City & Region
Religious leaders call racism 'an evil'
News Religion Reporter
In an unprecedented show of solidarity, a cross section of Western New York religious leaders signed a statement Monday that condemns racism as "a sin, an evil that must be addressed, and a problem of the heart."
The statement was endorsed by about 25 leaders and representatives of major faiths during a Martin Luther King Day news conference in the Hyatt Regency Buffalo. The effort, supported by representatives of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Native American, Unitarian and Bahai faiths, was spearheaded by the National Conference for Community and Justice.
"To declare that something is a sin is about as strong a statement as religious leaders can make," said the Rev. Thomas H. Yorty, senior pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church.
Yorty, a member of the NCCJ Steering Committee for the Faith Leaders' Initiative, said the leaders, will reconvene in the spring to update each other on anti-racism progress within their denominations and plan future efforts to combat racism.
"This is just the beginning," said Lana D. Benatovich, executive director of NCCJ's Western New York Region. "We have the people at the head of the religious organizations endorsing this and expressing how deeply they feel about it."
Benatovich said the statement inked Monday is the same one that was signed Dec. 13 in Washington, D.C., by leaders of 31 faith-based organizations. That event marked the first time that such a broad group of religious leaders has ever agreed to condemn racism as "an evil."
While condemnation of racism by religious leaders may not appear to be an earth shattering development, the Rev. Susan M. Strouse, pastor of North Park Lutheran Church, stressed that "we can't say it enough."
"It is important to affirm over and over again that racism is a sin that permeates society and the church," said Strouse, representing Bishop Lee M. Miller of the Upstate New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
"It is important that we stand together as religious leaders to show our communities that we are united on this issue," she added.
The Rev. Bennett W. Smith, pastor of St. John Baptist Church, agreed that a show of solidarity is important.
"It is natural for religious leaders to speak out against sin. But there has been apathy in the religious community about speaking out on social issues," such as racism, said Smith, past president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention.
Although racism is an issue in the Buffalo area, Smith suggested that it is "not as big a problem as in other places."
His own church, a traditionally African-American congregation of about 900 families, now includes six white families, he said.
Religious organizations tend to get so caught up in their own day-to-day problems and disagreements that they often lose sight of the bigger picture, said Rabbi Michael Feshbach, senior rabbi of Temple Beth Am and president of the Buffalo Board of Rabbis.
"It is critically important to lift our eyes above our own piece of turf," he said.
"Racism is the sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of race," said the Rev. Paul A. Litwin, vice chancellor of the Buffalo Catholic Diocese.
He read portions of a statement adopted in 1979 by the Catholic Bishops of the United States.
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