Small children chased each other, yelling in English and Spanish, in the basement of a Freehold Borough church, as their parents served platters brimming with rice, Honduran-style fried chicken and American potato salad.
One by one, the guests filled their plates with the chicken and potato salad. Some tried their first cup of Inca Kola, a bright yellow Peruvian soda.
Most of the guests were white English speakers who had never met Latino churchgoers.
All this crowd had in common was their zip code, and that they were willing to show up.
While the American public debates the latest Trump administration pronouncements on Central American asylum seekers, birthright citizenship and immigration policy in general, some groups in New Jersey say they are fighting fear of “The Other” with food.
In Freehold, locals brought together Latino immigrants and citizens in hopes of doing what might seem impossible: moving past politics and finding common ground.
“At the end of the day, we all need to eat,” said Jonathan Elsensohn, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Freehold, “and when we share our food together, we become better parts of one another’s family.”
This Saturday night supper, the first of many planned over the next year at local places of worship, started the night of Oct. 27 at the Baptist church, barely 10 hours after a gunman burst into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire, killing 11 people.
While pundits on television and social media opined on the cause of the violence, roughly two dozen whites, blacks and Latinos in Freehold put away their phones and gathered in the church basement for dinner.
“When I say these folks are my neighbors, it says in the Torah to love your neighbor, love your neighbor as yourselves,” said Ellie Shemtov, rabbi of the Congregation Kol Am in Freehold and one of the organizers.
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On the other side of the basement, a church member named Carmen turned over the slabs of chicken she was frying in a deep pan. The mother of two, who has lived in Freehold Borough 14 years, asked to only be identified by her first name because she is an undocumented immigrant from Honduras and fears being exposed to immigration authorities.
Throughout the night, English-speaking guests raved about the fried chicken and asked Carmen how she made it. She thanked them and answered with the English words she knows.
“I’ve been able to learn that God isn’t about being in one church,” Carmen told a reporter in Spanish. “It’s not about what language, what color, what religion. It’s all one faith under Jesus.”
Whether American citizens in this small New Jersey town want to embrace that philosophy, however, is a different story.
Freehold Borough, a racially diverse 2-square-mile town of roughly 12,000, is one of several communities in the blue-state of New Jersey feeling the growing pains of immigration. Some residents welcome the influx of immigrants, mostly from Spanish-speaking, Central American countries. Others say the newcomers are taking resources from American taxpayers.
“They disobey our laws, they come in legally, and they have allies here who don’t care about our laws,” said Ron Bass, founder of the conservative advocacy group United Patriots of America, who has organized anti-illegal-immigration rallies in Monmouth County.
Since Bass’ local protests dropped off, more immigrants without legal status have settled into Monmouth County. The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, estimates that the county had at least 23,000 undocumented immigrants by 2014. It did not have estimates broken down by municipalities, but locals in public meetings or online often refer to Freehold as a hub for “illegals.”
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The word “illegal” didn’t come up during the supper. The participants didn’t ask the hosts about their immigration status or talk politics. All they did is eat and, eventually, made conversation with one another about the food.
International researchers who examine ethnic prejudices say events like this, where residents and migrants meet, can be critical in breaking down barriers between those two groups.
A Gallup poll released in June suggests that simply knowing a migrant can go a long way toward looking past stereotypes, easing a migrant’s integration into his or her adopted country.
“When people don’t have any real world, face-to-face interactions with a Muslim or African American or Central American person, it’s easier to accept any stereotype,” said Ali Chaudhary, a sociology professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, “but the minute you start having contact with people, those things start to get challenged.”
That’s what the organizers hoped would happen when the guests met Belem Cruz, a member of the “Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana,” the Spanish-language congregation at the First Baptist Church of Freehold.
The night of the supper, Cruz was in the kitchen washing the chicken and cutting up vegetables for a salad. Then she sat down with other Spanish-speaking church members as they ate, but after a half-hour, she and some of the English-speaking guests started talking about recipes.
“It doesn’t matter that they’re from another church, we’re all of one faith,” said Cruz, 32, of Freehold Township, in a Spanish-language interview. “It doesn’t matter what denomination or institution, we’re all the same in the eyes of God.”
They didn’t know that Cruz is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico.
Cruz first moved to Freehold in 2002 and went to work in hopes of sending money to her parents and her brother in their farm community in Oaxaca. In 2012, when she was pregnant with her first child, her brother-in-law introduced her to the Freehold church.
She and her family of four have attended Sunday services and church events ever since.
“I can feel like I’m with a family,” she said. “If I have a problem, I can go to the pastor and talk to him. I feel comfortable.”
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Can immigrant communities mend?
Clashing attitudes about immigration and politics isn’t just a Freehold problem. A BBC Global Survey conducted in late January and early February suggests that 76 percent of people feel their country is divided. About 84 percent of U.S. respondents said their country is divided.
When asked in detail, more than half of U.S. respondents cited political differences as a source of tension; 40 percent identified differences between immigrants and U.S.-born citizens as a source of tension; and 40 percent identified ethnic differences as a source of tension.
Nowhere is that more apparent than on President Donald Trump’s own twitter feed. He regularly tweeted about illegal immigration, endorsing Congressional candidates who will “defend your borders,” blaming Democrats for the migrant “caravan” heading toward the U.S. and vowing to continue his crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
“So-called Birthright Citizenship, which costs our Country billions of dollars and is very unfair to our citizens, will be ended one way or another,” Trump tweeted Oct. 31. “It is not covered by the 14th Amendment because of the words ‘subject to the jurisdiction thereof.'”
