Thursday, July 5, 2018

Orleans County: Setting the standard for acceptance

Earlier this year, I attended a charity concert in Medina organized by my good friend Bilal Huzair and his lovely family. It was an interesting and eclectic evening to say the least: The celebration began with country-western music which was followed by Pakistani music and then closed with a nice blend of East and West cultures, with songs sung in English, Hindi and Spanish.

I couldn’t help but be enamored by the brotherhood and sisterhood of a shared humanity that night. Everyone was having fun, interacting, and championing a common cause (the fight against hunger here in our region), despite all of their differences – WASPs, Hispanics, Muslims, African-Americans and Mennonites were all equals, all friends.

Realize though, that this shared loved didn’t begin or end there at the Medina Theatre. As my daughter and I sat there entertained and educated, I had a recurring thought: “My goodness, this is what Orleans County is all about”.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a community where diversity and acceptance are paired so well.

Oh, you’ll find many cities, large and small, that will be a little more diverse, but, for the most part, they’re segregated, whether that’s intentional or not. Think of any given metropolis with its clearly defined neighborhoods – you’ve got your “Chinatown” and “Little Italy” or the blacks live here while the whites live there routine. Other than the occasional passing-through to indulge in a festival or an ethnic experience, you rarely see races and creeds interacting in cities.  

That’s not the case along the south shore of Lake Ontario.

Look at these examples of many:

Huzair, his Muslim peers, and their friends at the World Life Institute have been incredibly generous to the community, providing English-as-a-second-language classes to local migrant workers and their families; hosting Project Life, where children from war-torn countries spend summers with local host families; and running a mobile food pantry that served 300 families at a time.

One-time farm workers Leonel Rosario and his family have been welcomed with open arms by local residents, their impeccable Mexican restaurant, Mariachi De Oro, becoming so popular that it has expanded 3 times in its first 7 years and has become something of a tourism destination in itself. The Rosarios also opened up a retail store – Monte Alban – and have given of themselves to Orleans County and its people.

A few years ago, Amish farmer Marcus Miller lost the milking parlor at his dairy farm in Ridgeway to a fire. Once the ashes cooled, dozens of his friends, be they Amish, Catholics or competing farmers from his neighborhood, were there with him to help rebuild that complex, laboring in single-digit temperatures.  

His Amish friends have also created furniture, window, and roof businesses, as well as the super-popular Miller’s Bulk Food and Bakery on Route 104, that are all successful thanks to their attention to their customers and those customers’ appreciation for them, despite having a lifestyle and religious path so different than theirs.

Driving through sleepy Orleans County, you might not, at first glance, realize how diverse these towns are. But they are – according to the Census Bureau, Orleans County is 86% white, 5% Latino, 7% African-American. 3.5% of county residents were foreign born.

Those numbers aren’t far off the numbers of Niagara County, which has to its benefit three cities, which, as a general rule, tend to add to the diversity rolls.

So, why doesn’t Orleans County seem like other places? Why don’t diverse populations catch your attention as they do when you drive through Niagara Falls, Lockport or Buffalo?    

It’s because diversity has not become an oddity or a wedge as it has elsewhere – it’s not used as a means to divide people but rather as a way to bring them together. You have families of different colors and religions doing business with one another, living next door to one another, standing in the trenches together serving those in need, and creating friendships that know no boundaries. Acceptance is something that many if not most diverse communities lack, but Orleans County possesses in spades.  

As America continues to be grossly divided -- and even embarrassingly ugly -- along lines of color, religion, education, income, and politics, it would behoove policymakers and university think tanks from across this country to spend some quality time in Medina, Albion, and Lyndonville. Just why does acceptance work so well here and how can we make it work elsewhere? We could be the United States again if others took the time to learn from the humble and loving people of Orleans County.        

From the 09 July 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

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