New London church places Holy Family in cages to protest border conditions

New London — Ahead of the city's big summer festival, Sailfest, members of the St. James Episcopal Church have placed the Holy Family inside two cages off Huntington Street to protest conditions migrants are facing at the southern border.

Per the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible, Joseph, Mary and Jesus were fleeing persecution in Bethlehem when they crossed into Egypt.

“If they were crossing over from Central American countries to the United States today, they would be put in these internment camps like the migrant children and families,” said the Rev. Ranjit Mathews, rector of St. James.

Recent reports from TIME, the New York Times and other national outlets have described deplorable conditions at U.S. migrant detention centers.

Adults and children have been held for weeks without access to soap, toothpaste or places to bathe. Some children have slept on concrete floors, while some adults have had to stand for days in cramped holding areas. Conditions including chicken pox and scabies have spread like wildfire.

One pediatrician told CNN babies have had to drink from unwashed bottles and have been subjected to “extreme cold temperatures” with “lights on 24 hours a day.”

TIME reported this week that more than 50,000 people are in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities, while about 20,000 are in U.S. Customs and Border Protection centers. Another 11,000 children are in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which holds children who cross the border without a guardian.

“We are dehumanizing people,” Mathews said. “That’s my issue. When we dehumanize people, it allows us space to do anything. We’ve seen it before.”

Mathews said the Bible is “filled” with scripture that says to treat foreigners with kindness and love your neighbor as yourself.

“Good people, reasonable people can disagree on the nuances around immigration law, and that’s a conversation that should be had,” said Mathews, who said he supports strong immigration policy. “But we need to find a better way as a country to treat the people who are already here.”

Mathews said he got the idea for the exhibit from Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis, which placed statues of the Holy Family inside a chain-link fence on its property last year.

Mathews’ version is different because the baby Jesus is in a separate cage “as a reminder of the many children separated from their families."

A U.S. House Oversight Committee report released Friday said at least 2,648 children were separated from their parents after the Trump administration announced its “zero tolerance” immigration policy in April 2018. Most have since been reunited because of a federal court order.

Although Mathews didn’t need it to proceed, he got a near-unanimous endorsement of the exhibit from the 14-member vestry, which governs the church, and from the diocesan and suffragan bishops of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut.

He said he believes Jesus also would have spoken out against what’s happening at the border.

“We think of Jesus as this mild-mannered person, this guy who heals and does this work of salvation,” Mathews said. “But we forget the other side, the Jesus who gets angry at injustice and was put on the cross because of it.”

A group of St. James parishioners plans to travel to the border in the fall to offer food, clothing and pastoral presence to those seeking asylum. Mathews said it’s another way the church is seeking to live as Jesus did.

“We report on Sunday morning to worship and say all these things about resisting evil and striving for peace and justice,” he said. “We do that on Sunday morning, but what does it look like on Monday morning?”

“It’s a matter of what we do every day,” he said. “How can we not speak out and say something against this, against cruelty? Our silence is our complicity.”

The exhibit will stay up through Sailfest, which started Friday and ends Sunday. Mathews said he hopes it evokes emotion and conversation. He urged people of faith and all U.S. citizens to consider the pain of parents who didn’t know where their children were, or of humans who have been caged without adequate access to basic toiletries.

“The worst thing would be if people just walk by and don’t say anything,” he said. “Apathy is the very opposite of what we’re trying to do.”


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