At St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Billings, and in four other cities across Montana Tuesday night, people gathered to offer the world’s refugees some hope—and the possibility of refuge.
“Generosity is a virtue,” said Fitzgerald Clark, once an immigrant and now an American citizen. “Generosity and community are what make us great.”
The gatherings Tuesday in Billings, Helena, Missoula, Kalispell and Bozeman were organized by the Montana Human Rights Network and agencies in the host cities in response to recent anti-refugee rallies in Missoula and Hamilton, which were characterized by angry, inflammatory speeches.
There was little mention of those rallies at St. Andrew, except by the church’s pastor, the Rev. Susan Barnes, in her introductory remarks.
“When people are afraid, they don’t speak carefully,” she said. But people like those who gathered Tuesday need to be welcoming not only to refugees but to people with contrary views—“or as I like to say,” she said, to a burst of laughter, “people who are wrong.”
The peaceful nature of the Billings gathering, which attracted about 90 people, was probably inevitable, since it was held in a church sanctuary and involved prayers and the singing of hymns. Barnes said of all the events scheduled around the state on Tuesday, the only prayer vigil was in Billings.
A press release from the Montana Human Rights Network later Tuesday said the statewide rallies drew more than 1,500 people.
The vigil in Billings centered on the words of three “American citizens from around the world”—Clark, born in the Caribbean nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines; Yasmin Odawa, born in Somalia; and Marty Ortis, born in Puerto Rico.
Clark, whose family came to the United States when he was a teenager, said people in his homeland regarded this country as “the shining city on the hill” not because it was so wealthy. Many other nations had high standards of living, he said, “but none of those countries were looked at in the way the United States of America was.”
Here, he said, what mattered was the idea of freedom and the sense of opportunity, the idea that this was a place where people could be “all they hope to be.” Clark, who is Baha’i, spoke of all the people in the world driven from their countries by war, oppression, rape and terrorism.
“How can we turn aside our faces?” he asked. “How can we say no because we are afraid?”
Odawa, who has been in the United States for 13 years, told of the “long and arduous” process her family went through to get into this country. Even so, she said, it was one of the wisest and most important decisions her parents ever made.
Because of their decision, she said, she is who she is today, “a gainfully employed college graduate” living in “a land of opportunity for all.”
Ortiz, who is also chair of Not In Our Town, the local sponsor of the prayer vigil, said she was not technically an immigrant—though she is always encountering people who are unaware that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and that people born there are natural-born citizens.
She said her parents looked on the United States as “the most amazing thing there was.” When she first came to America, Ortiz said, she attended a church in Florida whose congregation was mostly Puerto Rican and Latin American.
One time the minister asked the Puerto Ricans to considered how fortunate they were to be born with a “free ticket” to the United States. Ortiz said she has often considered how fortunate, how privileged she was ever since that day, and she wonders how anybody so privileged could turn around and exclude other people.
After those three spoke, the Rev. Sarah Beck, of Grace United Methodist Church, offered a prayer in which she thanked God for filling the world “with beauty and diversity.”
“Open our hearts and make room for those in need,” she said, and she urged people at the gathering to pray for those who fear, people “who look into the face of a refugee and seen an enemy.”
“Help us not be afraid to do what’s right,” she said.
After that, people were invited to go to the altar, light and candle and say a few words. Nine or 10 people did, sharing brief stories without giving their names.
One woman told of the prejudices faced by her niece, who married a Muslim, converted to Islam and now wears a veil. Another said her distant ancestors were French horse thieves, “and they got to come” to the United States.
One person said her birthday once fell during Ramadan, the month-long observance when Muslims abstain from food from dawn to sunset. Her Muslim son-in-law, originally from Bangladesh, celebrated her birthday by eating pizza and birthday cake at midnight.
“It was the most fun birthday I’ve ever had,” she said.
During his closing remarks, the Rev. Mike Mulberry of First Church, United Church of Christ, said the Bible was packed with the stories of immigrants. He cited many of them, including, of course, Joseph, Mary and Jesus, and after naming each group or individual he said, “How can we not know them as family?”
He asked those listening to say, after each repetition of that line, “For we belong to each other.”
Even if Montana does begin taking in refugees, Mulberry said, it will be two years before any of them arrive here. In the meantime, Montanans should be thinking of whether they have room in their homes or their church buildings to take in a refugee family or an individual.
Montana and Wyoming are the only two states unable to accept refugees for lack of a refugee resettlement office in the state. A group called Soft Landing Missoula is working to establish such an office.
In January, the Missoula County Board of Commissioners sent a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration in support of Soft Landing’s request to help resettle “approximately 100 refugees per year” through the International Rescue Committee’s Reception and Placement program.