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Rod Watson: ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign puts church’s values where all can see

Rod Watson

They are just three little words.

But they spell out one Buffalo church’s commitment to an ideal we’d like to think all religions embrace.

At the same time, those three words have been distorted to arouse the kind of backlash you wouldn’t expect in a country supposedly dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal.

But that potential blowback didn’t stop the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo from putting the phrase on the north side of its Elmwood Avenue building.

"Black Lives Matter" is asserted in bold white letters on a black background, running vertically down the side of the church near the sidewalk, for pedestrians and passing motorists to see.

Though the statement went up last month, this was no Black History Month "one and done." The timing was purely coincidental after the church went through city Preservation Board processes required for its historic building.

Rather, the public message reflects the church’s long-time commitment to racial, economic, gender and other forms of equality.

"We’ve been involved in social justice since we began in 1831," said the Rev. Joan Montagnes, church minister.

That includes working on behalf of the LGBTQ community, undocumented residents, and to transform the criminal justice system into one more attuned to restorative justice, Montagnes said.

"All of these things together inspired us to put up a banner," she said, explaining that the phrase will stay up "as long as it takes."

Not that there wasn’t some trepidation as people both inside and outside the congregation wondered about a negative reaction. In fact, a "Black Lives Matter" banner outside an Amherst church was defaced last fall.

"So far, there has been nothing, and that’s really, really nice," Montagnes said.

She estimates that only 3 percent to 5 percent of the church’s roughly 350 members are African-American. That makes the sign all the more significant, because blacks can’t end racism; that’s something whites have to do.

Unitarian Universalist’s work includes pursuing, in Montagnes’ words, "a world where black lives are no longer systematically targeted."

As the nationwide debate over the phrase has shown, not everyone sees the need for that kind of focus.

During a recent lunch hour, foot traffic on that block of Elmwood was sparse and the few who did pass the church did not look up as snow flurries fell. When the sign was pointed out to a middle-aged white woman hurrying past, she was receptive to the message but also gave the all-too-familiar rejoinder: "All lives matter."

But if that were true, unarmed black men would not be so often killed by police, who are just as often exonerated.

If that were true, America’s black poverty rate of 22 percent would not be two and half times the white rate.

If that were true, the black unemployment rate of 7.7 percent would not be double the white rate, a ratio that holds true during good economic times and bad.

If that were true, the black infant mortality rate of 11.1 percent would not still be twice the white rate, and blacks wouldn’t get less aggressive medical treatment than whites.

If that were true, the black median household income in 2015 would not have been just $36,898 compared to $60,109 for whites, while applicants with "black sounding" names get turned down for job interviews.

If that were true, Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo would not have to put up a sign.

But it isn’t true, and the congregation did.

Thank God some churches still know what it means to be their brother’s keeper.


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