ALBANY COUNTY—On the morning of Thursday, July 21, Albany County Executive Dan McCoy announced the formation of an interfaith coalition “to help deepen understanding of diversity in race, culture and religion in the region as well as its relationship with community policy and police enforcement.”
“Recently, many tragedies have occurred across our nation,” said McCoy, standing in First Lutheran Church in Albany, backed by leaders from a variety of faiths who have agreed to serve on the coalition. “And, while Albany County is an extremely diverse county, we still struggle with some of these issues.” Mentioning the incident last month when someone set fire to the pride flag hanging in front of the adjacent Damien Center, a haven for individuals who have been diagnosed with HIV and AIDS, he said, “Our community reacted and we came together and it was great to see everyone come together and stand in solidarity with everyone. But, we shouldn’t have to react to situations like that; we’re a better community than that.”
McCoy named Deb Riitano, executive director of the Capital Area Council of Churches, to chair the coalition. Other members include: Rev. Chris DiGiovane; Rev. Charles Daniel; Rev. James Kane; Rev. Tony Green, Rabbi Beverly Magidson; Rabbi David Eligberg; Rabbi Moshe Bomzer; Imam Djafer Sebkhaoui; Imam Abdulkadir Elmi; Imam Abdul Rahman Yaki; Ven. Monshin Paul Naamon; Bala K. Balasubramanian; and Rev. Damone Johnson. More are expected to be added.
“The United States military recognizes over 5,000 religious beliefs,” said McCoy. “Over 5,000. We’re a nation that tolerates different beliefs, different colors, different races—we all come together. We are a county of immigrants; people seem to forget that, especially during this debate for president coming up. People are arguing about immigration and refugees—but, have they forgotten what this country was based on?”
“5,000 religions,” exclaimed Riitano, after she was introduced by McCoy. “We’re going to need a bigger church!” After extolling the work the county executive has done to help many of the most underprivileged and marginalized segments of the county’s population, she invoked the Orlando shootings and called the ensuing weeks “a month that would become a kaleidoscope of grief.”
“The scars of hate and bigotry can be found throughout our country,” she said. “And in our community, as well. . . . We have a very large and very vibrant faith-based county. As we continue to see the spread of racism and islamophobia, the County of Albany will now have an official interfaith response team to ensure that the misinformation that is rooted in fear will be addressed. This new coalition will be part of the solution.”
“The Muslim community is involved in interfaith because we care about each other,” said Imam Sebkhaoui, of Al-Hidaya Center. “Because we have common values that we have to cherish and protect. The Quran says, ‘Help you one another in virtue, righteousness and piety but do not help one another in sin and transgression.’ We are involved in faith because we need to know one another. Ignorance is not bliss.”
“In the Capital Region, the Hindu community has an ongoing history of cooperation, respect and being part of interfaith discussions and educational panels,” said Balasubramanian, known internationally as simply Bala. “Such dialogue is more important now than ever.”
“In these troubled times, an interfaith group that works with our elected leaders to facilitate communication across Albany’s diverse communities is a welcome body,” said Rabbi Magidson. “We hope that our presence strengthens understanding and trust at the highest levels.”
The coalition’s first task will be a community forum, planned for Monday, August 15, moderated by Rex Smith, editor at the Times Union, and will feature community leaders discussing the recent violent events and the tension they have caused within our community. Panelists will include: Dr. Alice Green, Executive Director of the Center for Law and Justice; Aaron Mair, National President, Sierra Club; Deb Riitano; former Colonie Police Chief Steve Heider; Perry Junjulas, the Executive Director of the Albany Damien Center; and Emeritus Bishop Howard Hubbard.
“We need to have a realistic conversation about these underlying issues. This forum won’t just be two hours of discussion. We will work on solutions and develop a road map that we can use to effect change,” said McCoy, who invited any organization who would like to be a part of the discussion to reach out to his office or to Riitano. “We need to recognize what we are doing right, what we may need to do differently, and what we can do in the future to improve.”
“Shockingly,” he said to laughter, “I’ll be in the audience listening. Because, as leaders, that’s what we need to do. We need to take a step back and hear from the people we represent.”