Danforth Center hosts event on religious response to immigrants and refugees

Noah Slaughter | Contributing Reporter

Leaders from three religious communities across the metro area and the International Institute of St. Louis discussed historical and contemporary immigrant and refugee issues in St. Louis in an event hosted by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics in the Women’s Building Formal Lounge Tuesday night.

Attendees listen to the Danforth Center panelists discuss immigration and religion in the St. Louis region Tuesday night.Beth Wiesinger | Student Life

Attendees listen to the Danforth Center panelists discuss immigration and religion in the St. Louis region Tuesday night.

The University held a similar event in 2013 that was centered on issues at a larger, more national level. Wednesday’s event was specific to the St. Louis community and how its leaders are responding.

“I think [immigration] is an issue people care about; and a lot of people are really interested in what religious congregations are doing or what they can do,” Danforth Center director Marie Griffith said.

President and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis Anna Crosslin spoke about the unique challenges immigrants and refugees face when they come to St. Louis. St. Louis’ foreign-born population, which makes up 6.7 percent of the city’s total population, is smaller than most other cities. She said pervasive issues in St. Louis, like racial and economic inequity, may also make it more difficult for immigrants and refugees to adjust.

To combat these issues, the International Institute implemented its Refugee Resettlement Program and helps newcomers learn English and adjust to life in the U.S. They have sponsored 24,000 refugees since 1979.

Crosslin also addressed the long history of nativism and anti-immigrant sentiments in the U.S. and its tie-ins to the present.

“Americans feared being overwhelmed by people who weren’t like them,” Crosslin said. “Does that sound familiar? Maybe we’re hearing it again today.”

After Crosslin, Rori Picker Neiss from the Jewish Community Relations Council mentioned the work that members of the Jewish community have done, such as helping with a summer camp for children at the International Institute and promoting political advocacy.

“As a Jewish community, we live with the fact that we have been refugees in this country; we have been immigrants in this country,” Picker Neiss said. “We know what that experience is like, and we feel a responsibility for that.”

The other two speakers were Javier Orozco from the Archdiocese of St. Louis and Eldin Susa from the St. Louis Islamic Center NUR who spoke to the work of the Catholic and Islamic communities, respectively.

“It’s important to us, when we see immigrants, to not just see them as a statistic,” Orozco said. “Immigrants, as Pope Francis reminds us over and over, have a name, a face and a story.”

After the panelists spoke, they took crowd members’ questions, which ranged from how other religious organizations can get involved to whether a religious approach to immigration is beneficial.

Sophomore Lindsay Gassman attended the event after learning about it through a Facebook event and a Religion and Politics class.

“I’ve done a fair amount of immigrant and refugee work in the past, but I’ve never come at it from a religious angle,” Gassman said. “I thought it was very interesting to hear about how different religious groups address the immigration problem and how different people feel called religiously.”

According to Griffith, the event had been in the works for the past six to eight months. He said the idea came out of recent attention to immigration and refugees in the United States, like President Trump’s executive order banning travelers from several majority-Muslim countries and his call for a border wall between the United States and Mexico.

“We have to figure out how to be able to harness change and to leave this world in a slightly better place than it was when we came into it,” Crosslin said.

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