2017-01-25 / Front Page

United For Diversity Day

BY THOMAS COGAN


State Senator Michael Gianaris and Assembly Member Aravella Simotas are joined by The Vipers, the dance group of the Variety Boys & Girls Club of Queens who performed at the first ever community celebration of Astoria’s diversity. State Senator Michael Gianaris and Assembly Member Aravella Simotas are joined by The Vipers, the dance group of the Variety Boys & Girls Club of Queens who performed at the first ever community celebration of Astoria’s diversity. “A Community Celebration of Astoria’s Diversity” was the name of the event held on January 22nd at Variety Boys and Girls Club on 30th Road in Astoria. Present at the gathering in the club’s Albert and Dana Broccoli Auditorium were Astoria elected officials and community leaders in addition to the girls and boys who performed a series of dances and a recitation.

Honoring diversity and religious pluralism is a tradition in America, but it may be in need of revival, considering expressions of fear about relatively recent immigrants to America. The 2016 Presidential Election implied a popular inclination to find those expressions valid, but New York City in large part does not endorse them. At the event, one politician admitted as much, but the faith-based leaders went beyond that, to call for making contact with anxious voters and inquiring about what is bothering them, as a way that disagreement might be lessened and commonality recognized.


Council Member Costa Constantinides, Assembly Member Aravella Simotas and state Senator Michael Gianaris joined with community leaders and members of the Variety Boys & Girls Club of Queens in celebration of community diversity. Council Member Costa Constantinides, Assembly Member Aravella Simotas and state Senator Michael Gianaris joined with community leaders and members of the Variety Boys & Girls Club of Queens in celebration of community diversity. State Assembly Member Aravella Simotas, who called for more hopeful attitudes in the coming days, organized the meeting. Simotas introduced state Senator Michael Gianaris, who said we must be militant against “hate mongering,” but also said he knew he was “preaching to the choir,” since the city cast only a fifth of its ballots for Donald Trump, who won the electoral college but not the popular vote nationwide, and is identified by many as the fountainhead of current ill feelings. The Senator even suggested his listeners introduce themselves to people and places outside the city, “where the difference was made.”

He, in turn, introduced Public Advocate Letitia James, who pronounced greetings to the audience in several of the languages that can be heard in Astoria, earning applause for a nice try. She said that growing up black in a part of Brooklyn where she could discover fine Italian cuisine proved to be an excellent start to learning about diversity. She thanked the audience for exchanging ideas and culture and “celebrating the greatness of America.”

Council Member Costa Constantinides said, “our diversity is the best of us” and no matter who might be leading the country, we’ll remain ourselves in Queens.

The first of the local religious figures was Father Nektarios Papazafiropoulos of St. Demetrios Cathedral, who said that we all can have our differences that still can be accepted by all. Father Liju Augustine of Immaculate Conception Church, said he grew up among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs and came to America appreciating diversity. Pastor Paul Milholland of Trinity Lutheran Church said he took a survey among his congregation and found there were natives of 14 foreign countries. Trinity Lutheran is receptive to many visitors from other faiths, he added. He’s a Southerner by birth, and also gay and married. He said that if you are in disagreement with someone, try to find out the nature of that person’s beliefs, even if it’s someone who, “gets on (one’s) last nerve, as we say down South.”

Ahmed Jamil of the Muslim-American Society and the MAS Learning Center, said that meetings like this one should be held more often. He said that he and several persons of other faiths have reached out to each other, as should we all. At the MAS Learning Center on 20th Avenue, the emphasis for immigrants is Americanization “fully and fast. We must not educate only a minor percentage of immigrants and leave the rest in isolation.” He said an immigrant needs about 10 years to develop well in a new land, which would be the “fast” part.

Sheikh Rafeek Mohamed, of Masjid Al Ikhlas, said status does not matter to God. What matters is that we realize what is right and do it, and what is wrong and avoid it. He said he is a school principal, and that his school and schools of differing faiths mingle “to make sure they respect each other,” recognize “commonalities and similarities” and not be “set in our ways.” You are not a true believer, he said, if you have no love for others as you do for yourself. He concluded that we are all children of God and have much in common.

The Vipers Dance Group of Variety Boys and Girls and the Digital Dance Group of The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria performed. Both danced to what seemed like Near Eastern music, which served them well. At one time, Digital Dance had a video showing a dozen or more dancers performing on the auditorium floor while two performed live on the auditorium stage.

The groups were well received (the Vipers had the audience clapping along with their steps), but the most warmly received performer was a young schoolgirl, Yemeli Sanchez, who did a clear recitation of an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s Lincoln Memorial speech. When she finished, the applause and cheers were immediate and loud.

How durable the positive spirit is. If it has to be the basis of further meetings will have to be seen. Current worries about intolerance have led to pleas for more love and diversity, but the durability of its proponents will be tested hard if love and diversity have trouble stemming or turning back intolerance.

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