Online, Trump’s comments spurred memes calling his son Barron Trump an “anchor baby,” pleas for Trump’s impeachment, and also charges that Democrats rely on birthright citizenship to “take over” major cities and public schools.
In parts of New Jersey, the president’s statements strike a chord.
Elsensohn, the Baptist minister, saw a slice of that two years ago when he first moved to Freehold Borough. A local man offered to drive him around the small town of 2 square miles, so he jumped in the passenger seat.
They traveled past the strip of Throckmorton Street where day laborers congregate seeking work, known as the muster zone. Elsensohn recalled hearing the man say, “this is where all those guys hang around, and they sued the town for their right to stand around and try and steal jobs.”
“It’s hard to hear because I’m pretty sure it was one of my congregants,” Elsensohn said. “My responsibility to them is to hear what they have to say, hear their fears and to not shut them down, but also to acknowledge that this is not an OK thing to say about your neighbors.”
A decade earlier Freehold Borough had been taken to court after government officials shut down the muster zone. Immigration advocates called the move a sign of systematic discrimination against Latinos while local officials denied any discrimination.
The town eventually agreed to a settlement that allowed the muster zone; reformed how it conducts home inspections — another source of community tension; and paid the legal fees of the immigrant advocates who brought the lawsuit.
The legal battle left the town divided.
After the August 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina, Elsensohn and other local faith leaders the Unity Coalition, a local advocacy group that works to build bridges among diverse groups. Elsensohn said the aim was to bring people together in Monmouth County.
They gained inspiration from a New Jersey group called the Syria Supper Club, which hosts dinners between resettled Syrians and American citizens. The Unity Coalition decided to replicate the effort in Freehold Borough, but with Latino immigrants and their white and black American neighbors.
Some immigration critics, however, worry that these dinners sidestep their concerns about the influx of immigrants in New Jersey.
Bass, the conservative advocate, used to protest for tougher immigration enforcement in Manasquan where immigrant day laborers congregated in search of work. He claims he faced pushback when he tried to organize meetings in Freehold about immigration because he was labeled a “white supremacist.”
A decade later, Bass said he rejects the idea that local faith leaders promoting dinners with immigrants could be beneficial to the borough community.
“They’re breaking our law,” Bass said of undocumented immigrants in Freehold. “Whatever they want to do, feed them or whatever, is beyond me, but someday our country is going to be so messed up.”
Bass isn’t the only one who feels that way.
Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry, pastoral associate at the Co-Cathedral of St. Robert Bellarmine in Freehold Township, said some of her parishioners express concerns about illegal immigration and the migrant caravan heading toward the United States, even though it’s hundreds of miles from the U.S.-Mexican border.
But those same parishioners worship alongside Filippino, Mexican and Central American families who live in Freehold.
The Filippino and Latino congregants “have their prayer groups, but they’re open to everybody, and they do an awful lot of service for the community themselves,” Schlameuss-Perry said, whose congregation has more than 4,000 families.
“I don’t think there is any tension in our community,” she added, “although I do think a good deal of our congregation can separate the people from the pews from other political issues.”
Come January, Schlameuss-Perry will find out just how much her parishioners can separate politics from the immigrants sitting beside them at the dinner table. Her church agreed to host the next local supper club.
The Syrian playbook
In a way, New Jersey families have former Gov. Chris Christie to thank for the Syria Supper Club.
In November 2015, Christie said he wouldn’t admit another Syrian family into the Garden State.
His comments not only sparked outrage from human rights activists but also prompted Melina Macall and Kate McCaffrey, members of the Bnai Keshet synagogue in Montclair, to prove that the governor’s rhetoric didn’t speak for everyone.
They started hosting events to bring together Jews, Muslims and other New Jersey residents. An “All-American Jewish Christmas Chinese Feast” drew 200 Muslims, Jews and other guests. They raised funds to help refugee families and held a summer camp for their children. In 2016, they launched the Syria Supper Club.
“We felt that it was important to be the kinds of leaders that we wanted to see,” McCaffrey said. “We’re not a country that demonizes people and excludes people.”
Here’s how the Syrian Supper Club works:
- The supper club works with open-minded American families willing to let Syrians into their home for dinner. Sometimes the events are women-only, sometimes they include entire families and translators. Sometimes, they are large, co-ed affairs like the Monmouth Reform Temple’s dinner held in February
- The Syrian chefs arrive, making tabbouleh, hummus plates and other dishes to share with their hosts
- They close up shop in the kitchen and sit beside their hosts. A translator is tasked with facilitating a conversation between the two groups
The dinners feel awkward at first, but people soon break the ice with small talk about the recipes, their families and their hobbies. “Food has that potential of connecting people,” Macall said.
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She’s heard people say they don’t know what to say or they can’t go to the dinner because they don’t know much about the Syrian war.
“You don’t have to know all that stuff. The food is an opportunity to connect and find commonalities,” she added. “Just talking about the food and the recipe — something positive that’s completely apolitical.”
It’s a learning experience for Syrian newcomers who may have been told back home that a synagogue is the “enemy’s” house of worship. After the Pittsburgh shooting, it was the Syria Supper Club members who reached out to their partners in Montclair.
“That’s what our work is doing. It’s undoing the mindset that is founded on doctrine, not founded on experience,” Macall said, “and it’s just based on a simple thing: bringing people together over food.”
Steph Solis: @stephmsolis; 732-403-0074; email@example.com
Want to get involved?
For more information on the Latino Supper Club, email the Unity Coalition Of Greater Freehold: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To host a dinner with the Syria Supper Club, email the United Tastes of America, a nonprofit of the Bnai Keshet synagogue in Montclair: email@example.com.