Today, Staten Island faith leaders and community members came together to send a message of welcome and support to asylum seekers staying at the former St. John Villa Academy. Faith leaders and community members spoke out against the hateful and fear-mongering rhetoric that has been directed at the asylum seekers placed at this site, powerfully calling upon us all to welcome the stranger in our midst.
“We gather here today with a message of love and compassion, that there are in fact many people on Staten Island who embrace the immigrants and asylum-seekers here in our community. We are to treat these neighbors with the same compassion that we would wish to be shown if we were in their shoes…Compassion looks like our friends here today who are standing up to say immigrants are welcome here on Staten Island. Compassion is seeing someone in need, and then doing something to help them. Compassion looks like advocating for everyone to have access to food, and shelter, and medical care. That includes seniors, that includes children, long-time New Yorkers, asylum-seekers, single men, and women with children. All of these people are our neighbors, and all of these people are worthy of love. Staten Island is a borough filled with people with compassionate hearts… Many Staten Islanders are saying yes to compassion in our backyards. Yes to shelters for asylum-seekers in our borough. We invite all of our neighbors on Staten Island to choose compassion,” said Rev. Karen Pershing, Co-Chair of Staten Island Inter-Religious Leadership.
“Jesus said, ‘Welcome the stranger.’ Full stop. The long-term investment has a big payoff when we welcome the stranger and provide hospitality, both for our democracy and for our faith traditions,” said Rev. Dr. Chloe Breyer, Executive Director of the Interfaith Center of New York.
“Our voices must be louder, we must be stronger, and we must stand for what America is,” said Rabbi Judah Newberger.
“There is no better day than today to stand up and be heard and to be counted, no better day than today to reflect the larger majority of not only Staten Islanders but Americans, to say welcome to our shores…We are talking about asylum-seekers, people who are fighting for their lives to come to what is promised to be a better home, and we stand in unison together to say, ‘welcome,'” said Rev. Dr. Demetrius Carolina, Pastor of First Central Baptist Church and Executive Director of Central Family Life Center.
“I join my prayers and my efforts with my brothers and sisters here to welcome immigrants to this nation of immigrants,” said Imam Tahir Kukaj of the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center.
“Already more than 100 asylum-seekers have begun volunteering in our food pantries, taking OSHA classes, and the first asylum-seekers’ cases have come through and been granted asylum. Please do not blame asylum-seekers who are fleeing their countries to our border. Like my parents, they are seeking safety and a chance to work to feed their families and to grow up without fear of losing their lives to violence. They are more like us than we realize,” said Michelle Molina, Executive Director of El Centro del Inmigrante.
“When we talk about serving, we have to be inclusive. When we talk about serving, we have to stand for that word, known everywhere in the world: that word is love, and love stands for peace. Today we have to stand for humanity,” said Abou Diakhate, Co-Chair of the Staten Island Immigrant Council.
“Today made clear that faith leaders from diverse religious traditions are welcoming asylum-seekers to New York City and Staten Island. It is the moral and compassionate response, and we invite everyone–even those who spent the morning shouting dehumanizing rhetoric about some of the world’s most vulnerable people–to join us in welcoming asylum seekers and all homeless neighbors,” said Sara Newman, Director of Organizing at the Open Hearts Initiative.
The community leaders closed their press conference with an interfaith prayer for peace and healing in the community: “Our hearts are for all people, and we hope that a meaningful discussion can be had amongst faith leaders, amongst political leaders, amongst brothers and sisters, neighbors, and friends. We thank you for this day.”
Watch the livestream of the press conference, courtesy of the Interfaith Center of New York, here.
With over 100,000 individuals staying in New York City shelters, many facilities in all five boroughs have been converted to emergency shelters to meet this increased need. Last week, migrants arriving at the former St. John Villa Academy, which has been converted to a respite site, were met with a jeering crowd telling them to go home. Opponents have also sued the city in an attempt to shut down the respite site. Amid the alarming show of inhospitality, Staten Island faith leaders joined together for an op-ed reminding New Yorkers of the multi-faith belief in the obligation to care for those in need.
They wrote: “As faith leaders, we believe that we are called by God to show mercy and hospitality to all people in need, including asylum seekers. Our scriptures are filled with teachings on how we are supposed to treat each other — especially those who have been less fortunate than us… We all know that the lives of families from across the globe have been upended by war, poverty and violent conflict. They have now completed the latest leg of their journey, and have arrived here in New York City. Many, with children in tow, left their homes with whatever they could carry on their backs and traveled through jungles, mountains, and dangerous swamps in search of a better life and a small chance at the American dream.”