Red Gables
Dick Thomas of First Congregational Church paints a bedroom as Andrew Gelman and Ari, 10 of Bnai Keshet prime the walls in the sanctuary apartment. ADAM ANIK/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

Seven of Montclair’s houses of worship offer aid, and in some cases sanctuary, to refugees and asylum seekers. 

Bnai Keshet opened a sanctuary last year, while Catholic charities, with its new space in Montclair, will be taking in refugees next month. 

Montclair Sanctuary Alliance, an organization of Montclair houses of worship dedicated to helping refugees and asylum seekers coming to the U.S., includes Bnai Keshet, First Congregational Church, Union Congregational Church, Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair, Temple Ner Tamid, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and Grace Presbyterian Church. Other churches, not officially in the alliance, are also helping out.

In Montclair, Bnai Keshet was the first congregation to become involved in sanctuary efforts, with one apartment set aside for refugees. 

Synagogue officials received six requests to aid families since the sanctuary effort began a year ago, said Bnai Keshet Rabbi Elliott Tepperman, one of the clergy leaders of the alliance. Seeking sanctuary can be a very difficult decision to make for a family, he said. 

“Look, the deal at this moment, putting yourself into sanctuary is a bit like putting yourself under house arrest,” said Tepperman of the alliance. 

ICE cannot attempt to arrest someone while they are on the grounds of a religious institution, but if the refugees set foot outside, they run the risk of getting arrested and detained, he said. 

“In this current environment, there are fewer and fewer paths where people can legally resist deportation,” Tepperman said. 

Recently, Catholic Charities set up Montclair’s second sanctuary with the lease of a former rectory to provide housing space for up to three families at a time. 

St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish is not an official member of the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance, but works closely with the alliance, said Catherine Mulroe, who coordinates St. Teresa’s refugee aid activities. 

For the last two years, St. Teresa has been working with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark to help refugees find accommodations throughout the area, as well as other services, such as English language instruction, health care and job placements. 

The first two refugees aided by St. Teresa last year were two young men from Syria. A local family was able to give them shelter. 

One of the men moved to Dearborn, Michigan; the other has a job and a car, is attending Seton Hall University, and recently acquired his green card. He is now also working in a volunteer capacity with the refugee resettlement group at St. Teresa. The group wanted to do more and leased the rectory, with the location being withheld due to privacy.

Although Catholic Charities signed the lease last year, the building needed a massive $50,000 renovation, including new drywall, and the installation of a new roof. Union Congregational and Bnai Keshet members helped with the renovations, Mulroe said. Funds to cover the costs were raised through the community.

Renovations were finally completed last week. 

Over the next few weeks, one family is expected to move into one of the three suites that each contain two rooms and a bathroom. On the first floor, common areas such as a kitchen and dining space will be used by up to three families. 

“It’s encouraging to see how the community came together to help,” Catholic Charities spokesperson Maria Biancheri said. “It’s been pretty amazing how loving and welcoming the community has been, in my eyes.” 

First Congregational has long been involved in social justice activities, and the sanctuary work has been a good fit for the church and its mission, said Peter Wert, who represents First Congregational Church on the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance.

Recently the group helped obtain and install in the sanctuary space at Bnai Keshet some new appliances, such as air conditioners and refrigerators.

Wert said with the renovation of the rectory, it means more resources to help families in need.

“It just doesn’t seem human to turn the other way,” he said about the refugees fleeing violence, poverty and civil unrest in their home countries.