Feb. 11, 2004
By United Methodist News Service
Concerned about a growing backlash against immigrants, a United Methodist pastor is leading a clergy effort in New Jersey to focus on discussion instead of discrimination.
The Rev. Myrna Bethke, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Freehold, said the community has become increasingly polarized since local government officials shut down a "muster" area last November where the immigrants - many without legal status - waited to be hired for a day's work.
Members of the Freehold Clergy Association became concerned "that there was no opportunity for people to sit down and talk about the issue," Bethke told United Methodist News Service. In response, the association has scheduled a three-hour community forum on March 28 at the First Presbyterian Church.
Bethke, who leads the ad hoc committee organizing the event, said the hope is that people "will be able to come and share what they're afraid of."
Freehold - the hometown of rock star Bruce Springsteen, located west of Asbury Park on the Jersey Shore - has received "wave after wave of undocumented persons" that come to work in landscaping and construction or at race tracks or restaurants. Many of the immigrants are from Mexico, and their children constitute 50 percent of the local school population, she noted.
Bethke's own congregation has been working with Hispanic immigrants since 1995. Its "Amistad" project, begun as an after-school venture to teach English to schoolchildren, has expanded as a full-time program for all ages.
But some residents have complained about the stresses that have accompanied the new population. Although there have not been any violent incidents yet against the immigrants, some vandalism has occurred, she added. The Second Baptist Church, where the day laborers now wait for jobs since the closing of the muster area, has been picketed for providing that space.
For Bethke - who traveled to Afghanistan the year after her youngest brother was killed during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center - the real issue in Freehold is reconciliation. Since Sept. 11, she said, she's realized "if we don't choose to work for reconciliation and peace, there are always forces of evil that are waiting to take over."
Interacting on an interfaith level also is important to the pastor, who recently participated in a pulpit exchange with a local synagogue. Christians, Muslims and Jews are all part of the Freehold Clergy Association.
Hoping for 300 participants, Bethke is promoting the March 28 forum with a variety of community organizations, ranging from the Rotary Club to day laborer groups. Sixty facilitators are being trained, with two of them leading a smaller group of 10 participants. Thirty translators, one for each small group, also are needed.
The pastor said she is modeling the process for the forum after the "Companions in Christ" series from the Upper Room. Participants at the forum will meet as a whole first to establish the ground rules, then break into small, random groups to share their stories and their fears and identify ways to build community in Freehold.
Ideas for action generated by the groups will be forwarded to local organizations or authorities for further consideration, Bethke said.
More information about the March 28 event is available by sending Bethke an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
News media contact: Linda Bloom (646) 369-3759 or email@example.com