Turning Outward in Faith

How can a congregation engage with the immigrant community? How can we gain their confidence and trust? There is no better way than old fashioned “community organizing” and shoe leather. Barack Obama has made it popular again. Put your feet on ground zero…offer friendship, hospitality and information. Do it over and over again. Do it in a language they can understand. Do it in newspapers that they read. Do it in places that they frequent.



This is Kennedy Park where day laborers in Danbury offer themselves for hire: In September of 2006, an undercover sting resulted in the arrest of eleven Ecuadorian day laborers who climbed into a white van expecting to take down a fence and earn a days pay. Instead, they were turned over to ICE agents in the parking lot of the Danbury Police Department. It’s also a park where, once a week, volunteers from our congregation serve day laborers coffee or water, new socks or gloves, razors, toothpaste or a bar of soap.



One of our first actions was to take the “defendants” in the Danbury 11 lawsuit to immigration court in Hartford. They named us “Abuelitas Unidas” [Grandmothers United] because there was no equivalent for our names in their language. We made these buttons to wear in court and for outreach activities around town so that people would know us by sight. Grandmothers, you know, are beyond reproach.



Here is Chris handing out flyers to a group of men about a “Know Your Rights” class that will be held on April 23rd at 6 pm. It’s held once a month and is limited to 20 participants.




Ali is handing out flyers to another group across the street.




The flyers are in both Spanish and Portuguese. Our downtown has a variety of ethnic businesses that cater to immigrants from specific countries.




This storefront can mail boxes to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.




This is a typical downtown storefront that sends remittances back home to family members.




There is a competitor down the block who is pitching remittances to Ecuador. All of these places are establishments where we hand out flyers or leave information kits.




This is a popular Laundromat for non-English speakers in town.




Ana has a display on her counter of one of our “information kits”. It has a brochure on immigration enforcement, a Know Your Rights card with local contact information, a personal plan in case of an ICE raid, a sheet on basic rights under state labor laws, a wage complaint form, information in Spanish about the WIC program for pregnant and nursing women, the Hispanic Center and a list of meal sites and food pantries that help people regardless of their immigration status.




This is a popular Brazilian Bakery. We go here to reach the undocumented Brazilians who live and work in Danbury. They don’t generally look for work at Kennedy Park like the day laborers. They seem to network in their community among themselves for semi-permanent underground employment. They are a challenge to reach but we have the support of two Brazilian Newspapers and Father Pedro, a Catholic priest from Brazil.




Father Pedro gave us permission to use the Brazilian Catholic Community Center for an Immigrant Resource Fair at the end of March. We had volunteer attorneys on hand to talk privately with individuals about their immigration status. We had a “Know Your Rights” workshop. We had good participation from community agencies: Head Start, the Women’s Center, the Danbury Public Library, the local transit district whose ridership is 60% immigrant.




We had the entire second floor of this building and we shared our space with a five foot statue of the Virgin Mary. It was a very busy evening. Lots of immigrants came through the fair and stayed for supper.




This man had his blood pressure taken and the nurse called me over to explain to him that his blood pressure was very high and he had to see a doctor and get medication for his condition. He is reading a guide to free and low-cost health care in our community that was produced for this event.




It’s twelve double-sided pages of life-saving information in three languages and it was put together by Chris Halfar on behalf of the Social Action Committee.




This is Joanne Lewis, Regional Director for Connecticut Legal Services, speaking with two undocumented Brazilian immigrants.




Two members of the congregation are telling people about a community garden we are planning for an urban neighborhood.




Everyone learned something new about their adopted community.




This is a “Know Your Rights” presentation being taught by a leader from our large Ecuadorian community and a Mexican outreach worker. Both of these individuals came to know us and trust us through the process of becoming a New Sanctuary Congregation.




In spite of the cold, rainy weather that night in March, we had a warm, enthusiastic response to our resource fair.




In our congregation, we offered welcome and hospitality. This photo is from the last service in the trilogy that led up to the vote on becoming a New Sanctuary Congregation. This quartet is performing a song called “City of Immigrants” against a backdrop of drawings made by the kids in RE just for this service…Every Family Matters. One of the members of this quartet is undocumented.




We began a food offering at both Sunday services to help the Hispanic Center feed people this winter. This is an activity that involves the entire congregation.




We ask for specific items that are common in Latin American diets.




We were recognized at a breakfast this spring for our strong support of the immigrants in our community.




This is our interim minister, the Rev. Sue Spencer, accepting the award on behalf of the congregation.




We also involve members of the congregation in lobbying our elected officials to protect child citizens from losing parents to deportation, to provide basic health care to detainees, to establish due process standards for raids and detentions and - in our state - to allow children of immigrants to pay “in state” tuition to attend public colleges and universities. We’ve also had face-to-face meetings with our member of Congress and the Senior Staff of our U.S. Senators about comprehensive immigration reform.