Hope Amid Hate: LI Religious Leaders Call Their Congregations to Welcome Newly Arrived Children

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Media coverage of the more than 2,500 newly arrived Central American children on Long Island has been quite depressing since late summer. In August, neighbors near Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Commack forced the cancellation of that congregation’s plans to temporarily shelter 30 to 40 of the children until their placement with local relatives.

More recently, the Hempstead school district came under fire for refusing to admit new immigrant children to their schools. The district relented after the state Education Department intervened. Comments about these stories on Newsday’s website have been overwhelmingly negative, with hatred and verbal abuse directed at the children and any organization trying to assist them.

Following a Sept. 19 interfaith press conference hosted by Long Island Wins and Long Island Jobs with Justice at which 14 religious leaders called Long Islander to welcome the refugee children, the host pastor for the event received numerous negative calls from people outside his congregation. He and other faith leaders mentioned in the Newsday story covering the event received an anonymous hate letter.

To counteract this climate of hate, we at Long Island Jobs with Justice and Long Island Wins prepared interfaith resources for congregations to reflect on the plight of the children and the need to welcome them into our communities. Who better to issue this call than religious leaders? This past weekend was a weekend for reflection, which coincided with scheduled Catholic and Protestant scriptural readings that lent themselves to the Biblical mandate to welcome and care for immigrants.

With all the animosity being directed toward newly arrived children on Long Island, we knew that it would be a tough sell to get clergy to preach on this difficult and emotional subject. We polled the congregations that received our resource packet to find out how many participated and what the responses to their sermons were. Those that provided feedback so far are:

  • The Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center in Commack
  • St. James Roman Catholic Church in Seaford
  • Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Roman Catholic Church in Wyandanch
  • St. John Nepomucene Roman Catholic Church in Bohemia
  • The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook
  • St. Rosalie Roman Catholic Church in Hampton Bays

Responses we received have pleasantly surprised us. At St. James Church in Seaford, an almost all white, middle-class community, the pastor, Fr. John Derasmo, preached about the newly arrived children and said that, for the first time, his sermon was applauded by the congregation. At Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church, two of the priests, Fr. Ted Brown and Fr. Bill Brisotti, preached about the children at four Masses attended by almost 700 people.

Fr. Brown told the congregation that this Sunday was one of those occasions when the “readings are very aligned with events” reported in the media.  Referencing the Exodus reading, he told the congregation about the hatred directed against his Irish ancestors in Massachusetts. His great grandmother, a domestic worker, was ordered into work on Sundays at 4:30 a.m. so that she could not attend Mass. His grandfather saw “No Irish Need Apply” written on local “Help Wanted” signs.

“Most of us,” he said, “don’t have to go very far back to find how our families were abused” when they were immigrants to this country. About the newly arrived children, Fr. Brown said, “These are children just like our children” who, “just like our immigrant ancestors, want a life of security, a better life” than what they left.

Since the Commack incident, immigrant advocates formed a Rapid Response Team prepared to react each time that a major anti-immigrant event takes place.  This team will be most successful when the number of Long Islanders willing to welcome and support immigrants increases. That number just may have grown exponentially on this past weekend in religious congregations on Long Island.


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