Pam Dunbar went to Thursday night’s service at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Mumford Street in Hamilton Hill with a heavy heart, she told those gathered.
Her heavy heart came with what she saw. At a service that drew about two dozen members of the public, law enforcement and city officials to remember the recent shootings in Minnesota, Louisiana and Dallas, those gathered walked in the door and into their comfort zones.
Blacks sat with blacks, she noted. Whites sat with whites.
“If we’re really here to make a difference,” Dunbar, a trustee at the church, told those gathered, “it’s got to start from us.
“We have to get out of the comfort zone that we’re used to and be there hand-in-hand sitting next to our brothers,” she said.
As Dunbar continued to speak, two members of the predominantly black audience did just that, literally moved by her words.
One black man moved from the rear of the church and sat next to two city police lieutenants, Brian Bienduga and Eric Clifford, both white.
A woman, also black, did the same. She took up a seat in a pew next to City Councilman John Polimeni, who is also white.
The woman, Toshena Haynes, explained afterward why she moved.
“It’s important that we all are inclusive,” Haynes, a community activist, said, “and that we all consider each other’s feelings and each other’s past that we’re going through and we come to a common understanding and a common ground so that we can unite.”
Lack of understanding, she said, breeds fear.
“No one wants to have conversations that are about real stuff when we don’t really know them,” she said. “So we have to at least get past that part first.”
Dunbar’s prayer came near the end of a service where congregants came together to sing and pray. The service came following a difficult period last week for the country with the police shootings of black men in Falcon Heights, Minn., and Baton Rouge, La., and the killing of five Dallas police officers that followed.
On Thursday night, those gathered at the church came together for what Dunbar called a “spiritual fight,” not one based on race.
Her prayer concluded, Dunbar sought out Polimeni, Bienduga, Clifford and Schenectady County Sheriff Dominic Dagostino. And she hugged each one.
“She’s exactly right,” Clifford said afterward, “that we all need to get out of our comfort zone and treat each other as human beings and love each other. That’s what it really comes down to, is respect and love for each other.”
Polimeni echoed Clifford’s remarks.
“What seems to be new is we’re focusing on things that separate us, rather than things that put us together,” Polimeni said. “This service tonight was a good step in that, bringing us all together.”
Clifford, Polimeni, Dunbar and Haynes gathered with the others afterward to light candles and take pictures at the church’s front, together.
Bethel AME Church pastor Rev. Felicia Collins closed out the service with a plea for love and for understanding.
“Love has a way of allowing us to open our hearts, open our minds and learning and understanding more about each other,” Collins told those gathered. “Yes, the tragedies of this past week have been tremendous. But you know what? That’s not the end of this story. There’s another story. And you’re a part of that story.”