By Alex Lazarus-Klein
Driving through Williamsville and Amherst these days you may have noticed many of the signs in front of our religious institutions bearing the same message: “We need not think alike to love alike.” You may think it is mere coincidence, but I want to assure you it most definitely is not.
Two years ago, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst attached a “Black Lives Matter” banner to their outside sign. This was not an easy decision to put the sign up, filled with trepidation among some of the membership that a passerby would take offense and lash out against the church.
And, that is, in fact, what happened. This past November their sign was vandalized, with someone having crossed off the “Black” portion of the sign. Their pastor, Rev. Michelle Buhite, noticed the offence when leaving work after a long day attending to church business. She was horrified to know it had happened while she had been in the building. But, she and the church community did not want to simply repair the sign right away. They wanted people to notice that the vandalism had occurred hoping it would spur communal discussion.
Sure enough, another pastor, the Rev. Dr. Robert W. Harvey from Calvary Episcopal, also in Williamsville, and a recent transplant to the area, noticed the incident on his drive down Main Street. He had witnessed similar vandalism at his previous church in Silver Springs, Md.
And, with his help we brought together the members of our Williamsville Clergy Association, a local advocacy group representing religious leaders from a wide array of religious traditions, to address the problem.
What hurt most was not the specifics of what had happened, but that a local religious community would not be allowed to display their chosen message, a hard fought one at that, without fear of possible communal reprisal. We simply could not tolerate our religious institutions being attacked for what they believed in.
Collectively, we realized at such times we all needed to stand together. Hence, the new sign campaign. The message itself comes from a quote attributed to one of the founders of the Unitarian tradition, Francis David. David was imprisoned and eventually died in the 16th century because of his religious beliefs. By putting David’s message on our sign, we are giving a quiet shout-out to our Unitarian Universalist neighbors that they are not alone and that, regardless of politics, love will keep us together.
In this way we hope to address not only the individual incident, but also promote civil discourse and collegiality in our region. Despite a wide variety of political and religious beliefs in Western New York, we are united in our belief that all of us deserve the free exercise of religion our constitution guarantees. This is part of the very fabric of what it means to be American.
Alex Lazarus-Klein is the rabbi of Congregation Shir Shalom, and a member of the Williamsville Clergy Association.