To save America’s soul, we need an ecumenism of love

Unprotected immigrants have become our modern-day Samaritans, and the campaigns we Americans wage against them are growing increasingly hostile. In New Jersey, where I live, Gov. Chris Christie closed the state’s office of refugee resettlement in 2016, treating those who were fleeing war and persecution as if they were enemy combatants. In 2017 President Trump announced the end of deportation protections for undocumented young adults who came to the United States as children and placed a travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries.

For a time, I teetered on the brink of despair, in danger of losing my moral outrage as the injustices piled on. Then, on a bright November Sunday, I joined 200 people in a procession through Highland Park, just across the river from Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus. They were fundraising for Interfaith Refugee and Immigrant Services and Empowerment, a coalition of 60 organizations dedicated to resettling refugees and assisting asylum seekers in Central New Jersey. It was a sign that my 1.8-square-mile municipality has become a refuge for people fleeing persecution.

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Walking among the crowd, I recognized only a few familiar faces. Whether prompted by the Holy Spirit or my own need for inspiration, I felt compelled to ask these New Jerseyans, “Why are you here?” I wanted to know what powerful force brought these strangers together to invest their time, energy and money to help immigrants whom more and more Americans view with suspicion, anger and hatred.

“Jews, Christians, Muslims, pagans and atheists, all working together. Makes you think, maybe God...exists.”

In the golden sunshine of a crisp Sunday afternoon, a tall gentleman with a graying ponytail towered over the procession. Amid a sea of posters bearing messages of welcome (“Refugees Make Our Country Great”) and warning (“Will Trade Racists for Refugees”), the man declared: “Jews, Christians, Muslims, pagans and atheists, all working together. Makes you think, maybe God...exists.”

His remark was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. A retired Lutheran pastor, John Fischer explained that in 40 years of ordained ministry, he rarely attended a meeting like the monthly Interfaith-RISE gatherings at the Reformed Church of Highland Park, led by the church’s co-pastor, Seth Kaper-Dale.

“Seth comes in with a long list of tasks that need to get done, and people just raise their hands. By the end of the meeting, every need is cared for,” Pastor Fischer says. “It lifts your spirit.”

Back in 2014, when Lutheran Disaster Response, a ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, asked congregations to provide shelter for people who lost their homes in Hurricane Sandy, the parsonage of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, where Rev. Fischer now worships, stood empty and in need of repair. The tiny congregation dedicated $35,000 to renovate the four-bedroom house for a New Jersey family until their own home was once again livable. The parsonage became vacant just as Interfaith-RISE was desperately searching for a place large enough for an Afghan refugee family of six. Nearby, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, an interfaith group wanted to support a refugee family but needed a house.

Nancy Zerbe and her husband, Pete Materna, who are Catholic, were introduced to Interfaith-RISE by neighbors who started the group at St. Luke’s and then assisted the Afghan family in the Lutheran parsonage. After the couple participated in an Interfaith-RISE Walk-a-Thon in November 2016, they joined as representatives of their own congregation, St. Peter the Apostle University and Community Parish in New Brunswick. They are two of dozens of Interfaith-RISE volunteers who shuttle refugees and asylum seekers to doctor appointments and grocery shopping.

“Imagine taking an Iraqi family to an American supermarket for the first time and trying to explain—via Google Translate on a cell phone—the difference between organic and nonorganic produce!” exclaimed Ms. Zerbe.

Ms. Zerbe and Mr. Materna connected Interfaith-RISE clients and coordinators with a local Catholic Charities office. They introduced St. Peter’s congregants, including a tutor trained in English as a second language, to Interfaith-RISE. Changes to federal immigration policies under the Trump administration have made their immigration ministry feel like a call from God. According to Ms. Zerbe, “Helping refugees and asylees assimilate and feel welcome in a new home provides a powerful way to live out Christ’s teaching that ‘as you did to one of the least of these, my brethren, you did it to me.’”

Last spring, the Catholic couple joined Interfaith-RISE for weekly trips to the Elizabeth Detention Center, a converted warehouse on the outskirts of Newark Liberty Airport. Every Monday a van shuttles volunteers from Highland Park to the center for visits with some of the 300 men held in detention by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. On Wednesdays another group visits a few of the center’s 30 detained women. Asylum seekers may be confined there from four to 18 months. Some say they have been pressed by D.H.S. agents to return to the dangerous countries they had fled. Many asylum seekers simply give up.

Over the course of their visits, Ms. Zerbe and Mr. Materna got to know a young Nigerian woman who was being held separately from her husband. In May an immigration judge granted the Nigerians legal asylum status. Late on the night when D.H.S. released the couple, Ms. Zerbe and Mr. Materna returned to the center, took the husband and wife to a cheeseburger dinner and then brought them home, where the two couples lived together temporarily. The Nigerian woman said that for the rest of her life she will never forget how that night’s warm breeze felt on her skin.

