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Little Churches Still Matter, Says Martha’s Vineyard Pastor of Church That Took in Migrants

(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.

Immigrants gather with their belongings 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)

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.

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.

Former President Obama and other celebrities—television host David Letterman, journalist Diane Sawyer and film director Spike Lee — own homes on the island, giving people the impression the island is for the rich and powerful. 

But some clergy who serve there say that’s not the whole story. In the off-season, 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, they say, year-round residents have learned to take care of each other.

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.

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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.” 

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 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.”

Bob Smietana

Bob has served as a senior writer for Facts & Trends, senior editor of Christianity Today, religion writer at The Tennessean, correspondent for RNS and contributor to OnFaith, USA Today and The Washington Post.