The Rt. Rev. R. William Franklin, Bishop of Western New York, and the Rt. Rev. Richard J. Malone, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, ask that Christians do what they can to assure that the new economic growth and opportunity in Western New York is shared among all people.
The bishops issued their joint pastoral letter on December 14, the third Sunday of Advent, and it was read aloud in all churches of the two dioceses. It is believed to be the first joint pastoral letter in the history of the two dioceses.
“A new generation of Western New Yorkers is envisioning new opportunities and making them a reality. With regard to education, medicine, technology and quality of life, this is the time for which we have all waited and prayed and worked. This wave of prosperity benefits not only the city, but the entire region,” they wrote. “Yet at this time not everyone is benefitting. Blacks and Hispanics still live in poverty in greater proportion than do other groups in our population. Children still go to bed hungry. Jobs and security elude too many families. And because some are left out and locked out, the rest of us are poorer. We fail to benefit as much as we might from this new golden age.”
Malone said their goal “is really to raise consciousness among our own parishioners, both in the Catholic and Episcopal dioceses. Perhaps in a humble way to suggest, here is a lens that the two bishops are providing to which we as Christians can look, both at the reasons for hope right now with the development happening in our area, but also to see the challenges and opportunities to make sure what is happening becomes inclusive of the broad spectrum of our people.”
“I think we’re saying this is a great moment of renewal for Buffalo and the region, but it’s also a moment of renewal of Christian values, of dignity and opening dignity to all people,” Franklin said. “We are speaking as bishops to our own people, but we’re also speaking to business and political leaders to say, ‘Let us not lose this opportunity to create a new city, which is beyond a new city of hotels and apartment buildings, but a new city of justice.’ We think it’s a fantastic opportunity for growth, not just economically, but spiritual growth for our region.”
“This is consistent with both our churches’ teachings for centuries,” Malone said. “It speaks to the relationship of the Church with the modern world. We see it as a time for breaking down barriers and answering the question Who is my neighbor?”
“Too many barriers remain,” he said. “It is like there is a wedge in the community.”
In the City of Buffalo the poverty rate in 2013 increased to 31.4 percent overall, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The bureau said the poverty rate is 50.6 percent among residents younger than 18.
Overall poverty rates in some of the region’s more rural counties are also high: 19.1 percent in Chautauqua, 17.2 percent in Cattaraugus, and 17.1 percent in Allegany.
“We are really talking about a wall that we sometimes forget,” Franklin said. “This moment of economic opportunity allows us an opportunity to address that wall and say that all can rise together. This is part of the message of the gospel.
“Economic opportunity leads to human dignity. That’s a reality,” Franklin said. “So it’s a spiritual value to open the workforce to a more diverse population. It’s good business, because it’s opening a perspective of people who may be left out of a boardroom or a workplace.”
The bishops acknowledge that many people are already helping their neighbors. But great needs remain in our spiritual lives, community circles, the business sector, and the civic arena.
Franklin praised Terry Pegula and his wife, Kim, as two who strive to include women and minorities in their workforce. The Pegulas own the Buffalo Sabres, the Buffalo Bandits, and the Buffalo Bills. They are also the developers of the new HarborCenter in the city’s Waterfront district.
“Every single Christian, whether they are in a position of leadership or not, I think, is called upon to tend to the concerns we put out there,” Malone said. “This is to support those who are already moving in that direction and also to stimulate the attention and commitment of others.”
The bishops envision their letter as a catalyst for conversations in parishes.
“A letter like this one, I think, is an invitation to everybody who reads it and those who have written it, to an ongoing examination of our own consciousness around these issues,” Malone said.
“It’s probably never happened between our two dioceses, and probably rarely happened in any other parts of the United States, that an Episcopal bishop and a Roman Catholic bishop have issued a joint pastoral,” Franklin said. “That has an importance because when bishops issue a pastoral like this, we’re saying you really need to read this or make this available. It’s a solemn moment when two bishops speak like this. I think the fact that we feel comfortable to speak together is a sign of the kind of energy that we want our region to project. We’re trying to symbolize bringing our communities together to speak together, so that in other ways communities may be brought together.”
The bishops’ shared gospel values and deep love and concern for their adopted home paved the way for the letter.
“It’s a chance to strengthen the human community that is the common factor. Generally, [our two dioceses are] the same territory with the same issues, the same challenges, and the same opportunities and hopes,” Malone said.
The Episcopal Diocese of Western New York includes New York State’s seven most western counties: Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, Genesee, Niagara, Orleans, and Wyoming. The Diocese of Buffalo covers the same seven, plus the largely rural Allegany County.
The letter began months ago. That it is issued now, when streets in many American cities are filled with protesters seeking racial equality and justice, is a coincidence.
Today’s protests take Bishop Franklin back to his childhood in segregated Mississippi in the 1950s. It was, he says, illegal for him to interact with half the population of his state. In the face of laws that forbade black and white citizens from sitting down together in public places, his grandmother organized meals in her home that brought individuals of both races together.
“As a boy I saw black and white holding hands together at my grandmother’s dining room table, so in a way I am following the inspiration I already saw in the 1950s of holding out our hands to one another,” he said.
“We’ve come a long way in our region and in our churches,” Franklin said, “and yet [Bishop Malone and I] are saying the job is not over.”
Calling this time in the Western New York region a “new day,” the bishops wrote:
“For us as Christians, as bishops, as spiritual leaders of this region, this new day is not just an economic concern, or a business concern, or a public relations concern. For us, it is a Gospel concern. In this new day before us we hope to see The Kingdom of God on earth reflect the community Jesus built around him: full of women and men, minorities, the poor, and the marginalized. In this new day we hope there will be plenty for everyone, that all will share in the bounty, and that labor will be adequately rewarded. We envision a just society where the dignity of every human being is respected.”
Image: Bishop Richard J. Malone, left, and Bishop R. William Franklin