Local church-goers gather in Albany
ALBANY — Before a crowd of Christians walked from the Empire State Plaza to the governor’s offices, Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr. was called up to speak again to hundreds gathered on March 18. He asked everyone to kneel in prayer for their state leaders, doing so himself behind a podium onstage. The prayers were in quiet after Jackson had called for “a movement to change Albany for Jesus Christ.”
It was Legislative Day for the New Yorker’s Family Research Foundation, when Christians convene in Albany to hear conservative speakers and to lobby lawmakers. Among them were a dozen people from the First Baptist Church of Westerlo, who traveled to the event with members of the Greenville Center Baptist Church.
“The morality in the state is changing all the time, getting worse,” said Robert Moore, from Westerlo First Baptist, during a lunch break. He said he has attended Legislative Day four times in the past six years. He writes letters to legislators and comes mainly for the speakers.
The theme this year was “Liberty on the Line” and the legislators and pastors described state government as intolerant of their beliefs.
Republican Robert Astorino, who announced his bid for governor earlier this month, delivered a speech in which he called Albany “one of the most dangerous, ungodly places on the planet” and touted his financial record as executive for Westchester County, where Democrats outnumber Republicans. He made news headlines the following day by attacking Governor Andrew Cuomo on social issues like abortion.
A poll by the Siena Research Institute reported on Monday said 61 percent of New Yorkers would vote for Cuomo compared to 26 percent for Astorino, narrowed from 64 to 22 percent last month. Astorino won a second term as county executive last November.
Astorino rallied the Christian crowd with a theme of the morning used by several speakers: Cuomo’s comments in a radio interview in January that enraged conservatives. Describing a schism within the Republican Party and its search for identity, Cuomo told Susan Arbetter on WCNY, “The Republican Party candidates are running against the SAFE Act — it was voted for by moderate Republicans who run the Senate,” referring to a gun-control bill. “Their problem is not me and the Democrats; their problem is themselves.
“Who are they? Are they these extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro-assault-weapon, anti-gay? Is that who they are? Because, if that’s who they are and they are the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York, because that’s not who New Yorkers are. If they’re moderate Republicans, like in the Senate right now, who control the Senate — moderate Republicans have a place in this state.”
Sitting at the table with Moore was Nicholas Gaspar, a deacon of the Westerlo church and a coordinator for the group trip to Albany. Gaspar said he tends to vote for Conservative candidates and isn’t enrolled in a party. He supposed party affiliations among those who attended on Legislative Day were mixed.
“I felt that that was an extreme comment on his part,” Gaspar said of Cuomo. “Since then, I think he’s been trying to back away from that statement and make it more inclusive in his run for governor.”
Gaspar added that he felt the governor was not being tolerant of others’ views, a sentiment echoed onstage when Robert and Cynthia Gifford, owners of Lake Ridge Farms, spoke to the crowd on Legislative Day. The Giffords refused to host a lesbian couple’s wedding on their farm last fall based on their religious beliefs. They are the subject of a discrimination complaint filed by the couple, Melissa and Jennifer McCarthy, with the state’s Division of Human Rights.
“I think the difference is because we hold a biblical view on marriage,” said Gaspar, citing Genesis, when asked whether denying same-sex marriage was another form of discrimination.
Gaspar and others at the table picked up a handful of position papers by New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a conservative Christian lobbying group, at the meeting-room entrance. They were written in opposition to the expansion of abortion in the Women’s Equality Act, which includes several other provisions and passed the Democrat-dominated Assembly last year, but not the Senate. The papers also opposed a bill that would allow for legal recognition of surrogacy agreements, and the legalization of medicinal marijuana.
The NYCF wrote in support of a tax credit for donations to public and non-public schools and a three-year moratorium on further implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards.
In a collection of contributions during Legislative Day, the foundation raised $9,165, its president, Rev. Jason McGuire announced.
A man of his word
Ernest “Ernie” O’Dell was a retired elementary-school teacher and a sheep farmer near Coxsackie when his youngest son, a lawyer, had an idea for what he should do next with his life: something political and something religious.
Having heard Rev. Duane Motley, the founder of the foundation, speak before, O’Dell called to see if he could help at the capital.
O’Dell has worked at the foundation for 16 years and was honored on Legislative Day. This week, he spoke about what he had learned at the foundation.
“I had never thought about our government before and that people should really be involved with their senators and assemblypeople, and our governor, and local government, so they can know what’s going on,” said O’Dell, who wasn’t a staff member but delivered coffee and position papers for Motley and McGuire. He oversaw interns, attended a Bible study with legislators, and gave tours to visiting youth groups.
McGuire, also the executive director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, called O’Dell three times to make sure he would come to Legislative Day this month. O’Dell dutifully guided visitors from the bus depot to the plaza in Albany and he shuttled Bishop Jackson, who wasn’t feeling well, to and from his hotel room.
“Then they caught me in between and said, ‘Duane needs you down front,’” said O’Dell.
O’Dell was honored on stage, to his surprise, for his service with the foundation. Motley presented him with a clock with a red base displaying his name and the foundation’s emblem. “Well done, thou good and faithful servant,” he read the quotation from the Gospel of Matthew written on the clock now sitting on a cherry desk near his steeple clock by the entrance to his home.
“I just went in and filled a slot and did some of the things they wanted and made myself available,” O’Dell said of his work with the foundation. “I never saw myself as being important, just available.”
O’Dell has attended the First Baptist Church of Westerlo — where he led prayer meetings and Bible study, reporting to church-goers on his work with the foundation — and is a member of the Greenville Center Baptist Church. He serves on the school board for the Helderberg Christian School in East Berne. One of the issues of major interest to him at the capitol was Christian education and schools.
“Sometimes you would look for funding for some schools, if they could get it certain ways,” said O’Dell. “Mainly, it was freedom to teach, rather than to be restricted. When we taught here at home, we taught both a religious curriculum and Seth had to do all the testing from the public school,” he said of his home-schooled son. O’Dell spoke positively of public schools, but said his son had a long bus ride and worked jobs on their Ridgeway Farm.
A schoolteacher for 31 years in the Saugerties Central School District, O’Dell has a bachelor’s degree in missions from Nyack College, a master’s degree in education from the State University of New York at New Paltz, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Walden University.
O’Dell said he learned to listen and that it helped to be familiar with the chambers’ guards at the capitol.
“If they said, ‘Move two inches,’ I’d move two inches,” he said.
As a regular observing committee meetings, taking notes and recording reactions for Motley, O’Dell hadn’t been identified. But once, he heard his name called, and was introduced to the others in the room. “Everyone in the committee got up and looked at me because they knew I was with Duane, but they didn’t know me by name,” he said.
O’Dell was like a second pair of ears and hands for the foundation. He scheduled times to speak with legislators or staff for Motley or McGuire, who are the main spokesmen and lobbyists. He feels people should contact their representatives when they think they are doing well, rather than just to complain.
“I don’t ever recall any senator or assemblyperson not being nice, whether you met them in the hall. They were always cordial and nice. I was amazed,” said O’Dell. “I didn’t think it would be like that, I thought it would be more, ‘Oh, you’re a Republican, I’m not going to talk to you.’”