There’s no doubt about where the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst stands.
“Black Lives Matter,” the church now says in big, bold letters at the front of its campus.
The congregation unveiled the sign Sunday as a message to the approximately 20,000 drivers who each day use that section of Main Street near Erie Community College’s North Campus.
“This sign does not mean that police lives and white lives are not to be respected,” said Margot Shoemaker, speaking to more than 100 people after a service Sunday. Rather, it highlights that “black lives are not respected enough,” she said.
A Black Lives Matter sign outside a church in Greater Buffalo is rare, though Trinity Episcopal Church on Delaware Avenue placed one out front in the summer of 2015.
Shoemaker, a leader of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst’s Social Justice Committee, said she hopes the new sign triggers moments of conversation or just reflection about the discrimination that people of color experience in education, housing, employment and policing.
Neither she nor any others in the congregation can predict how their sign will be received.
“We have no idea what to expect,” she said. But it was made of a sturdy plank of wood that should be able to withstand a bad reaction.
At Trinity Episcopal, the sign was stolen last summer, then repeatedly replaced, only to have the replacements vanish, as well.
“I was really hoping that the sign would serve to start a dialogue with people who might be unclear as to its real intent and meaning,” said the Rev. Matt Lincoln, rector of Trinity Episcopal. “When all they did was take it away, it only tore people apart even more rather than bringing us together.
“‘Black Lives Matter’ as a slogan is really a way of saying we notice that there is injustice in the system. For all lives to matter, we need to pay attention to those who are not receiving the same fair treatment that others are receiving.”
Trinity Episcopal was not the only church where such signs were targeted. In Bethesda, Md., the word “black” was sliced out of a Black Lives Matter banner outside a Unitarian Universalist Church, according to the Unitarian Universalist Association, the church’s central organization in the United States. A week later, the banner in Bethesda was stolen.
In Hartland, Wis., someone cut the word “black” out of a church’s Black Lives Matter banner. The banner was patched and changed to “Black Lives Still Matter,” the association said.
When banners were defaced around St. Louis, Mo., churches pooled their resources and put the message on an electronic billboard overlooking a highway.
The vast majority of the congregants in the crowd Sunday were white, just like the Town of Amherst, which is about 77 percent white and 13 percent black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The crowd seemed to agree with Shoemaker’s words that social injustice should be placed under a spotlight by people of faith.
How will passers-by react?
“Hopefully positively,” said James Moise, a Black Lives Matter activist who attended the event and wanted to correct the mistaken notion that the movement is anti-police. It’s for everyone, and allows “all walks of humanity to participate,” he said.
He called the church’s action “a heroic gesture,” and in a prepared statement said it symbolizes that justice and equality are concerns not just for the black community.
The Unitarian Universalist Association has been embracing the Black Lives Matter philosophy for more than a year, and churches around the country are following through in their own way. After a year of study and discussion, the Amherst congregation decided it would put up the sign. Scott Harrigan and Hella Jacob, who are married, helped organize the project and got the sign made, Shoemaker said.
All this was before the president of the nation’s largest police organization apologized just days ago to minorities for the profession’s “historical mistreatment of communities of color.”
“Acknowledging that there is a problem is a good first step,” Shoemaker said, just before the sign was dedicated by the Rev. Michelle Buhite. “We hope our sign will be a catalyst to conversations about race in Amherst.”