Foss: Schenectady Clergy Against Hate brings people together

Rabbi Matt Cutler greets participants in the Schenectady Clergy Against Hate's weekly Zoom meeting on Sept. 9 in his office at Congregation Gates of Heaven in Niskayuna. Credit: PETER R. BARBER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Rabbi Matt Cutler greets participants in the Schenectady Clergy Against Hate's weekly Zoom meeting on Sept. 9 in his office at Congregation Gates of Heaven in Niskayuna. Credit: PETER R. BARBER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

It’s been a busy year for Schenectady Clergy Against Hate.

During the summer, members of the interfaith group attended Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and racism, lending their support to the movement’s calls for justice.

They’ve gotten involved in Schenectady’s police reform process, joining with other key stakeholders to help plan a series of public forums that kick off later this month. On Oct. 28, they’re hosting a virtual, non-partisan election prayer vigil to bridge divides and bring people together.

Formed in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, SCAH is very much concerned with the big issues of the day.

But its focus is local, fixed on the problems and needs in its own backyard.

“We’re not just clergy against hate, but Schenectady clergy against hate,” explained Rev. Jonathan Vanderbeck, pastor at Trinity Reformed Church in Rotterdam. “We want to focus on our community.”

While I became aware of SCAH some time ago, the group’s recent flurry of activity has made it an even more visible part of the landscape, giving it a new, vital role in the community at a time of strife and uncertainty.

“Faith can bring people together,” said Rev. Dustin Wright, pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam. “It doesn’t need to divide people. There’s a need to take the message that faith can break down barriers and bridge divides to the general public.”

A coalition that brings together roughly 20 clergy of different religious traditions, SCAH’s membership includes Jews, Christians, Muslims, Unitarian Universalists and Sikhs.

What unites them is a shared commitment to standing up to prejudice and bigotry, speaking up for those who are victims of hate and harassment and promoting respect for all people. These beliefs have led members to embrace non-violent protest and the city’s police reform process as vehicles for change, even reconciliation.

“This is a moment we’ve evolved into,” said Rabbi Matt Cuttler, who co-founded SCAH with Imam Genghis Khan, a chaplain at the Schenectady County Jail.

Wright, who has attended a number of protests, told me he sees himself as a “presence of peace,” helping defuse and de-escalate tensions wherever they arise. “When someone in vestments is standing there, it’s less likely that someone will be violent,” he said.

“Non-violent protest is one of the best ways to create space for negotiations,” Wright continued, noting that while there’s been a lot of progress at the local level, “Four hundred years of racism doesn’t end with taking a knee. There’s a lot of listening that still needs to happen.”

Some of that listening will take place at a series of meetings scheduled to kick off on Oct. 21 as the city moves forward with the state-mandated effort to reshape the Schenectady Police Department.

It’s a good and necessary project, and it’s enriched by the participation of SCAH, an organization with members dedicated to lifting up and highlighting the grievances of the voiceless.

SCAH meets weekly on the online platform Zoom, where discussions can pivot from current events to more personal matters.

When I joined one of the group’s meetings in August, the clergy were in the midst of discussing the needs of students and low-income families.

The conversation later turned toward a hateful attack on one of their own members: The night before, online Trolls had targeted Duryee Memorial AME Zion Church’s web-based Bible study, inundating the Schenectady church’s Zoom chat with racist invective.

“They targeted us because we’re an AME church, a Black church,” Pastor Nicolle Harris told the group.

In response, SCAH members offered Harris help shoring up her online defenses and wrote letters of solidarity to her congregation. They also checked in on her.

“This is awful,” said Cutler, of Congregation Gates of Heaven. “How are you doing?”

“A little better than I was last night,” Harris said. “I’m very upset for my church.”

I caught up with Harris last week, and she said that she read SCAH’s letters of solidarity to her congregation.

“It helped us see that we are not alone,” she told me.

Much of SCAH’s work is dedicated to that very idea – that we are not alone, that we have common ground and common interests, and that we should come together to work for the common good.

For the past four years, SCAH has been translating this idea into action – and I get the sense that its work is just beginning. This is a group that will keep evolving, and finding new ways to bring people together.

Reach Sara Foss at

Categories: News, Opinion, Sara Foss, Schenectady County

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