“Imagine taking an Iraqi family to an American supermarket for the first time and trying to explain—via Google Translate on a cell phone—the difference between organic and nonorganic produce!”

Today the suffering people at the Elizabeth Detention Center are at the core of my Central Jersey community’s work. But it was not always that way. Before 2003, church leaders like me were largely unaware of the vulnerable immigrants in our midst. That year we learned that most of the congregants in an Indonesian Protestant congregation that rented our sanctuary at the Reformed Church of Highland Park were undocumented—and in danger of deportation.

The Indonesian congregants had fled an anti-Christian pogrom in their home country that started in May 1998, fueled by an Islamic extremist military. Ethnic Chinese Christians were systematically and publicly raped, bludgeoned and murdered. Indonesian churches were burned down for more than a decade—and are still being destroyed. Our future congregants lined up at U.S. embassies and consulates because America was a “Christian” country. Instead of creating a costly refugee program, the Clinton administration gave persecuted Indonesians tourist visas.

In the absence of a formal U.S. refugee program, many Indonesians overstayed their tourist visas—a civil offense, not a criminal one. Nevertheless, in 2003 undocumented Indonesian men voluntarily registered with the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, a program implemented after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to identify suspected terrorists from 25 mostly Muslim countries. Christian Indonesians wanted to help the United States fight the same terrorism they had experienced back home. They—and we, as their landlords—hoped this would put them on a path to citizenship.

What followed was an immigration nightmare. The registration system did not identify a single terrorist, but it did ensnare thousands of well-meaning, undocumented men. Because asylum cannot be granted if immigrants do not apply within the first year after they arrive (a poorly publicized 1997 law), Indonesian petitions were declined nationwide. Appealing those decisions has cost each applicant tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

In May 2006, D.H.S. agents armed with rifles and batons conducted a middle-of-the-night raid at a garden apartment complex in Avenel, N.J., where many Indonesians lived together, helping one another with child care, job leads and meals. The next morning, 35 adults, mostly fathers of families, were detained in the Middlesex County jail. Pastor Kaper-Dale allowed everyone else to hide in our church. Six weeks later, all 35 detainees were deported. “I didn’t visit anyone detained in the county jail,” Rev. Kaper-Dale says. “I just didn’t know.”

Over the next several years, wives and mothers with no job experience and who spoke little English lost their leases and the communal support of the Avenel complex. They crammed themselves and their children into single bedrooms in the apartments of acquaintances and scraped by on $7 an hour filling nail polish bottles. We watched U.S. citizen children miss countless days of school and listened as they tried to communicate with fathers, 9,000 miles away, who could no longer hug them or pay for their health care.

“I didn’t visit anyone detained in the county jail,” Rev. Kaper-Dale says. “I just didn’t know.”

Harry Pangemanan, an undocumented Indonesian who was ordained as a Reformed Church elder and ministry associate, today repairs and furnishes homes for Interfaith-RISE immigrants. But in January 2009, D.H.S. detained him for four months. Church members visited Mr. Pangemanan nightly in Elizabeth Detention Center, where he lived under the glare of lights 24 hours a day every day, with open toilets and showers. He worried desperately about his wife and young daughters. As his prospects grew dim, Mr. Pangemanan started to show signs of mental distress.

“Will you do something for me, Harry?” Pastor Kaper-Dale asked him. “Be a light for everyone inside.”

Few detainees spoke the same language, but in Mr. Pangemanan’s Bible study, somehow everyone was able to communicate. Church members visited Mr. Pangemanan’s friends and listened to desperate stories from India, Pakistan, Congo, Ghana and Sierra Leone. Pastor Kaper-Dale finally won Mr. Pangemanan’s release when he reached out to an assistant to the U.S. secretary of Homeland Security. Mr. Pangemanan was safe, but church visits to the detention center continued. Sometimes Pastor Kaper-Dale would get calls late at night from D.H.S. officials when they were about to release an asylee who had nowhere to go. Former detainees lived in congregants’ spare bedrooms, basements and even in Sunday school classrooms. That December, D.H.S. struck a deal with Pastor Kaper-Dale that enabled the church to supervise undocumented Indonesians, sparing them from detention.

In 2011 the federal government reneged on that deal and deported several Indonesians. Dozens received temporary stays, but nine who were denied deportation protection—including Mr. Pangemanan—entered sanctuary, imprisoning themselves in the church building for more than 300 days, until they were granted stays from the highest level of the Obama administration. Today, as the United States closes its doors to immigrants, Christian Indonesians are once again being deported. Today, three families live in sanctuary in the church.

