During the Interfaith Prayer Service for the 50th anniversary of the Diocese of Orlando June 18 at St. James Cathedral in Orlando, Bishop John Noonan, left, stands with religious leaders including, from left, Father John Hamatie, pastor of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church; the Rev. Robert Spooney, pastor of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Institutional Church; Imam Muhammed Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida; Joel Hunter, founder and chairman of Community Resource Network; and James Coffin, executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida. (ANDREA NAVARRO | FC)

Leaders from different faiths gather in praise, harmony for 50th anniverary

ORLANDO | The 50th anniversary of the Diocese of Orlando was a time of remembrance, prayer and thanksgiving shared with many different religious leaders. Bishop John Noonan made that clear with his message of “we remember, we celebrate, we believe” at St. James Cathedral June 18.

Bishop Noonan welcomed members of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida and addressed them as dear friends. Six men sat side by side in solidarity in front of the altar, not all of them Christian.
“It’s very important that we see one another and see one another not as individuals, but made in the image and likeness of God,” the bishop said.

James Coffin, executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida, said the event was born out of a desire for Christians and Muslims in the Orlando area to come together and better understand one another in peace and love.

“We as religious leaders want to hold everyone more accountable to what we pay lip service to, but sometimes forget with our actions,” said Coffin, who described Bishop Noonan as a “very cautious, very caring person.” “He really has been a figure we can depend on and he truly has set the example for the voice of reason. He has always been highly supportive of anything that brings people together.”

Coffin is certain the same respect, love and unity felt at the cathedral will be shown again. “In a non-threatening environment, those who attended saw people of different backgrounds involving themselves in a service that I can’t imagine anybody could fault. It was uplifting in every way.”

Bishop Noonan openly shared details of his close relationship with Imam Muhammed Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida. They have prayed together and spent time with one another at the bishop’s home.

“He has helped me more than anything else to understand our brothers, especially from the Islamic tradition and faith,” Bishop Noonan said.

Joel Hunter, founder of the Community Resource Network, also expressed his love of God and collaboration. “Bishop Noonan is one of those great shepherds not only of the flock of the diocese, but also the community,” Hunter said. “He has been wonderful to host an interfaith service almost annually, this year with special emphasis on the relationship between Christians and Muslims to make sure we are building a better community together.”

Bishop Noonan thanked the community activist for keeping everyone informed on important issues like gun violence, drug abuse, homelessness, poverty and more.

Bishop Noonan especially acknowledged the Rev. Robert Spooney of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Institutional Church for pricking his conscience in times that called for difficult truth. Rev. Spooney said, “If our desire is to truly stress inclusion, peace and equality for all people regardless of race or religion in our community, using the united front tactic will allow us to show the community that there is a real commitment and coalition as it relates to petitioning change not based on religious ideology, but based on doing what is morally right.”

While these men have many differences, they are all connected by the belief that God’s love is limitless. Immediately upon his initial arrival in Orlando, Bishop Noonan made an effort to get to know the community both Christian and non-Christian. He asked for prayers for peace and continues to do so to this day.
At the end of the service, each man gave each other handshakes, hugs and signs of peace.

“We come from different countries. We come from different cultures, but we also come from different religious backgrounds,” Bishop Noonan said. “Sometimes it can be very problematic when it comes to issues of race, religion or even culture. We want to show our community here in Orlando, we as religious leaders do pray together, do enjoy one another’s company and do uphold our people to the principles of what we’re called to be. We are called to be merciful. We are called to be faithful. We are called to walk with justice and live with peace.”

The religious leaders will continue the conversation again this fall at the Center for Peace at the Islamic Society of Central Florida. “Christians and Muslims must come together because as the United States continues to spiral into racial and religious disharmony and civic unrest, it is important that the reality of interfaith engagement is emphasized on a daily basis,” Rev. Spooney said.