Light in dark times: How tens of thousands of children were blessed as faith leaders came together in the New York metro area

Efforts help children in need and show the power of interfaith collaboration

As part of the 2023 Light the World initiative, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints worked with the interfaith community in the New York metro area to bring together diverse organizations to collaborate on projects to bless children in need and their families during the Christmas season.

When the effort launched with a special reception on Times Square hosted by the Church, Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles expressed deep gratitude for each faith leader and the work they do to “Light the World.”

“People who feel accountable to God feel a special responsibility to bless others,” he said.

They identified 66 meaningful projects involving 65 different organizations and faiths — Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal, Adventist, Lutheran, Episcopal, United Church of Christ, and others.

The projects included:

  • Gathering winter clothing such as coats, hats and gloves.
  • Distributing food, including shelf items and meals.
  • Providing laptops, books and other educational materials.
  • Serving new and/or single mothers with supplies.
  • Giving toys and gifts for Christmas or other holidays.

They set out to reach 42,000 children in need and their families — and ended up reaching close to 60,000 families, children and individuals in the New York area and beyond.

Three people stand with baskets of wrapped gifts and toys for children in Bronx, New York.
Cynthia Austin, Ibelsa Stutzman and Reggie Stutzman take a picture together during a toy and food distribution event at The Seneca Family Shelter in the Bronx, New York, on Dec. 12, 2023, in cooperation with The Prodigal Center. The Stutzmans are pastors at The Prodigal Center and the event was part of a large-scale interfaith Light the World initiative. | Provided by Cynthia Austin

One of many leaders supporting this interfaith partnership was the Rev. Que English of the New York Commission of Religious Leaders.

“It was a powerful, powerful movement that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints led in New York,” she said on the Church News podcast. “And when I think about it, it was nothing short of bringing light in such dark times. And bringing hope to so many that needed it.”

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Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said the Church brought together people of many different beliefs — but with “one spiritual birth certificate” as children of God — to help those who need so much.

“Thank you for all that the Church does for others who are hurting and especially this past year for children,” he said. “Whenever there is pain somewhere, I know I’m going to see the Church in those places.”

Trusted voices identifying needs

The bringing together of so many organizations in a very short amount of time to help a large number of children reinforces the power faith organizations have to make a difference when they unite in a common purpose, explained Elder David L. Buckner, an Area Seventy in New York City.

Elder Buckner said there is more to be said for people of faith being trusted voices. The reason why the Church reached out to many different faith organizations for this effort was because those faith leaders knew their congregations and communities.

“We brought together people who knew where the needs are and were able to gather what they had and bring to the table,” Elder Buckner said. “And then the people who needed it weren’t being approached by a government or a political structure or anything like that — they were being approached by their trusted voice. They knew they were safe.”

Participants take part in a traveling nativity puppet show for children at the Liberty Park New Jersey Stake Center.
Participants take part in a traveling Nativity puppet show for children at the Liberty Park New Jersey Stake Center in Newark, New Jersey, as part of a large-scale Light the World initiative in December 2023. | Mayiarah Almeida

The Rev. English noted that faith leaders move intentionally to be bridge builders because they are trusted messengers. In times of need or crisis, “we show up with hope.”

Moving forward with unity and love is powerful, she said, and Elder Buckner pointed out that when people of faith come together, they can act as a significant catalyst if they take their place as trusted voices.

Room at the table

Rabbi Potasnik said while in college, he would ask his mother if he could bring someone home for dinner whose family lived far away. And she would say, “There’s always room for one more at the table.”

This has to be the mantra for people in interfaith relations, he said.

“We must always find room for the other. … We’ve made the table a little bit larger and a little bit more diverse because it has to represent the interfaith community.”

A child selects a toy at a gift distribution event in Brooklyn.
A child selects a toy at a gift distribution event in cooperation with Child Development Support Cooperation in Brooklyn, New York, on Dec. 20, 2023. The event was part of a large-scale interfaith Light the World initiative in the New York metro area. | Cynthia Austin

In the past in New York, the Church of Jesus Christ was not at the table, said Elder Buckner. But all that has changed.

“In opening the doors and helping people know that we are all one family, it has been transformational because they realize that we are collaborative,” he said.

But not only is the Church there now, it also has a voice, and it acts as a convener — as seen during that November 2023 dinner where so many gathered together.

Before that evening, some of the faith leaders had not even had much association with themselves. But they got to know each other and realized how much they could do with a common voice around a common purpose.

Elder Quentin L. Cook, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife Sister Mary Cook laugh with MLB Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera and Rabbi Joseph Potasnik during a reception in New York City on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Elder Buckner said the evening also provided an opportunity for the Church to thank the other faith leaders for all that they do to serve those in need around them.

“Everything was about, ‘We thank you. We thank you for being acutely aware of the needs. We thank you for opening your doors so that we could serve together, and we thank you for meeting the needs of the individual,’” he said.

Rabbi Potasnick said it has been said that when there is peace among the religious, there will be peace in the world. He said while there is more work to do, “we’ve made a very, very strong start, and we are privileged to have [the Church of Jesus Christ] and others at the table with us.”

The Rev. English said faith leaders may not realize how much power they have and how much influence they have when they come together for a common purpose and a common cause.

“I think what I’ve seen over time is how powerful our voices really are, … how we can make change in government, in community, in state in our respective houses of worship. We need to embrace that more.”

Said Rabbi Potasnik, “We are all children of God, and the fact that we who are different can also see the others being the same I think is something that should inspire all of us to do more. So we are able to sit together with that love and respect for one another.”

Tables full of toys are ready to be given to children at a distribution event held in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Tables full of toys are ready to be given to children at a distribution event held by Sistha's and Brotha's United in Spirit in Jersey City, New Jersey, on Dec. 16, 2023. | President Juan C. Almeida

Uniting communities

The Church has made new relationships with more organizations and leaders, and is now more involved in new communities throughout the New York area.

The 65 different groups that the Church brought together for the initiative do not always agree doctrinally, politically or socially. But the Church was able to bring them together in a short time for the common purpose of serving the children of New York.

During a time of great division, this collaborative effort can be a model of how those with differences can unite anyway to do good on a large scale, Elder Buckner said.

Said the Rev. English, “This movement with the Church is a very important movement. And it’s important that we do what we need to do for our world together, serving humanity, brightening the corner wherever we go. … Being able to serve alongside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been nothing short of a privilege.”

Local Church leaders and New Jersey state leaders join together at an interfaith event in Boyonne for Light the World.
Boyonne 2nd Branch (Spanish) President Moises Padula, Bayonne 1st Branch President Pablo Cecilio, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, Rev. Dorothy Patterson with Bayonne Interfaith, Liberty Park New Jersey Stake President Juan C Almeida, New Jersey State Senator Angela V. McKnight and others at a WTCares event in Bayonne, New Jersey, on Nov. 23, 2023. The event was part of a large-scale interfaith Light the World effort to bless children in need in New York and New Jersey | Provided by President Juan Almeida'
A family browses books at the JCC in New York City.
A family browses books donated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Jewish Community Center in New York City, on Dec. 3, 2023. | Andrea Homer-Macdonald
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