New Jersey Faith Leaders Endorse The Opportunity to Compete Act: “Fulfilling Our Moral Duty to Foster Redemption”

SOMERSET, NJ  – April 24, 2014, 1:00 P.M. On April 24, 2014, Rev. Dr. DeForest B. Soaries, Jr., Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, convened over forty faith leaders from across the State of New Jersey – from Camden to Short Hills –  to present a public show of support for the Opportunity to Compete Act (S1484/A1999). Given the Governor’s public statement on April 18 that he is working with the legislative sponsors on this bill, and with Senate and Assembly Committee votes anticipated in late May and floor votes in June, the convening carried a particular moral urgency.

Pastor Soaries acknowledged the diverse presence of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy, saying, “We are here today as faith leaders from various traditions to support the Opportunity to Compete Act. We may not all meet on the same day, we may not all have the same name for God, but on this issue we are united.”


Senator Sandra B. Cunningham, primary sponsor in the Senate, explained her reason for drafting the legislation. “Two years ago a man came into my office – well-dressed, articulate, with a college degree, yet working at McDonald’s – who said, ‘I need a job with a future so I can put my kids through college.’ I asked him what the problem was, and he said he had been incarcerated ten years ago. Though he had completely changed his life, none of the hundreds of job applications he submitted even received a response – all because of that small box on the application. If I can’t help hardworking, reformed citizens like this man, I don’t deserve to be a state Senator.”

Dr. M. William Howard, Jr., Pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, explained, “Work is not only a means to earning our daily bread, but also a moral exercise through which we find meaning. Every great religion affirms the right to work.”

Bishop Reginald T. Jackson of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, continued, “Thousands of New Jerseyans have served their sentences, but are still imprisoned by social and legal bars that prevent employment, extinguish hope, and lead to recidivism. It is absolutely wrong to deny ex-offenders the fair opportunity to compete for a job and to have a productive life. This legislation is about the state of New Jersey doing the right thing.”

Pastor Soaries explained that the faith community’s support of the legislation stems from a universal believe in the power of redemption. “We believe that every caterpillar has the potential to become a butterfly. But the ‘box’ on job applications is a barrier for people who are seeking to exercise their potential as butterflies, because it continues to ask them if they’ve ever been a caterpillar.”

Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet explained his support. “During Passover, we of the Jewish faith celebrate our freedom from slavery and incarceration in Egypt. This act of God is so fundamental to our heritage that it has been incorporated into the Gevurot, a prayer we say three times a day: ‘Thank you God for freeing the captives.’” Rabbi Karen Perolman of B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills added, “My congregation, which is the largest and oldest Jewish congregation in the state, practices something called Tikkun Olam – making the world a better place. We believe helping formerly incarcerated individuals move from the constriction of prison to the openness and freedom to pursue employment – to reach their own promised land – is part of this vision.”

As the event followed the week of Easter, Rev. Cornell William Brooks, President and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, related the story of Good Friday to the theme of reentry. “Jesus was suspended on the cross between two criminals. One criminal acknowledged his sin and took responsibility. Jesus, in the last words of his life, extended a word of forgiveness, grace and redemption, and in speaking to the possibilities of rehabilitation, a word of prisoner reentry.”

Imam W. Deen Shareef said, “All Islam places tremendous importance on the repentance. The capacity for human beings to repent is innate. It is inherent within the human being that we have the ability so self-correct. With sin there is death, but once recognized and reformed, there is a resurrection into a new life. That is what this legislation is recognizing – that human beings have the ability to self-correct. It goes to the heart and soul and essence of every human being.”

Reverend Marilyn Hill, Associate Pastor of Camden Bible Tabernacle, related the bill to New Jersey’s economy. “Camden Churches Organized for People (CCOP) recognizes that barriers that exist for Camden residents trying to provide for their families, trying to engage in work that provides meaning and moral value. CCOP supports measures like the Opportunity to Compete Act, which will give people the chance to be productive citizens again, give back to their communities, and to become taxpaying citizens.”