Clergy offer prayers and hope in midst of Albany’s racial unrest

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
“When things settle down, we will keep our hand to the plow and we will change the laws that govern our great state, our great nation,” says Pastor David Traynham as Daniel McCoy, at left, and Imam Djafer Sebkhaoui listen.

ALBANY COUNTY — In a cathedral-like setting, prayers were offered Thursday morning for love and healing, peace and understanding.

In the midst of continuing protests in Albany, sparked by the death of George Floyd — under the knee of a white Minneapolis policeman — and fueled by years of racial injustice, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy called on the members of an interfaith coalition he set up four years ago.

The event was held in the atrium of the county’s Times Union Center and was not open to the public. Rather, a dozen television cameras filmed the event. A handful of citizens who came to the door were told they could watch on screens outside the center.

McCoy and Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan spoke first and then the lectern was wheeled away and the religious leaders, seated in a semicircle, took turns coming to microphones to offer their thoughts and prayers.

“I’ve been saying for the last week, you will never understand the plight of African Americans unless you walk in our shoes,” said New Horizons Christian Church Pastor David Traynham. The society we live in is layered with systemic racism, he said.

“Our city, state, and nation is in the process of healing,” he went on.“We’re like a mother that has been in labor for over 200 years and now the baby is ready to come forth and, when the baby comes forth, the joy of this child is going to supplant all of the hurt, the pain, the hatred and heartache that we have experienced.”

He prayed to “Our Father in Heaven”: “You have now moved us to a place where we are now ready to turn our nation into what has been declared for decades and that is one nation, truly under God ….”

Next, The Rev. James Kane, director of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany said, “I’m not sure old white men talking about black issues is always helpful but here I am.”

He read words from Albany’s current bishop, Edward Bernard Scharfenberger, and from Bishop Emeritus Howard Hubbard. He spoke of participating in the civil rights marches in the 1960s and concluded, “I pray fervently that this will be the ultimate and hard-won permanent solution.”



Imam Djafer Sebkhaoui of the Al-Hidaya Center in Latham said, “I would like us today to remember that God, Allah, is full of wisdom … Sometimes we see it; sometimes we don’t.”

Sebkhaoui said that every one of us, around the world, is suffering from the coronavirus, which has united all of us “to work towards one purpose: to get rid of the coronavirus.” He went on, “Hopefully, this will unite us to get rid not only of the pandemic, the coronavirus, but to get rid of the pandemic of racism, of the pandemic of injustices.”

He prayed, “O, Allah, God … You are the giver of peace. Peace comes from you and returns to you so, please, O God, grant us peace … Grant our people wisdom … Strengthen the ties of love and brotherhood between all of us regardless of the color or creed. Help us eliminate racism and all kinds of injustices in our society and to be truly brothers and sisters in humanity …

“We need love not hate to heal our society. We need your love and we need the love of each other so that our society can move forward not backward.”

Rev. Dr. Roxanne Booth Jones, who co-pastors, with her husband, the Riverview Missionary Baptist Church in Coeymans, read a prayer that was like poetry.

“God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,” she intoned, “Thou who has brought us thus far on our way, Thou who has by thy might led us unto the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray ….”

She thanked God “for the rainbows of people who populate your world” and urged, “Let us seek the good of all your children, O God, while we are dismayed because we witnessed riots and mayhem in our community.”

She prayed, “Let there be an anthem of harmony that resounds throughout all human hearts. Let there be a reaching across the breach of difference … Let the peace begin with us.”

Monshin Paul Naamon, abbot of Tendai Buddhist Institute, said he would speak from his heart and echo Sheehan’s words.

The mayor had given a speech in which she said, “When we hear elected officials talk about the importance of the rule of law, we need to make sure that white America understands what those words mean. We were founded upon the rules of law that permitted enslavement, beatings, and murder of black and brown people.

“We were founded upon laws that enriched white Americans on the backs of slave labor, indentured servants, prison labor — laws that prohibited black people from voting, upheld segregation, and permitted violence against and mass incarceration of black and brown Americans. So I don’t like to hear about the rule of law as if this is some phrase that demands moral high ground.”

Sheehan said, too, “While I don’t condone violence and looting, I also believe that speaking about the rule of law … only serves to divide us. Until white America acknowledges the damage done to black America … I believe it will be very difficult to move forward.”

She concluded, “I would say to a community in pain … I care deeply and I stand ready to help in any way I can.”

Naamon said we have a system that works very well for white people but that oppresses black, brown, and Asian people. He noted the few people in the atrium — McCoy, Sheehan and University at Albany President Havidán Rodríguez — and said they were part of this system but that he sees them as “individuals willing to make profound changes.”

Naamon also looked at Albany’s police chief, Eric Hawkins, and said he grieved for Hawkins. “You are painted with a brush of those officers around the nation who would deprive others of their rights,” said Naamon. “You yourself feel exactly the opposite.”

Namon said that humans are not thinking beings that have emotions; rather, humans are emotional beings who think. So, he said, the clergy have to appeal to their congregants to lead to change.

He concluded by reciting from the Metta Sutta: “As a mother, in peril of her own life watches and protects her only child, thus with a limitless spirit must we cherish all living beings … Love the world in its entirety … without limitation. Let one cultivate loving kindness ….”

Warren Mackey, of the Metropolitan Church in Albany, said he was asked to sing “Amazing Grace” but, “with the aid of the Holy Spirit,” decided instead to sing, “Keep on Believing, God Still Answers Prayer.”

He sang in a robust voice that filled the atrium, “Sometimes the shadows gather and this obscures the way ….”

Rabbi Matt Cutler, with the Schenectady Clergy Against Hate, said he was asked to close the event. He chose a speech from 150 years ago that he said still echoes today.

“In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, President Abraham Lincoln in 277 words spoke from the heart in words that challenged a people to grow,” said Cutler.

Before he began with the familiar “Four score and seven years ago ....,” Cutler said. “It’s amazing how these words still speak to us today. How sad that they need to speak to us today. 

“How powerful they are that they can challenge us today.”

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