December 3, 2011 § 1 Comment
By Luis R. Perez
What do you do if you preach another sermon on immigration that prompts polite head bobs and gentle stares in the pews?
If you are the Rev. Doug Fisher of the Grace Episcopal Church in Millbrook N.Y., you preach on the subject carefully, but with boundless determination until listeners become curious or interested.
“There wasn’t any enthusiasm for it,” said the Rev. Fisher.
For someone as seasoned and as cautious as the Rev. Fisher, kindling an interest on a seemingly controversial and complex subject like immigration requires more than sharing well known biblical passages that call for embracing the neighbor, such as The Parable of the Good Samaritan, or delivering a cri de coeur brand of sermon to rally the average 150 worshippers who attend his Sunday mass.
Fisher, a tall, lanky man with a soft temperament and genial stoicism, knows that it takes the focus of a skilled golfer to “line things up” and the polish of a Madison Avenue marketing guru to make a now or never pitch. So once, during a sermon in May 21, 2006, he employed an illustration made up of two large posters that helped persuade the vast majority of his parishioners.
The first poster had five stick figures, which could represent an ordinary person, “lined up horizontally across the top of the page.” On the left side running vertically he listed an array of hot button social issues, including the Iraq War, the local school budget, gay marriage and fluctuating gas prices, among other current affair issues. In his illustration, person one might embrace “the war, support the school budget, oppose gay marriage, and want government intervention in the gas crisis. Person two opposes the war but agrees with person one on everything else.” He went on and on. His overarching point: people who share a common space can have different views.
On the second poster, he drew dozens of stick figures that represent the 500 members of the congregation with arrows pointing in all directions on intricate social issues. “This is Grace Church,” he said amid positive body feedback and a huge laugh. “The point is we will never agree on all the issues. And that’s healthy. We are not the Body of Christ because we agree with each other. We are the Body of Christ because we care about each other.”
Reflecting on this breakthrough moment, the Rev. Fisher said: “We have opinions about things, but we are not our opinions.”
Currently, the Rev. Fisher’s congregation operates ESL and GED classes for about 22 students on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 6:15 to 9:15 p.m. The year-long free classes are led by members of the parish and instructors from BOCES, an adult learning institute based out of Poughkeepsie, NY. In addition to learning English, the students receive support in the form of free daycare, while the classes are being taught, and a bank account referral program in collaboration with M&T Bank branches in Millbrook and Amenia. The classes take place at the church’s welcoming parish hall, and the expenses are primarily underwritten by the church membership and denomination.
During a recent Thursday ESL class, an animated instructor pointed to a word and then asked the students to match the word to the body part. When the teacher asked them to identify their individual chin, one of the students, who is a native of Mexico, and who did not want to share his name for the story, correctly pointed to the lowermost part of his face with his index finger. When the teacher asked them to show her where their shin is, the same student confidently bent over and tapped the front part of his lower leg.“If I get sick or have an accident at work, I will be able to go to the doctor and point correctly to the area where it hurts,” the student said.
At a nearby classroom for advanced English-speaking students, a student named Teresa, who is a native of Sao Palo, Brazil, said the classes are giving her the increasing confidence to publicly hold conversations in English. Also, she said that she enjoys reading in English about American History. “I want to take the citizenship exam one day,” Teresa said.
But there was a problem that promised to dampen the students’ enthusiasm for learning.
“Some of them go to work on a cup of coffee. This is all they can afford. When they return home from work, I did not want to them ask, prepare dinner or go to school to learn English?” said Evelyn Garzetta, who is the congregation’s Latino Outreach Coordinator. Garzetta said that a meal is offered to the students prior to each class in an effort to offer the students an extended family support system and to help them resist the temptation to skip class.
Some religious observers feel that the Rev. Fisher’s vision for immigration ministry has become a cutting-edge model for how churches should respond to immigrants in semi-rural areas, where the lack of public transportation infrastructure hampers connections and where parochial mindsets can get in the way of “offering hospitality to the stranger.”
“He is not doing social service, but he is doing social transformation,” said the Rev. Richard Witt, executive director of the Rural and Migrant Ministry, an advocacy and education organization in Poughkeepsie, NY. “He has been moving his congregation from charity to justice.”
In a quaint and desirable town like Millbrook, NY, a community known for prized horse stables, elegant country clubs, shi shi boutiques, and fine dining, conventional wisdom would call for the Rev. Fisher to practice a status quo brand of ministry. But he persisted and created an immigration outreach program for his community.
Grace Church’s immigration outreach program has expanded to a neighboring communities. There is a similar program at an Episcopal Church called La Mesa in Dover Plains and at a community center in Amenia. There are future plans to launch programs in Pine Plains and Stanfordville, both in Dutchess County, New York.
It wasn’t easy at first. When the Rev. Fisher shared his vision with the Hispanic Commission, a ministry geared to Hispanics in his denomination, a member of the commission turned down the concept, upon visiting and examining the town dynamics, because “there was not a gathering point for immigrants.”
The Rev. Fisher understood the consultant’s rationale, since “there is not a bodega,” or an ethnic civic center in the town.
Whether it was a mother strolling a child, or a gardener working at a bed plant, or a teamster grooming a horse at a stable, the Rev. Fisher said something kept gnawing him to reach out to members of his community that were visibly living in the shadows of “fear and isolation.”
“How do you start to build trust?” he kept asking himself. His question was answered through a moment of serendipity. Two new members, both of whom moved into town and had not seen each other in years, reconnected and shared their insights on working with people who hail from third world countries. There knowledge provided the Rev. Fisher with a blueprint for his immigration outreach program.
In the summer of 2005, the Rev. Fisher and his vestry hired a lay minister from the Rural and Migrant Ministries with the aim of offering immigrants a place where they could gather on Fridays to explore quality of life issues. “Our weakness became our strength because we became the gathering point,” said the Rev. Fisher.
Approximately 50 people attended the original Friday meetings at the church’s parish hall. He credits the success to the church’s ability to offer hospitality without proselytizing.The Rev. Fisher knows that the economic climate and that pockets of xenophobia, as illustrated by combustible immigration laws sweeping across some parts of the nation, pose tough challenges to anyone interested in immigration ministry.
Still, he works assiduously. Last week, he was meeting with key church members to discuss funding for a graduate of his ESL and GED program so that the student can have aid to attend college. Also, last week, he was discussing a golf fundraising concept for an immigration organization where he serves as a board member.
The Rev. Fisher said that his sense of American history and his faith, particularly a passage from the Book of Leviticus, keeps him unfettered and determined. “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself,.. (19:34),” he quoted. “We are in an area where we have immigrants. We are told over and over again to help the stranger, to help the poor.I base it on an American idea, we are an immigration nation. My grandparents came from Germany. We are an immigrant nation that depends on the immigrant, but we beat up on the last one here,” said the Rev. Fisher.