RIO GRANDE – When COVID-19 social distancing concerns put an end to the planned Independence Day fireworks, Middle Township officials went to work, planning an event that would not only include fireworks but be a full-day celebration of freedom.
That celebration occurred Sept. 4, with a day-long, three-part event that began with a “freedom of religion” unity prayer service in the morning, “freedom of speech” reflections in the afternoon, and “freedom of assembly” fireworks, and a live band, at night.
The first two gatherings occurred at Ockie Wisting Complex, on Fulling Mill Road, in Rio Grande.
Freedom of Religion
The morning kicked off with a prayer service that included the Pledge of Allegiance, led by Middle Township Committeeman James Norris, and the singing of “America the Beautiful,” by Thomas Doyle.
Middle Township Mayor Timothy Donohue told the gathering that whatever their religious persuasions, Americans need to seek common ground.
“God bless our town and our country,” Donohue said. He introduced speaker Pastor Joseph Basso Sr., of Grace Baptist Church, in Rio Grande, who reminded those in attendance how freedom is obtained.
“Freedom comes not from any man or politician, but from God,” Basso said, relating the tyranny that brought the pilgrims to America, to churches having their activities curtailed by legislators.
“When the state steps in to determine whether or not church is a crucial activity, that’s a problem,” Basso said, to applause.
Pastor Jeff McLeod, of the Rio Grande Bible Baptist Church, learned about state interference in church activity firsthand when issued a warning by Middle Township Police Department, in April, for holding a drive-in worship service after Gov. Phil Murphy banned gatherings of 10 or more, saying the church service would violate the law. Murphy later removed his restrictions, which allowed the church to continue drive-in services.
“We have the constitutional right to be open, no matter what. We haven’t been called to stand down, but to stand up,” McLeod said.
Pastor Thomas Dawson, of SOAR Church, in Woodbine, spoke, encouraging the church “during these difficult times.”
Pastor Robert Stahler, of Great Commission Baptist Church, in Court House, said freedom of religion is a group effort.
“Anytime a Muslim brother is threatened, a Jewish brother is a victim of anti-Semitism, when a southern church is bombed or burned to the ground, we are all threatened,” Stahler said.
Local politicians addressed the crowd, including Freeholder Jeffrey Pierson and Assemblymen Antwan McClellan and Erik Simonsen (both R-1st).
Annie Farrow ended the event with a rousing rendition of “Amazing Grace” before the closing prayer by Stahler.
Freedom of Speech
The prayer event was followed by a freedom of speech event in the afternoon. The sun made the event quite warm, but the speeches given by participants heated things up.
After the national anthem, sung by Kathy Bakley, Quanette Vasser-McNeal, of the Cape May County NAACP, kicked off the event with her original poem, “SHE.”
Later, Vassar-McNeal suggested audience members “buckle up,” as she delivered a speech detailing the struggle of Blacks through American history that continues today.
“I’m not mad, I’m exhausted. We are tired of having to look at ourselves through the lens of another,” Vassar-McNeal said, after explaining how African-Americans are expected to go along to get along in American society.
Earlier in the program, Middle Township High School teacher Melanie Collette gave a history of the 100th anniversary of women given the right to vote, and how important that vote is now.
Al Campbell, former managing editor of the Cape May County Herald, spoke on the freedom of the press.
“There is a famous quote that says one of the purposes of journalism is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. For that very reason, the freedom of the press is vital… Journalism is responsible to inform the public and, when necessary, to chide officials to change course for the public benefit,” Campbell said.
Sen. Michael Testa (R-1st) addressed the restrictions put in place by Murphy in light of COVID-19.
“Our rights were restricted by the governor. How free are we really?” Testa said.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-2nd) explained how to keep free speech rights.
“We can speak freely now because of our veterans. Because of this group of brave citizens, our country continues to be great,” Van Drew said.
Donohue said everyone should defend the rights of freedom of speech for all.
“As we look around our nation, this is an important moment to celebrate and reflect on our rights and freedoms… Let’s put aside our differences, at least for one day, to remember and reflect on the rights that serve as the bedrock of personal freedoms and the foundation for a more free, open, and tolerant society.”
After the event, Chris Hines, of Wildwood, said it was good to hear different ideas being discussed.
“This was very much needed. It’s good to hear different perspectives where everybody gets to speak, to say what they want.
Freedom of Assembly
The day of celebrating freedom ended at Goshen Sports Complex with a free concert by the band The Rocktologists. Concert goers set up chairs and blankets to listen to the eclectic selection of tunes before a brief rain shower postponed the activities.
However, the show went on, and fireworks coordinated with a patriotic soundtrack took place at dusk.
To contact Carl Price, email email@example.com.
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