No U.S. law requires that all undocumented people be deported. D.H.S. can invoke a large number of humanitarian factors to stay deportations. Still, Mr. Pangemanan, despite managing 1,200 groups from across the country—50,000 volunteer hours—to restore more than 200 of the Jersey Shore’s poorest homes destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, remains in grave danger. “Because of what this community has given me,” Mr. Pangemanan says, “by receiving me, with who I am, helping me with difficult times and keeping my family together, I would like to help as many people as I can.”

Our congregation also slowly learned to care for these undocumented people and used those lessons to launch the church’s Affordable Housing Corporation.

The Reformed Church and our interfaith partners received a first-hand education through our work with the Indonesian Christians in how aggressive deportation tactics destroy people, marriages and families, deprive children of wage-earning parents and put enormous pressure on private and public safety nets. Our congregation also slowly learned to care for these undocumented people and used those lessons to launch the church’s Affordable Housing Corporation. Formed to shelter homeless people in the area, the corporation today brokers leases for Interfaith-RISE refugees and asylees, including a New Brunswick apartment for the Nigerian couple that Ms. Zerbe and Mr. Materna met after they were released from detention. The Nigerians took to calling Ms. Zerbe and Mr. Materna “Mum and Dad,” as the Americans coached them through their initial job interviews and then through the trials and pitfalls of the couple’s first paid employment.

To prepare a new home for an arriving family, Sarah Hymowitz, a Highland Park resident and an Interfaith-RISE liaison to Anshe Emeth Reformed Temple in New Brunswick, publishes an online registry for household items—from rugs to lamps, detergent to toothpaste. Ms. Hymowitz says, “If I send an email on Monday, often by Wednesday, 100 items are spoken for.” At first, she had asked for gently used household items. But the response was overwhelming. Instead of providing one pot, a volunteer bought a brand new set she found on sale.

“I get a nice glimpse of how generous people are,” Ms. Hymowitz says. “It’s a very concrete way to help. You see someone wearing the coat you bought. You know someone is sleeping beneath the bedspread you donated.”

“The goal is self-sufficiency and independence,” Ms. Stevens says. “We want to be here for them, for as long as it takes.”

Other volunteers paint, clean and deliver furniture to homes to prepare them for families who sometimes arrive straight from rugged refugee camps in countries like Uganda and Jordan. A Jewish woman who keeps kosher learned how to cook Halal dishes to greet families with a warm meal on the night they arrive. A number of men are devoted to picking up refugees at area airports.

Abrupt immersion in American culture can be challenging. Louise Sandburg from the Jewish Center Interfaith Resettlement Committee in Princeton directs cultural orientation for Interfaith-RISE. One of the first things she teaches refugees is how to dial 911. Last spring when a child spilled hot tea on himself, an Arabic-speaking Highland Park police officer accompanied the family for hours in a hospital emergency room. One night, a Congolese baby spiked a fever. Pastor Kaper-Dale dispatched a neighbor to demonstrate how to use a digital thermometer and call a health clinic doctor.

The Interfaith-RISE director Paola Stevens is also the social worker who coordinates services for refugees. She explains that as an affiliate site of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Interfaith-RISE is mandated to provide services for each refugee’s first 90 days in the country, including health screenings, shelter, Medicaid, job training and E.S.L. lessons. Connecting people to faith and ethnic communities is also critical. Sunni families flourish in a Sunni mosque. Syrian interpreters are affiliated with the Islamic Society of Central New Jersey.

“The goal is self-sufficiency and independence,” Ms. Stevens says. “We want to be here for them, for as long as it takes.”

With 46 refugee arrivals to Interfaith-RISE from January to November 2017, resettlement operations would have ground to a halt without volunteers. Broadcasting urgent and specific calls for help is key to Interfaith-RISE’s success. It is also key to Pastor Kaper-Dale’s pastoral philosophy.

“We don’t need to know. We don’t need to control everything in the body of Christ—that’s where many churches fail.”

“Early on, a church leader told me she was terrified because she used to know everything that went on, but now she no longer did,” explained Pastor Kaper-Dale. He then assured her: “We don’t need to know. We don’t need to control everything in the body of Christ—that’s where many churches fail.” He calls his approach “creating intentional, compassionate community.” Community networks cannot be paid for or measured, but they make lives work.

As the 2017 Interfaith-RISE Walk-a-Thon pauses outside houses of worship, borough hall and schools, community leaders spoke words of welcome and refugees who arrived in the past year from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria introduced themselves. One father told walkers that he called his parents to say how his Jersey neighbors had shown him great kindness. “When I see one of you, you are my loved ones,” he explains in newly learned English.

At the end of the walk, refugee chefs provide the walkers with refreshments. In the spring of 2016 this tradition inspired the opening of a pay-what-you-can lunchtime cafe called Global Grace in the dining hall of the Reformed Church. Monday through Friday, a chef from Indonesia, Syria, Congo, Sierra Leone or India cooks favorite recipes from his or her homeland, earns income and meets neighbors. The cafe contributes more than $1,000 a week to Interfaith-RISE. Thanks to national media coverage of the cafe in outlets like National Public Radio, customers drive for miles to support refugees.

