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In New London, houses of worship have long history of activism

New London — In the spring of 2018, amid a national conversation splitting communities into pro- and anti-immigration camps, residents carrying "New London stands with immigrants" signs packed the City Council chambers here. Ultimately, the council adopted a resolution supporting the city's undocumented immigrant community.

In this city that prides itself on acceptance of a diverse population, the idea to codify such support for undocumented immigrants grew out of action taken by the New London County Clergy Association.

"Faith is actionable," the Rev. Ranjit K. Mathews, rector of St. James Episcopal Church, said in a recent interview about his church's social activism in the city. He also is active in the clergy association. "The Holy Family were refugees," he said.

Immigration advocacy is just one of a host of social justice issues in which the city's many faith communities play a pivotal role. These communities represent the diversity of the city in the broadest sense of that word and their volunteers support causes ranging from combating homelessness and food insecurity to assisting the formerly incarcerated with re-entry into community life.

Faith community volunteers help staff the city's Community Meal Center, the Homeless Hospitality Center and Covenant Shelter. They visit the elderly and ill, and counsel and study the Bible with those in prison. They work to provide affordable housing, operate emergency food banks and advocate for environmental awareness and racial justice. They are active in organizations such as the NAACP and Rotary. They provide youth recreation programs, preschool classes, after-school care and summer camps.

"They are critical partners," New London's Director of Human Services Jeanne Milstein said of the faith communities. She meets with faith leaders "on an as-needed basis" about a variety of topics of concern to them, she said. She also praised the community activism among the city's faithful.

"We wouldn't be able to do what we do without them," she said. "We are an extraordinary community. We are known for our heart."

New London is home to dozens of faith communities packed into its 5.5 square miles. More than 40 properties are listed on the tax assessor's list as "churches," but determining exactly how many faith communities operate in the city is more complex. While the assessment list includes the former Congregation Beth El synagogue on Ocean Avenue that now is home to a LEARN education center, for example, other small faith communities that operate out of rented storefronts are not included.

The communities range from congregations with just a handful of members to robust groups of hundreds. Many churches, St. James, Shiloh Baptist and St. Mary Star of the Sea Roman Catholic church among them, have long histories. Others, such as the thriving Church of the City on State Street, or the brand new The Church on Bank Street, are more contemporary. Many of the communities formed around shared ethnicity, nationality, language or race. Others are decidedly diverse.

While religious faith is the foundation of all these organizations, community service and social activism also are cornerstones for most. Even as the coronavirus pandemic continues to keep the sanctuaries of many houses of worship shuttered, with religious services streaming online, faith community volunteers remain active.

The Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, for example, expanded operation of its food locker and continued to provide air conditioners during the steamy summer months to those in need. At St. Mary, the congregation provides the only Sunday prepared community meals in the city at its Jay Street site. St. James expanded operation of its emergency food pantry from one day a week to six days and in July alone, supplied nearly 8,000 meals, said Chuck Sharp, St. James junior warden.

"We make sure we act on a Monday what we sing about on Sunday," Mathews said. "Faith compels us to take action. It's always the way of Jesus. He always stood with the marginalized. He got angry at injustice and corruption."

Bishop Benjamin Watts at the 125-year-old Shiloh Baptist Church said his congregation is active in community outreach and frequently collaborates with other community organizations to fill needs. Camp Rotary, a collaboration of the city's public schools and the New London Rotary Club, has been conducted at the church's community center and its preschool was established after a United Way survey identified the need for one, he said.

In addition the historically Black church, which has long advocated for and worked toward racial justice and equality, operates a scholarship program for girls, has volunteers working with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Trust Fund, runs exercise classes and youth basketball programs, and has both recovery and prison ministries.

"Our members volunteer everywhere," Watts said.

"The church is a pillar and foundation of the country," he said, referring to both Shiloh and other faith communities. "The church as an entity contributes — just as do the arts and museums — to the community."

Sharp, from St. James, echoed Watts' words.

"Without people like us, well, there would be more people out on the streets," Sharp said, referring to the community outreach by faith communities. "If we weren't here, it would be shocking and probably no one would care. But this is basic human rights. We do this because of our baptismal covenant."

About this series

About this series

"Spirit of the City" is a project completed by University of Connecticut journalism students studying community news reporting. The class of eight students worked with Professor in Residence Gail Braccidiferro MacDonald, a former Day reporter, as well as journalism department head professor Maureen Croteau and editors at The Day to produce stories about New London's faith communities, the diversity these communities represent and the extensive outreach and social justice work they perform.

Students began working in January 2020. The coronavirus pandemic that shut down houses of worship, along with most businesses and schools in March, severely delayed and impacted the students' ability to conduct face-to-face interviews but they completed these stories under these adverse conditions. The students who contributed to this project are: Kevin Arnold, Margaret Chafouleas, Olivia Hickey, Allison O'Donnell, Daniela Luna, George Penney, Maxine Philavong and Joseph Villanova.

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