realize the work that went into it. It’s humbling to be here with the Disciples of Mercy who have shown in their deeds what it means to be a true Disciple of Jesus.”
Praising Bishop Sullivan, he said, “I know what a leader he is, and what a voice he is for the Gospel here in South Jersey and beyond.”
He also spoke of the influence that his grandmother had on him, who came to the United States from Ireland. “She didn’t wake up one morning one day, and think, I think I’ll go to the United States. It was the desperate state of life in that poor county – and also the hope that something better could be won here that brought her.”
Weaving in humorous personal anecdotes throughout his speech, he also commented on the fear that seems to have taken a hold of our society. “I think we live in a society that is gripped by fear. Fear of the other. Fear of the unknown, fear of losing what we have, and fear of becoming something else. I think we discover the peace of Christ in our hearts that allows us to live, maybe not free completely from fear, but to live and put faces on the fearful that are thrusted at us by popular culture and by the media. Show people the face of the unborn. Show people the face of the prisoners. Let them figure out that these are real people – these are daughters and sons of God. They have dignity because they have a face. There are efforts today to take away faces so that the unborn become an appendage, the refugee becomes a threat, the prisoner is irredeemable, the elderly can be discarded. What Catholic Charities does is put a face on people, and what you do, is showing those faces – ‘this is what they look like’.”
He concluded by reflecting upon advice from Pope Francis. “I encourage you to answer the fear with faces. Our faces. The faces of the families we help. The faces of the lowly, the forgotten, the marginalized, who, by definition, can become invisible. And to remember the words that Francis said not long ago – ‘Consult not your fears, but your hopes and dreams. Think not about your frustration, but about your unfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you have tried and failed in, but with what is still possible for you to do.’ The fear can paralyze us, but the faces beckon to us. And I thank you for your faces. And with great gratitude, thank you. Because your faith, your generosity, and your commitment, strengthens my faith. God bless you.”
The evening ended with a thunderous round of applause and standing ovation, before Sister Agnes of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal and Cardinal Tobin closed the event with a final prayer.