By Kaylyn Kendall Dines
Long before COVID-19 impacted the City of Newark, clergy from various religious and cultural beliefs joined forces to uplift families, support individuals, and improve neighborhoods. Together, they are the Newark Interfaith Alliance. “Our mission is to organize, mobilize, and unite faith-based leaders and individuals regardless of their religious background,”’ said Rev.Louise Scott-Rountree, manager of the Mayor’s Office of Clergy Affairs and chair of the Newark Interfaith Alliance.
In July 2014, Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka established the Mayor’s Office of Clergy Affairs/Newark Interfaith Alliance. With Rountree at the helm, members gravitated toward the grassroots mission because they recognized the collective power and strength that existed, in part, because of their differences.
You could call them advocates for humanity, servant leaders, or citizens following the commandments of their faith. They engage in a wide range of activities including pastoral care, bereavement support, hospital visits, educational information and scholarship distribution, access to resources that address housing needs, and food insecurity. Alliance members host events and show up to support people facing challenges around the clock.
Ask Newark resident Gevone Johnson, whose 29 year- old daughter was shot. At 1:00 AM, Rountree and alliance members arrived at University Hospital. “She made it her business to find me,” said Johnson. “When I saw her, it lifted me up. She always looks out for people.” Johnson remembers seeing members of the alliance servicing the community in the past. “Anybody who has a situation, they are always coming to the somebody’s rescue. You don’t find too many people reaching out.”
Rountree said, “It’s important to address families on either side of a tragedy. I go to families for the Mayor and sit with them, no matter what their kid did.” This is part of her role in the Mayor’s Office of Clergy Affairs. “They still have grandmas and mamas who need to hear, ‘I’m here for you.’”
At not quite 5-feet tall Rountree, known to sport six-inch heels, has a giant presence in her hometown. She is also known for her high energy and determination to help make life better for residents. “Faith plays a big part,” said Rountree, a reverend at Good Neighbor Baptist Church in Newark. “They say, ‘faith without works is dead,’ so many of us are doing the work because we have the faith. We know it is impossible to please God without faith. Our aim is to please God.” She often says, “My religion is personal, but my mission is humanity.”
With more than 500 members in the alliance, she is not alone. In spite of the pandemic, the Interfaith Alliance pressed on with their mission. Clergy walked the streets, distributed masks, and urged local residents to stay home as coronavirus cases soared. Their seventh annual prayer breakfast was held virtually with alliance members using the occasion to pray for families, business owners, elected officials, the state of the country, and the world. They also decided to increase the cadence of their prayer calls and they have been praying on a conference call every night since March. During the Thanksgiving holiday, those in need will not be forgotten. This year, the alliance has made arrangements for a Thanksgiving meal to be picked up from Applebee’s restaurant on Springfield Avenue.
When a New Jersey bill was passed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by granting early release to inmates, a pastor in the group organized a campaign to collect donated toiletries, clothes, and shoes for women who were being released. According to Pamela Jones, senior pastor at Liberating Word Ministries in the North Ward, there’s no way the alliance would have the wide-spread impact it does if it wasn’t for Rountree. She leads and forges special bonds among the members. “That’s what makes Rev. Rountree so outstanding,’’ said Jones, who facilitates a program for incarcerated women and the effort to create “care packages” for women who are being released. “She knows how to achieve a goal. “She’s such a pace setter.”
And, she is a spiritual force who has the ability to unite rabbis, imams, pastors, bishops, and ministers in Newark, which has an estimated population of 300,000 residents.
Rountree has the caring spirit of her mother, the late Louise Scott-Rountree, a trailblazing entrepreneur who is believed to be Newark’s first Black, female millionaire. Her spirituality was influenced by her Baptist minister father, the Rev. Dr. Malachi D. Rountree. Her mother made sure members of the Nation of Islam had a place to meet in the late 1950s and early 1960s when some people thought Muslims were too radical. “The best way to serve God is to be of service to the people,’’ said Aqeel Mateen, president and imam at United Muslim, Inc., in Newark. Like her parents, Mateen said, “Rev. Rountree is loved by the Muslims.’’
Having grown up in Krueger-Scott Mansion, a grandiose Central Ward home her mother purchased in the 1950s, she learned valuable life and leadership lessons from her parents. This is the place where, as a child, her love for Newark began. Rountree said, “When you’re born somewhere and it has been good to you, you have no choice but to want to love it. I love Newark.”