Following several racist and anti-Semitic incidents in Ithaca, local faith leaders are doubling down on ongoing anti-racist programming. While their approaches vary, they have a common message: Hate has no home in Ithaca.
In recent months, local religious leaders have invited speakers on anti-racism, organized anti-racist reading groups and have sought to provide resources for marginalized community members, including refugees.
“Having immediate compassion and support for those who have been harmed or threatened by what’s happened is absolutely essential,” said Eric Clay, a local multi-faith chaplain who helped coordinate the local faith leaders response to recent hate crimes. Twenty-two faith leaders contributed to a video where they each shared quotes on what it means to promote tolerance across cultures.
“As a predominantly white congregation, we are working through a growing awareness of the ways we have to actively be anti-racist,” said Reverend Debbie Reynolds, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Ithaca. “It’s not good enough to just be nice.”
Congregations across Ithaca are taking action as they learn more about issues of racial injustice and social inequity through community discussion. The First Congregational Church of Ithaca has recently become a sanctuary church for refugees awaiting legal status, according to Reverend David Kaden.
Members of the First Presbyterian Church of Ithaca formed small groups to tackle a range of issues such as mitigating racial voting access inequities before the election and helping formerly incarcerated people re-enter the community, according to Reverend Kirianne Weaver.
“We don’t just want to read about these issues, we want to do something about it,” Weaver said.
To better inform congregants they go about their social justice work, the leaders are facilitating discussions about the history of racism and other forms of bias, with some initiatives grounded in additional readings.
Reverend Megan Castellan, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, has added anti-racism reading materials to her weekly newsletters. Many members of the First Baptist Church of Ithaca and the First Presbyterian Church of Ithaca read the book How To Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram Kendi. The First Congregational Church of Ithaca also has an anti-racism education focused youth group, according to Kaden.
Since the anti-Semitic graffiti incident, Rabbi Rachel Safman of Temple Beth-El has sought to support affected congregants. She has hosted virtual discussions to shed light on issues of racism in the U.S. and encouraged congregants to learn more about racial inequities through speaker events and other educational work.
“As people focused on creating a more righteous world, our attention needs to be focused on the tremendous rifts in our society that that racial inequity has created and continues to create,” Safman said.
Many local faith leaders are working to increase understanding across religious lines. Castellan and Kaden both emphasized the importance of educating Christian communities about the history of anti-Semitism.
The Al-Huda Islamic Center of Ithaca center has collaborated with Christian and Jewish religious institutions to promote interfaith dialogue, according to Mahmud Burton, who is president of the center’s board. Before the pandemic, these dialogues included shared dinners.
Since most religious services and equity discussions are virtual — with a few carefully planned exceptions — many clergy members commented on the technical difficulties of virtual services and the ongoing conversations on how to minimize the risk of COVID-19 infection. However, they said they appreciated community members’ adaptiveness.
“People miss church, they miss seeing each other, but they’ve also been really positive about the stuff that we’re able to do,” Castellan said.
While discussions about how to make a more equitable world continue, the immediate response to recent anti-Semitic graffiti helped congregants at Temple Beth-El feel safer in Ithaca again, according to Safman. Safman said she received a flood of cards, letters and signs from other congregations telling her that she and other Jews in Ithaca were welcome.
“People were so present and supportive and sympathetic,” Safman said. “It was very moving. It’s a real testament to the Ithaca community and its values.”