Religious leaders react to travel ban

| 31 Jan 2017 | 06:29

“This God loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. That means you must also love immigrants, because you were immigrants in Egypt.”

“Thus says the Lord, do justice and righteousness and deliver from the hand of the oppressor she who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless and the widow.”

Bible verses on the topic of the stranger, read aloud during last Sunday’s service at Riverside Church in Morningside Heights, resonated deeply in light of President Donald Trump’s executive order, issued Friday, Jan. 27, temporarily barring refugees and nationals of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S.

Trump’s order was met with a swift response from thousands of New Yorkers over the weekend, as protesters gathered at John F. Kennedy International Airport and Battery Park to voice their opposition. Demonstrations continued Monday at Tompkins Square Park and Columbia University. Though critics say the executive order specifically targets Muslims, it has attracted the attention of Manhattan congregations from across the religious spectrum.

The Rev. Rachel Johnson said Riverside Church has taken steps to publicize protests against the order to its congregation. The ban, Johnson said, is “dismissive of fundamental Christian values of welcoming the stranger,” and the fact that it prioritizes granting refugee status to religious minorities, many of whom are Christians in the countries listed, is particularly troublesome. “We have a responsibility to care for our neighbors, and that should include everyone,” she said.

Imam Ali Mashour of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York on the Upper East Side said that the order has already had a significant impact on the mosque’s congregants. “It’s not just foreign people who have never been to our country,” he said. “It’s people that have very strong ties and multi-generational ties to this country and this has now paralyzed their lives.”

“We even have imams here on staff who have been affected,” Mashour continued. “People who were supposed to go travel and they’re too afraid to travel because they’re afraid they can’t come back.”

Mashour said that the center has been the target of vandalism and bomb threats in recent weeks, and that police have stationed an extra squad car outside in the wake of a deadly shooting at a Quebec City mosque Sunday.

The Islamic Cultural Center has not participated directly in the protests of the last week, Mashour said, “because this is a religious institution and we don’t want to dabble in politics, since politics are very ambiguous.” Still, he said, the demonstrations have been a “breath of fresh air” because they show that many New Yorkers do not support the ban. The center has received an outpouring of goodwill from neighbors in the days since the order was issued, Mashour said. “People bringing flowers, people signing up to volunteer for our various charitable activities,” he said. “They’ve been overwhelmingly supportive.”

Rabbi Robert N. Levine said that members of Congregation Rodeph Sholom on West 83rd Street are “deeply engaged” with the challenges facing refugees in light of the executive order, and that members of the synagogue’s congregation and clergy were active in the protests of last weekend. “There probably isn’t any issue that should engage the Jewish community more than this,” Levine said. “There is nothing in our tradition that is emphasized more than empathy for the stranger.”

“This has a special resonance,” he added.

Congregation Rodeph Sholom is hosting an upcoming event about providing assistance to refugees and is working with other synagogues as part of a coalition on refugee issues. “We realize as a consortium there is much we will be able to do to impact legislation and engage with our representatives,” Levine said, noting that the congregation will strive to deliver both direct service and effective advocacy on a number of issues. “It’s immigrants, it’s women, it’s a lot of different areas where the values we care most about as a religious tradition will be under assault,” he said.

The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael B. Curry, issued a statement last week calling on Trump to “continue the powerful work of our refugee resettlement program without interruption.” Manhattan’s Episcopal parishes have followed Curry’s lead in responding publicly to the executive order.

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Chelsea will hold a candlelight prayer vigil at 6:30 Thursday evening, Feb. 2 “to pray for our country, pray for our leaders, and pray for the people affected by them, ” said the Rev. Stephen Harding, the church’s interim pastor. Harding plans to hold similar vigils each week. “As Episcopalians, we are called to respect the dignity of every human being,” he said.

At St. Michael’s Episcopal Church on West 99th Street, about 40 congregants stayed after last Sunday’s service for an impromptu gathering, during which they discussed how to respond to the refugee ban. The Rev. Katharine Flexer, the church’s rector, said that pastors like herself must strike a balance between giving people space to follow their own consciences and staying true to the church’s Christian identity. “A long time ago someone told me ‘preach the gospel, don’t preach politics,’ but a lot of times the gospel is politics,” she said.

“It’s deep in our Christian DNA to welcome strangers and to care for the vulnerable, and if we’re not doing that, we’re not being good Christians,” Flexer added.

St. Michael’s helped organize congregants to participate in last month’s women’s march, Flexer said, and will continue to play a role in working “not against any specific person, but against policies we perceive to be wrong.” Specifically, she said, the congregation will look for ways to connect with Muslim immigrant communities in New York.

“We need to work together with people we haven’t worked with before and know our neighbors,” she said. “I think that’s one of the big messages.”

Madeleine Thompson and Laura Hanrahan contributed to this story.