Rally gives voice to concern for immigrant children

Rally gives voice to concern for immigrant children

A woman sits next to a sign that reads “Keep Families Together: Separation is Inhumane” during an interfaith gathering at Christ Our Light Church in Cherry Hill on June 24.
Photo by Alan M. Dumoff

CHERRY HILL – The hundreds of people who showed up at Christ Our Light Church here on Sunday evening, June 25, were united by a faith in God and political will but mostly by a shared horror at the sound of young children crying for their parents.

The hastily arranged rally was planned while the Trump administration was still separating families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, but it took place days after the president issued an executive order ending the policy — but still leaving some 2,300 children needing to be reunited with their parents.

The interfaith gathering had the support of several faith communities, including local synagogues, the mosque in Voorhees and the nearby universalist church, and it drew some 350 people — roughly one individual for every six children being held in facilities by the U.S. government.

In recent weeks the president’s “zero tolerance” policy had become a major media story, with reports of children being taken from their parents, images of teenagers in cage-like detention facilities and, perhaps most dramatically, audio of children crying for their parents.

Father Gerard C. Marable, pastor of Saint Josephine Bakhita Parish, Camden, seemed to speak for many when he said that the situation made him angry. “It is affecting all aspects of my day, and my dreams,” he said, with obvious frustration.

Yet despite the intense emotions swirling around the issue throughout the country, the mood of the gathering was more prayerful than antagonistic, more hopeful than cynical. And it was, at least on the surface, surprisingly apolitical. More than a dozen faith leaders spoke, and not one used the words “Republican” or “Democrat,” mentioned Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has been widely criticized for invoking Saint Paul in justifying the family separation policy, or indulged in anti-Trump rhetoric.

Instead, speakers — Christian, Jewish and Muslim — repeatedly cited Scripture and religious teaching to emphasize the sacredness of the family unit, of welcoming strangers and of helping those in need.

Sister Veronica Roche, who spent many years at Saint Joseph Pro-Cathedral in East Camden and has been on missions to Mexico and Central America with her community, the Sisters of Saint Joseph, argued that many immigrants are literally fleeing for their lives by trying to escape violence and lawlessness, as well as poverty. She recounted several of her experiences, including her time with a 12-year-old girl from Honduras who was seeking asylum with her mother and two siblings, following the murder of her father and sister.

“We can bring the light of our faith to this very dark moment,” she said in an appeal understandable to the participants of different religious traditions. “These children and their parents are children of God.”

Many of the speakers warned that the government’s treatment of families at the border seemed to echo shameful times from America’s past, such as its treatment of Native Americans, involvement in the slave trade and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. What is at stake, they argued, is not only the welfare of families desperate to enter the United States but the future of the country itself, whether it will live up to its lofty ideals or ignore the universal respect for human dignity that is enshrined in its founding documents.

“I pray that our political leaders do what is constitutionally and morally correct,” said Chris Coehlo, an immigrant from Pakistan who became a U.S. citizen five years ago.

Rabbi Jennifer Frenkel of M’kor Shalom made her point by introducing herself as the great-grandchild of immigrants who would have faced certain death if they had been returned to their homeland. “We cannot stand idly by,” she said to enthusiastic applause.

Father Marable reiterated the point that the current crisis was not limited to what was happening at Texas’ southwest border. He recalled that he recently blessed the house of a couple from Guatemala, whose three children were born in the United States. Looking at the children, he said, he realized, “This is the face of those children who have been separated from their parents. The border is not just in Texas. It’s right here.”

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