“But Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” – Matthew 19:14
A public meeting about a proposal by a church to temporarily house immigrant children turned into a heated standoff between church leaders and outraged community members.
The Rev. Dennis Walker of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in suburban Commack, New York, cited Bible passages about welcoming the stranger and referred to the United States’ history as an immigrant nation to try to rally support for the church’s proposal to host some of the tens of thousands of immigrant children crossing the United States’ border with Mexico mainly to reunite with family here.
The proposal called for about 40 children, aged 4 to 17, to be housed at the church for between seven and 30 days at a time. The children would be in transit from federal immigration detention facilities to relatives in the New York area, and would only leave church property for medical appointments or other important issues. The children would be subject to hearings before federal immigration authorities and could ultimately be deported.
“We are an immigrant nation. We are an immigrant church,” Walker told the standing-room-only crowd that filled the meeting room at the local public library and spilled into the hallway.
But the Reverend’s comments and those of another pastor, as well as the head of a program housing immigrant children in the nearby town of Syosset, was not what the crowd wanted to hear.
Commack is a predominantly white, predominantly middle class bedroom community some 30 miles east of New York City. A rural farming town until its population exploded in the post-war suburban migration of the 1950s and 1960s, Commack is a sprawl of cookie-cutter neighborhoods and aging shopping centers. Ironically, the town’s name is a legacy of its Secatogue Indian origins, although one would be hard-pressed to find any Native Americans living there today.
One by one, opponents of the church’s plan spoke passionately of their concerns and fears.
“We don’t want them, and we’re not going to tolerate them!” shouted a middle-aged man (“I’m a dentist!”) with an Italian surname as the crowd applauded.
“If you’re seeing this outrage… why don’t you just drop it and think of another solution?” pleaded a woman with an Italian, or perhaps Greek, surname.
A woman with a Hebrew first name and German last name offered to volunteer at the church to help develop other projects as long as they do not involve housing immigrants.
“The property is too small,” she implored. “It is not a safe environment for the children to be caged in like animals 24 hours a day. It’s inhumane.” Unlike the federal immigration detention facilities, one supposes.
Many in the audience expressed concerns that the children could bring crime, disease or gang activity.
Commack is a part of Smithtown Township. Smithtown is frequently described in the local newspaper as succumbing to the growing scourge of heroin use and trafficking by affluent, suburban white teens, although perhaps this is not the sort of crime the woman has in mind.
“It’s scary,” said another woman of Italian heritage who identified herself as a special-education teacher. “I have two little kids. Who’s to say my house is going to be safe?”
“It’s basically going to be a hotel right next to my house!” wailed a New York City firefighter with an English surname.
Rev. Walker defended the plan as the church’s opportunity “to do the Christian thing.”
But it the end, faced with a withering wall of opposition, Rev. Walker and the church shelved the plan. “Doing the Christian thing” won’t cut it in this town, and the good Reverend just got schooled.
“We saved Commack!” bellowed the dentist as the crowd filed out of the room at meeting’s end.
As his Italian immigrant ancestors might have put it, “Abbiamo salvato Commack!”
Or perhaps they wouldn’t have.