It’s New York City’s moral responsibility to welcome the stranger

Caring for migrants cannot be shouldered alone by houses of worship.

Migrants pick up clothes as mutual aid groups distribute food and clothes under cold weather near the Migrant Assistance Center at St. Brigid Elementary School, on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

(RNS) — Members of my faith community, New York’s historic Middle Church, have been volunteering at the East Village Earthchxrch (pronounced “Earthchurch”), offering support to the hundreds of migrants from the United States’ southern border and elsewhere who show up every day. In the church, a glassy converted bank building, dozens of neighbors coordinate meal programs, a free store and a place where folks can stay warm before city shelters open each night.

More than just physical warmth, the kindness and love offered freely represent the very best of New York City and, for this pastor, what it means to be a Christian. Unfortunately, the magnitude of need vastly outmatches the resources volunteers can provide for our newest neighbors.

New York City’s government, however, has the resources to fill the gap. What’s more, it has a moral obligation to do so.

Since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began busing people from the border to New York two years ago, he has stretched everyday people’s abilities to their breaking point. Mayor Eric Adams has been reluctant to ease this burden by using municipal resources, instead blaming migrants for his own budgetary decisions. On Feb. 28, he called on New York’s City Council to change our sanctuary city laws to make it easier for ICE to deport migrant neighbors. Adams has also argued that more federal dollars should come to cities that have received those deported from Texas

I agree, as I agree that Texas and other border states that already receive federal money to care for migrants should be providing for them there. But we who believe in freedom cannot wait until federal money comes or Abbott behaves responsibly. If we wait, we betray the people our Christian faith calls us to serve.

It’s painful to hear our mayor invoke the Christian faith when it suits his agenda — for example, to bemoan how “when we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools,” nevermind that clear violation of the separation of church and state — while ignoring Christianity’s repeated moral instruction to care for the strangers (read migrants) in our land.

The Bible doesn’t have any verses requiring prayer in school. It has 36 clear demands to welcome the stranger. From verses in Exodus (“You must not exploit or oppress a foreigner, for you yourselves were foreigners in the land of Egypt”) and Leviticus (“The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you”) to Jesus’ own promise that he is present wherever people need help, caring for migrants is one of our faith’s most essential and repeated religious demands. The Good Samaritan, perhaps Jesus’ most famous parable, is literally a story about welcoming and caring for someone from a different nationality when they require help.

We can have conversations about border policies and federal funding, but when tens of thousands of people show up in our communities with unmet basic needs, our moral obligation to make sure they are fed, clothed and housed supersedes debate over how we got to this point. In fact, the prophet Isaiah declares that caring for folks who lack is precisely the kind of worship God desires. Suggestions that New York City stop offering sanctuary represent utter cowardice in a moment that calls for leadership.

If dozens of volunteers can provide a warming center that serves hundreds of people each day, New York City — and our vast civic resources — can answer the call. We cannot be a city that celebrates the Statue of Liberty and Emma Lazarus’ poem, “Give us your tired, your poor, your hungry,” while abandoning the very people to whom those words now apply. Sanctuary is the beating heart of who our city is and the many faiths New Yorkers follow.

I’m heartbroken that Middle Church burned down in 2020 and that we currently do not have a building in which we can shelter people. Our congregants have eagerly organized with Earthchxrch to collaborate on their efforts and I know would open our doors if we had any to open. But our church’s challenges are a perfect example of why the responsibility to care for migrants cannot be left to individual houses of worship. We have our own crises, our own problems. Many faith communities are doing what they can, and I pray more will step into this breach, but we need the stability and power that city resources can provide. Acts of charity should be a supplement to our city’s migrant response, not a substitute.

What if, instead of complaining about the “burden” of being a sanctuary city, Mayor Adams instead embraced and welcomed that responsibility? I invite him to stop by the Earthchxrch Center to see the fierce love echoing through that space. Living out our deepest values is a chance to live into the fullest version of ourselves, to strengthen community by embodying the values that help us thrive.

That’s the city I want to live in and what New Yorkers chose when we became a sanctuary city.

If Mayor Adams wants to lead us, he cannot betray our desire for collective thriving. And if he wants to talk about God, he might best reflect on how God — whose only Son was once an immigrant — calls us to act toward immigrants.

(The Rev. Jacqui Lewis is senior minister of Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan and author of “Fierce Love.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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