Last Friday, January 27, President Donald Trump issued an executive order restricting immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries to the United States, banning all refugee immigration for 120 days and blocking all Syrian refugees from entry. While the order was praised by supporters of the president and groups opposed to immigration, many religious denominations criticized it as contrary to their beliefs and traditions.
Those criticisms filtered down to Verona on Monday, when the Verona United Methodist Church, which in 1833 was the first congregation to organize in town, put a post on its Facebook page that directed readers to a statement by its bishop, who strongly denounced the order and noted that in the local congregation, “We proudly welcome and stand with immigrants.”
While Verona United Methodist is the only Verona house of worship to have posted about the immigration order to social media, many other Verona religious leaders say they have spoken privately with parishioners who voiced concerns, and directed them to the statements issued by their local and national leaders. For Rev. Jerry Racioppi, a Verona native who now heads the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit on Gould Street, that was a statement issued jointly by The Right Reverend Mark Beckwith, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark and The Right Reverend William H. Stokes, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey, as well as The Reverend Tracie Bartholomew, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America New Jersey Synod, that called the immigration ban “discriminatory, unjust and inhumane”.
“It’s not an easy thing to address,” says Father Joseph A. D’Amico, pastor of Our Lady of the Lake, of the immigration order. On January 22, just before it was announced, the Catholic church posted to its website about the work of Catholic Relief Services in Syria and on behalf of Syrian refugees. Father D’Amico has since referred the parishioners who called him to the statement issued by Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, the Archbishop of Newark. While Tobin wrote that he understood “the desire for every American to be assured of safe borders and freedom from terrorism”, he expressed a belief that the ban and other actions “do not show the United States to be an open and welcoming nation.” Tobin, who as archbishop of Indianapolis had clashed with then Governor Mike Pence, also noted in his statement that Catholic Charities is helping to bring 51 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Newark.
D’Amico is feeling the executive order in other ways too. He is the director of prison ministry for the Archdiocese of Newark and was at the Hudson County Correctional Facility this week meeting with prisoners there from Mexico and Central America. “I was praying with them,” he says.
Congregation Beth Ahm said through a spokesman that it has not made a statement about the executive order to the synagogue’s members. Calls and emails to the leaders of Calvary Lutheran Church, First Congregational Church and the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Verona have not been returned.
What effect these conversations and statements will have on Verona parishioners is unclear. Membership in most Verona houses of worship has shrunk significantly over the years, mirroring the national trend. And Verona’s religious leaders are aware that they walk a fine line.
“Every congregation has people who support different political parties, and emotions are running very high right now but in the Presbyterian Church we all agree that Jesus has called us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and the definition of “our neighbor” amounts to anyone who is in need (as is evidenced by the story of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:25 -37),” said Rev. Lynn Rubier-Capron of the First Presbyterian Church of Verona by email. “Here at First Presbyterian Church Verona, we are committed to working that out as a group of faithful people with various political backgrounds who share our common commitment to Jesus’ call. This is the time for us all to bring our best selves forward, as citizens, as people of faith, and as people who join together to form common cause in churches, municipalities, institutions and political organization.”