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Little churches still matter, says Martha’s Vineyard pastor of church that took in migrants

Houses of worship on Martha's Vineyard have long worked together to meet the needs of their neighbors. So they were ready to spring into action when refugees arrived unexpectedly.

Immigrants gather with their belongings outside St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Sept. 14, 2022, in Edgartown, Massachusetts, on Martha’s Vineyard. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Sept. 14 flew two planes of immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard, escalating a tactic by Republican governors to draw attention to what they consider to be the Biden administration’s failed border policies. (Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette via AP)

(RNS) — The Rev. Vincent “Chip” Seadale was at a denominational meeting in North Carolina when he got a call that something was brewing on Martha’s Vineyard.

The call was from a counselor who sometimes attends St. Andrew’s, the small Episcopal church Seadale pastors in Edgartown, Massachusetts, a popular island tourist destination.

She had just learned that about 50 migrants from Venezuela had landed at the airport on Wednesday and needed help. They’d been sent to the Vineyard, about 28 miles offshore of Cape Cod, by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as part of a strategy by Republican governors to send immigrants to blue states.

Seadale and other members of the Martha’s Vineyard Island Clergy Association did what clergy do when a crisis happens: They jumped in to lend a hand.

“We just decided we were going to make it work and then hope for the best,” said Seadale in a phone interview.

For two nights, St. Andrew’s played host to the Venezuelans, providing meals and a place to stay at the parish house, which hosts a shelter four nights a week during the winter. The church hall is already equipped with cots, a large kitchen, showers and laundry for the shelter.


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The Rev. Vincent “Chip” Seadale holds his grandson at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Edgartown, Mass. Photo courtesy of Chip Seadale

The Rev. Vincent “Chip” Seadale holds his grandson at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, Mass. Photo courtesy of Chip Seadale

Other churches and community members sent food, clothes and other supplies — while the Martha’s Vineyard Community Fund collected funds to support the Venezuelans. Immigration lawyers and other volunteers showed up to help them figure out where to go next. Many were in the U.S. to seek asylum and have contacts here but needed help connecting with them.

The Rev. Janet Newton, a minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Martha’s Vineyard, said that clergy, like other community leaders and residents of the island, had no idea the migrants were coming.

“Ironically,” she said, “we were prepared, even though we had no warning.”

The Vineyard, she said, is often seen as a playground for the rich and powerful. Former President Obama and other celebrities — television host David Letterman, journalist Diane Sawyer and film director Spike Lee — own homes on the island, she said, and that shapes how outsiders see the Vineyard.

That’s not the whole story. In the off-season, she said, many people struggle. Affordable housing is hard to come by, and at times, folks who work seasonal jobs can’t make ends meet. As a geographically isolated community, Newton said, year-round residents have learned to take care of each other.

“That’s probably a bit of a surprise to the people who sent the planes here,” she said. “They didn’t understand how our community operated or that we could be prepared for this. Hospitality matters here.”

Newton said clergy on the island and other community services had learned to work closely to solve long-term and short-term crises.

She worries the Venezuelans are being used as pawns in a political drama, which Newton sees as an act of cruelty. As a faith leader, her response to that cruelty is to act in love.

“We are taught to welcome the stranger,” she said.

By Friday afternoon, migrants who wanted to leave the Vineyard were transferred to a new shelter at Joint Base Cape Cod, which is operated by the state and federal governments. State officials are working to provide support services, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, said in a statement.

He also praised residents of the Vineyard for their hospitality.

“We are grateful to the providers, volunteers and local officials that stepped up on Martha’s Vineyard over the past few days to provide immediate services to these individuals,” Baker said in a statement.

A woman, who is part of a group of immigrants that had just arrived, holds a child as they are fed outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Wednesday Sept. 14, 2022, in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday flew two planes of immigrants to Martha's Vineyard, escalating a tactic by Republican governors to draw attention to what they consider to be the Biden administration's failed border policies. (Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette via AP)

A woman who is part of a group of immigrants that had just arrived holds a child as they are fed outside St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Wednesday Sept. 14, 2022, in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday flew two planes of immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard, escalating a tactic by Republican governors to draw attention to what they consider to be the Biden administration’s failed border policies. (Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette via AP)

Elizabeth Folcarelli, who runs Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, told reporters that the Venezuelans were told they would be going to Boston.

“They were told that they would have a job and they would have housing,” Folcarelli told the Associated Press.

Governor DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

“We are not a sanctuary state, and it’s better to be able to go to a sanctuary jurisdiction, and yes, we will help facilitate that transport for you to be able to go to greener pastures,” DeSantis told CNN in taking credit for sending the migrants to the Vineyard.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and state officials claim to have bused 10,000 migrants to New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., including 100 who were dropped off near the U.S. Naval Observatory, where Vice President Kamala Harris lives.

The Rev. Kenneth Young, associate director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, said that faith groups in the Bay State have long assisted immigrants — but their efforts often fly under the radar. He said that the story of the Venezuelans sent to the Vineyard got attention — because of the island’s reputation.

But similar stories happen all the time, he said.

“A lot of people are playing games with people’s lives right now,” said Young.

Catholic Bishop Edgar Moreira da Cunha of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, which includes the Vineyard, pledged to continue to assist the migrants from Venezuela.

“Our welcome to them must be marked by respect and compassion and be coupled with our prayers for them in the weeks and months ahead,” he said in a statement.

Florida’s Catholic bishops called reports of the Venezuelans being sent to the Vineyard “disconcerting.”

“Immigration is not just a political issue but a fundamental human and moral issue,” the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement. “For immigrants are not faceless numbers — but human persons. They are our brothers and sisters.” 

St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Edgartown, Mass. Photo courtesy of Chip Seadale

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, Mass. Photo courtesy of Chip Seadale

Seadale said he was grateful for church members who rallied to help the Venezuelans and for the aid from other congregations and the broader community. Because he was out of state, most of his job was making phone calls when people in the church responded on the ground.

He said that little churches like St. Andrew’s still matter. And the response of the church and the community shows that when people listen to their hearts, they can still rally together.

Love, he said, still is the answer. And faith leaders can choose to help heal the nation’s divides — rather than fueling them.

“It’s becoming much clearer to me these days that there is a role for responsible people of faith,” he said. “We need to step up and fill this void in a responsible way — caring for everyone, no matter what they say or think.”


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