For many who settle here, New London church offers Oasis of Restoration
Josué Rosado knows firsthand how immigrants and newcomers feel when trying to settle into an unfamiliar community. He arrived in New London from Puerto Rico in 2011 to accept a position leading the Oasis de Restauración Church.
"My family is all in Puerto Rico," explained the senior pastor of the Redden Avenue church, who arrived in New London without being able to speak English.
Now, he says, he strives to make the church feel welcoming for its congregants.
Before the pandemic, when in-person services were allowed, church members arrived for the 10 a.m. Sunday services, and greeters were always on hand to welcome them. After the service, church members would gather in the hall for a meal, which might include some culturally appropriate tastes of home, such as popusas. The typical Salvadoran dish would be prepared by a Salvadoran church member.
"There are people that don't have family members," Rosado said. "I only have my daughter and wife here. Therefore, to be with members of the church after the services is like strengthening the family of faith."
Now, the congregation has returned to its house of worship, although the faithful now must be divided into two separate rooms to allow for appropriate social distancing. Hand sanitizer is made readily available and the sanctuary and other spaces are marked off to designate safe distances, Rosado said.
"We want to take care of everyone," he said.
Located in a predominantly residential neighborhood, Oasis of Restoration is the city's oldest Hispanic congregation and the first Hispanic church in New London County, celebrating 60 years in the city in 2020, Rosado said. It serves about 300, who, like a growing number of Latinos, are drawn to Pentecostal Protestantism. Many churchgoers share Rosado's Puerto Rican roots, while others originate from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Peru, El Salvador and other parts of Central and South America and the Caribbean.
The church is one of many faith communities serving New London's Hispanics, who make up 35% of the city's population, according to census data. These faith communities range from tiny, storefront churches such as Centro Evangelistico Pentecostal on Masonic Street to newer, contemporary churches such as Church of the City on State Street and traditional congregations such as St. Mary Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church on Huntington Street.
While the worship style varies greatly among these houses of worship, combined they meet the vital role religion plays for many Hispanics in the city. Further, the faith communities help provide a feeling of connectedness.
Alejandro Melendez-Cooper, director of Hispanic Alliance in New London, explained the trauma that many immigrants face when they leave their home countries.
"First, they are removed from their communities," he said. "They come here and are working minimal jobs and don't know the language. Churches are a community that accepts them and makes them feel welcome."
The evolution of the Hispanic community in the city is evident even in Oasis's story.
The church was established in 1960 by Ernesto Carrion, when he had a calling to evangelize in New London. Originally from Puerto Rico, he arrived in Connecticut in 1956 and obtained a theology degree from Instituto Biblico de la Asamblea de Dios in New Haven and established the First Star of Jacob Church in New Haven.
Oasis, then known as Iglesia Cristiana Pentecostal, began its services in members' homes.
Ana Miriam Carrion, Ernesto's daughter, remembers growing up and watching her parents evangelize. "They were very dedicated to the church and they wanted to do so much for others," she recalls. "We sort of felt that when we were growing up, we sometimes had to share our parents too much."
As a young member, Ana Miriam Carrion remembers that the local Hispanic community was still small in the 1960s but growing — as was the church.
"Everybody that lived in New London knew each other indirectly, even if they didn't go to church," she said. "When we first got here, it was one family, two or three, and it just kept growing. By the 1970s, the church already had like 80 families."
To accommodate a growing congregation in the 1970s, the church relocated to 80 Jefferson Ave. and then to 138 Garfield Ave. in 2001. Now, the Beulah Land Church of God in Christ is located at the same Jefferson Avenue address, and Church ONEighty, a six-year-old congregation, occupies the Garfield Avenue site. When Oasis moved to Redden Avenue, it was into a building previously owned by the First Hispanic Baptist Church of New London, now known as Church of the City. Oasis purchased the building in 2018 for $1.2 million.
As part of the church's mission to evangelize, Ana Miriam Carrion recalls holding outdoor services at a park and preaching to passersby. The church also reached out beyond the city. Oasis parishioners have established four other churches outside New London: in Groton; Mayaguez, Puerto Rico; and two in North Carolina.
"It was like children," Ana Miriam Carrion explained. "They go and make their own family."
Other forms of outreach are more local, including a prison ministry, youth ministry and "El Ano Dorado," or "The Golden Year," in which volunteers visit seniors. As part of its outreach mission, the church also holds its services in Spanish with live English translation to communicate more effectively to both older and younger church members. It also streams its services and other activities on social media platforms such as Facebook to attract more members. The Facebook streams also have become vital to helping the church keep its congregation connected during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With healing a vital part of the church's mission, the prison ministry is important at Oasis. Ana Miriam Carrion, along with her husband, Vicente Lugo, runs the program. Before the pandemic, they would lead groups of volunteers to York and Brooklyn correctional facilities and have been active for six years. As part of those visits, they would lead Bible study classes for incarcerated individuals. At York, the state's only women's prison, Carrion usually would lead a group of nine women on visits.
While in-person prison visits have not been allowed since the beginning of the pandemic, members of Oasis have continued conducting Bible classes via written communications among congregants and the incarcerated. Rosado said the prison chaplain is happy for this effort.
"No other church is doing this," Rosado said of the pandemic program.
"There's one scripture that says, 'Go preach the Gospel to everyone,'" Carrion says, referencing Mark 16:15.
Naines Oliver, 33, of New London said she looked forward to the Bible study when she was incarcerated at York Correctional Institution.
"You're incarcerated, that's like a time away from the old environment, like it's more peaceful," said Oliver, an Oasis church member before her incarceration. "It is a moment that we can just get away from what we're going through in there."
When she was released in 2017, she returned to attending services at Oasis.
"So when I got out of jail, they suggested I go to a sober living house and it was literally like three houses (from) the church," Oliver explained, referring to the church's former Garfield Avenue building. "I started going and I haven't moved to another church."
About this series
"Spirit of the City" is a project completed by University of Connecticut journalism students studying community news reporting. The class of eight students worked with Professor in Residence Gail Braccidiferro MacDonald, a former Day reporter, as well as journalism department head professor Maureen Croteau and editors at The Day to produce stories about New London's faith communities, the diversity these communities represent and the extensive outreach and social justice work they perform.
Students began working in January 2020. The coronavirus pandemic that shut down houses of worship, along with most businesses and schools in March, severely delayed and impacted the students' ability to conduct face-to-face interviews but they completed these stories under these adverse conditions. The students who contributed to this project are: Kevin Arnold, Margaret Chafouleas, Olivia Hickey, Allison O'Donnell, Daniela Luna, George Penney, Maxine Philavong and Joseph Villanova.