Fida Ayoubi from the New Brunswick Islamic Center volunteers at the cafe and also serves as an Arabic translator for Interfaith-RISE. Her family was saved by Christian neighbors during their harrowing escape from Lebanon’s civil war during the 1970s. She says, “Helping refugees with the Interfaith-RISE community has been very good for my soul. It’s taught me the humbleness, generosity and goodness of selfless people who help just to help.” Ms. Ayoubi is supported by many of Central Jersey’s Islamic communities. “When I am looking for donations and friendship for refugees, I send out a message, and those needs are met.”                

“Helping refugees with the Interfaith-RISE community has been very good for my soul. It’s taught me the humbleness, generosity and goodness of selfless people who help just to help.”

Crunchy brown leaves crackled underfoot as walkers shuffled onto the lawn of Highland Park’s public library. There, the director of the New Brunswick Islamic Center, Sami Catovic, explained how welcoming refugees is a tradition deeply inscribed in Islam’s holy texts: “Fourteen hundred years ago, Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, was suffering in his home of Mecca and fled with his community to Medina, as migrants and refugees, where he helped form a new community.” In Medina, Mr. Catovic explains, the Prophet declared an end to the divisions of tribe and ethnicity; from then on, there would be only migrants and helpers. Mr. Catovic gave thanks for the most beautiful gathering on that Sunday afternoon. It is simple, he says: “We are either immigrants trying to establish ourselves or helpers assisting those trying to establish themselves.”

Judy Richman is an Interfaith-RISE volunteer who helps refugees with English conversation and takes families on trips to the local Stop & Shop. It was from her that I first learned the Hebrew phrase, tikkun olam, which means repairing our shattered world.

Tikkun olam is the obligation to take actions that increase dignity, equality, justice and healing,” explains Ms. Richman, a retired lawyer. Thanks to her work with Interfaith-RISE, she now knows where to find the best Halal butcher and the most excellent Southeast Asian supermarket. “Every act of loving kindness brings us closer to God’s vision for the world,” she says. “Torah repeatedly commands us to protect the widow, the orphan and the stranger.”

For me, the defining moment of the walk came in the form of a question. A young woman from Princeton University’s Office of Religious Life asked the crowd, “Who are we without welcome?” Maya Wahrman told how her great-grandfather arranged for his family’s escape from Frankfurt to Palestine in 1933 and also paid for a visa for a woman, a stranger, who could not afford to migrate legally. Years later, when the woman visited with her new family and offered to repay her debt, Ms. Wahrman’s family gained friends who might not have survived the Holocaust had they been unable to flee Germany. Many Jews use the Hebrew word for cataclysm, Shoah, instead of the word most Americans use, Holocaust—an ancient Greek word meaning “burnt offering.” Cataclysm is one experience that many Interfaith-RISE volunteers and immigrants share.

As Christians, our goal in life, as Ms. Zerbe reminded me, is to stop living like the security-minded goats we find in Matthew 25 and instead become like the extravagant sheep who give food to hungry people, water to anyone who thirsts and, of course, welcome to strangers.

Ms. Wahrman then told us how immigrants changed her life. A Pakistani asylum seeker was the first person she visited in Elizabeth Detention Center—and Ms. Wahrman was the first Jewish person the Pakistani man had ever met. After he had been released, Ms. Wahrman visited him late one night, after saying goodbye to another detainee, who was about to be deported. Despite the hour, he surprised her with a full Pakistani dinner. Because Ms. Wahrman’s family remains in Jerusalem, another asylee, a Palestinian, calls himself Ms. Wahrman’s Israeli uncle. “We have to care for you,” he told her, “because we are your American family.”

“I want to thank you for who I am because of this community,” Ms. Wahrman told us.

A slowly setting sun cast long shadows on the pavement outside buildings where we had paused earlier, as I retraced my steps and returned for my own family dinner. In the golden glow, I realized I had come to share Ms. Wahrman’s gratitude. Lingering in the fresh November air was the unmistakable sense that I had received an ineffable gift, an intuition of greater wholeness, a pervasive thankfulness that I could not have experienced had I stayed inside.

As Christians, our goal in life, as Ms. Zerbe reminded me, is to stop living like the security-minded goats we find in Matthew 25 and instead become like the extravagant sheep who give food to hungry people, water to anyone who thirsts and, of course, welcome to strangers. We cannot do it alone. Good Samaritans everywhere know that when anyone asks for help, they are inviting us to become full-fledged children of the one God. By joining my neighbors in opening our doors and lives to immigrants, part of me had been healed.

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