Comment: Martha’s Vineyard’s generosity should surprise no one

While the history isn’t spotless, church communities across the nation have welcomed refugees.

By Nicholas T. Pruitt / Special To The Washington Post

Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis recently pulled a political stunt intended to turn the tables on liberals. DeSantis authorized flying 50 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in an attempt to place the onus on officials claiming sanctuary status for their municipalities. In the days that followed, New Englanders, social workers and officials came to the aid of the people caught in the middle of a hostile political climate.

This isn’t the first time that Americans in local communities rallied to help refugees and asylum seekers. Despite the fierce debates over immigration and refugee policy that plagued the last century, many Americans found ways to look past political punditry and work to meet the immediate needs of people facing incredible obstacles and hardships while hoping to settle in a new home country.

During the late 1940s and 1950s as people were fleeing war-torn Europe, a curious demographic of Americans offered assistance: Protestant Christians. Despite a long history of anti-immigrant sentiment and cultural gatekeeping, these Americans pooled local and denominational resources to sponsor refugees following World War II and during the Cold War. Protestant organizations such as Church World Service marshaled significant fundraising and publicity to rally Christians to support refugees. Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists and many other Protestants used denominational channels to sponsor refugee resettlement. In doing so, they joined the efforts of Jews and Catholics also working to resettle refugees and advocate for loosening immigration restrictions at the time.

In 1948 and 1953, Congress passed legislation that committed the United States to receiving more than 600,000 refugees, a fraction of the millions displaced around the world during the mid-20th century. Many Protestant denominations backed this legislation, including more conservative groups. Southern Baptists declared at their annual convention in 1947 that they supported the legislation since “these displaced persons are unable to return to their own homes because of persecution or fear of persecution by reason of their race, religion, or political beliefs, and desire above all else to start a new life in a nation where there is freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom of movement.”

While humanitarian groups and religious organizations coordinated relief, it came down to local churches and towns to resettle refugees. The government mandated specific requirements for sponsors of refugee families, including finding housing and employment.

Examples of local Protestant refugee resettlement efforts abounded following World War II and into the Cold War era; sometimes in unexpected places. Take for instance the Central Congregational Church of Newton, Mass. Church members there pooled resources to sponsor a Latvian family, even pitching in an extra $1,000 on account of the father’s disability, which made him a liability in the eyes of the government.

Parishioners in the South also rose to the occasion. In 1960, Langdale Methodist Church in Alabama resettled a refugee family, apparently with assistance from the community. In addition to meeting the standard requirements of housing and employment, the church helped provide clothing, and a schoolteacher offered evening English classes. According to one account, “The whole community has responded most graciously to them. Even those who are not members of our Church are anxious to help.”

By the early 1960s, following Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba, another refugee crisis soon followed. Protestant organizations, alongside Catholic and Jewish groups, established operations in Florida to resettle newly arrived Cuban refugees. In addition to more liberal Protestant denominations, some evangelical groups also joined the push to aid Cuban refugees, including the Southern Baptist Convention and Assemblies of God.

While such stories of assistance and aid can feel encouraging, they were also regularly disrupted by anti-immigrant fervor. While some white Protestants supported liberalization of immigration laws during the 1950s and 1960s that focused on removing the racist quotas from 1924 that favored some nationalities (northern Europeans) over others (eastern and southern Europeans, Asians and Africans), many of these liberal Protestants still made it clear that they were not calling for increasing immigration to the United States.

While many Protestants helped resettle European refugees in the 1950s, they also largely overlooked the government’s “Operation Wetback” in 1954 that forcibly relocated several hundred thousand Mexican Americans south of the border. Some mid-century Protestants even articulated earlier versions of the “great replacement theory” with its concern over new immigrants replacing “Anglo-Saxon” culture in the United States. One Presbyterian wrote in 1956 that liberal Protestant support for immigration reform seemed to be with the intent to bring in “people with widely divergent viewpoints to those of the earlier immigrants who made America what it is today.” Within Protestant circles were skeptical parishioners who assumed religious leaders were simply forcing liberal agendas on them that would threaten American culture.

Moreover, refugee resettlement itself could reflect racist patterns. Americans came to the aid of European refugees but were largely silent on the need to resettle displaced people in areas such as Asia immediately following World War II and during postwar decolonization.

Nevertheless, these early Cold War programs prepared Christian churches for later migration crises, including refugees fleeing Vietnam during the 1970s and those fleeing Central America during the 1980s. The exodus from Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador inspired the sanctuary movement in the United States, where some churches sheltered asylum seekers fleeing political and social unrest.

Protestant responses over the past 70 years demonstrate that not just churches of more liberal orientations but also some evangelicals recognized the needs of refugees and immigrants. But this has not come without opposition, especially within evangelical circles, where positions on immigration run the gamut from supporting new restrictions to immigration advocacy.

Regardless of DeSantis’s political maneuvering, this history provides instructive examples of local communities beginning to contend with the historical challenges and prejudices immigrants have faced, and then stepping up to help. With this history in mind, it should come as no surprise that the center of assistance for asylum seekers last week on Martha’s Vineyard was St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. And if politicians continue to use immigrants as political pawns and relocate them to disparate parts of the country, Christian churches across the nation will need to draw from their history and work to more fully embody the words of Jesus Christ to “love thy neighbor as thyself” in their local communities.

Nicholas T. Pruitt is associate professor of history at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Mass., and author of “Open Hearts, Closed Doors: Immigration Reform and the Waning of Mainline Protestantism.”

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