It was 225 years ago that Freemasonry, upon receipt of a charter from England, became an official organization in what would become New York State. The Masons had already existed in parts of Europe, with Masonic Lodges dating back centuries.
To mark this historic milestone, the New York Masons played host to interfaith prayer services and made flagdonations to various civic groups inOctober.
With thousands of non-Masons and Masons alike participating in these ceremonies, it hardly amounted to the sinister stuff that conspiracy theorists everywhere -- most recently, Dan Brown in "The DaVinci Code" -- would have you believe about Freemasonry.
Yes, there are still centuries-old Masonic traditions handed down through generations, sometimes via entire family trees. This includes the "secret handshakes" and ornate aprons that the Masons are probably best known for.
But Freemasonry is about more than rituals, and is definitely not about conquering the world, etc., as someone who's Googled the Masons might be led to believe.
The core of this organization's tenets has always been about giving back to the community. This is true of the Masons and of many other fraternal groups or service organizations, including the Knights of Columbus, Kiwanis and the Elks, many of which are, in some way, offshoots of Freemasonry.
In fact, the Shriners, who are best known for the Shriners Hospitals for Children, which offer specialized pediatric medical care at no charge, are also Masons. Actually, one has to be a Mason in order to be a Shriner.
Here in New York, the Masons run the Child Identification Program (CHIP), which provides parents with photo ID cards and other essential law enforcement tools should their child go missing. More than 275,000 children have participated in CHIP since the program was founded in 1991; the recent CHIP event at the Erie County Fair registered about 1,700 kids.
These are just a few examples of the good that fraternal and service organizations do: ensuring access to health care for our most vulnerable citizens; giving parents resources to help protect children; supporting medical research; and even organizing blood drives and food drives. Groups like the Masons continue to play a relevant, integral role in their communities decades and even centuries after they were first founded.
We invite you to find out more about what the Masons do, either by visiting your local Masonic Lodge, by going to nymasons.org or by simply asking a Mason. There are 53,000 of us statewide, so we shouldn't be hard to find.
Upon talking to a Mason, you may come to realize that all we are is a group of folks who want to do good by the community, and as a result some of that Masonic mystique may fade away. But really, that's the point.
Ed Gilbert is a resident of Buffalo and the deputy grand master of the New York Masons.