Responding with the ‘holy yes’

Islanders convene to thank volunteers who offered aid to migrants and refugees.

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In a joint service Thursday evening, leaders and members from St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, West Tisbury’s First Congregational Church, Tisbury’s Unitarian Universalist Church, and Grace Episcopal Church met in Edgartown to reflect on last week’s unexpected arrival of nearly 50 Venezuelan migrants.

Among the approximately 50 people gathered Thursday were state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, and Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, Dukes County Sheriff Bob Ogden, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services executive director Elizabeth Folcarelli, Harbor Homes winter shelter coordinator Lisa Belcastro, Dukes County Register Paulo DeOliveira, and Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Principal Sara Dingledy. 

Joining them in attendance were some of the volunteers who jumped into action on Wednesday, Sept. 14, to help the dozens of migrants and refugees who had been lured onto planes, without knowledge of the destination, and dropped off at Martha’s Vineyard Airport.

Despite confusion and concern, community relief efforts were swift. Islanders mobilzed, prompting an ad hoc network of volunteers who helped provide food, water, shelter, and support.

The Rev. Chip Seadale of St. Andrew’s, who had been at a clergy conference in the Outer Banks of North Carolina amid the frenzied scene on the Vineyard, answered the call from church staff, and without a second thought, offered the church as temporary refuge. 

As buses shuttled the migrants from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School to the Edgartown church, Seadale watched from hundreds of miles away as the drama unfolded in real time and photos of St. Andrew’s peppered the news. 

In what he deemed “the highest point” of his ministry, the onsite church members’ actions proved to be an exemplary display of what St. Andrew’s — and the Island — pride themselves on: power of community. 

Seadale expressed his gratitude for all of the volunteers who had worked tirelessly to ensure the safety and comfort of their unexpected visitors. 

“We are thankful for all the work you have done on behalf of the people we needed to serve right away,” he said to Thursday’s gathering, ”and we are thankful that everybody decided to work together.”

Seadale praised the volunteers for not categorizing people based on perceived differences, but rather seeing them as “infinitely valuable human beings,” and opening their doors and their hearts to “our Venezuelan brothers and sisters … Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he said. 

The Rev. Cathlin Baker from the First Congregational Church addressed the intensity of being back at St. Andrew’s, a sentiment that was echoed by many of Thursday’s attendees. “It feels so right to be here, in this place, exactly a week later,” she said. 

Baker spoke of the “holy yes” — a term coined to illustrate the immediacy of Seadale’s agreement to shelter the migrants. “A question was asked, and he said yes,” Baker said. 

“The holy yes,” she continued, was a “yes to the dignity of each person, a yes to humanity, a yes to love.” It was also a “yes to vulnerability,” Baker said, noting that narratives heard and truths realized about many of the migrants’ journeys weren’t easy to absorb. “We heard some horrific stories,” she acknowledged. And even now, “there are so many feelings represented in this room.” 

In honoring “all the forces” behind the relief work, Baker recognized the family members and colleagues of volunteers for giving their loved ones the blessing to put aside their personal responsibilities to lend a hand to the refugees, in addition to “all the people who wished they could have done more.” 

Not only was the “enormous generosity” of Islanders as a community impactful in last week’s events, Baker said, but also the acceptance of the weighty responsibility of bearing witness to effects of real trauma and heartbreak.

In a moment of group and self-reflection, members of the congregation and attendees took turns speaking one word that can, in part, sum up the emotional takeaway of the last week — overwhelmed, compassion, humility, hope, anger, trust, frustration, privileged, love.

First Congregational Church pianist Bill Peek and vocalist Jessica Sanserverino led the church in a rendition of the Spanish song “Aun,” a Venezuelan rock anthem often associated with the plight of migrants fleeing the country’s volatile political climate. 

With an opportunity to name a person or organization that helped with the relief efforts, members expressed gratitude toward dozens: St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, Chief Bruce McNamee and the Edgartown Police Department, Oak Bluffs Fire Chief Nelson Wirtz, Edgartown Fire Chief Alex Schaeffer, Lisa Belcastro, Nate Briggs, Dylan Fernandes, Vineyard Transit Authority, Bob Ogden, MVRHS Spanish students, local press, Tony’s Market, Chicken Alley, Lucky Hank’s, Farm Neck, Mocha Mott’s, Among the Flowers, winter shelter volunteers, L’Etoile restaurant, and friends who sent their support from the states of Texas and Florida. 

In guided discussion aimed to consider what has been learned from their experience, and what will come next, Islanders exchanged thoughts and feelings. 

Some expressed frustration over the inaccurate portrayal of Martha’s Vineyard in the off-Island media, and emphasized the need to keep the momentum of showing the world who Islanders really are. One questioned how the multilayered happening will be explained to the Vineyard’s youngest community members. Others lauded the young people who came to the assistance of the church and the high school to interpret and translate, or to shuttle resources and basic essentials. 

Some people honed in on the need to create a better response network featuring better communication among services and organizations, in preparation for possible future visitors. One person highlighted the “healing power of service,” while another vehemently asserted that the best way to be of help to future arrivals is to ensure all Islanders have an affordable place to live. WIthout stability and security, they said, it’d be difficult for many Islanders to provide amenities and housing for an influx of new people.

Following the service, a portion of the crowd made its way back to the community room, the same space occupied by the migrants and refugees only a week ago. With an air of lightheartedness, hugs were had, a few tears were shed, people sipped coffee and indulged in some of the home-baked treats brought by volunteers and church members. 

Church vestry member Chris White told The Times the last week has been an emotional one, with an array of feelings that are still being unpacked — in their own ways — by everyone involved.

Volunteer Meg Carman, who works as a nurse at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, was responsible for caring for the young children as their parents met with immigration attorneys, or sought medical attention. Carman told The Times that she remains unfazed by any of the negative attention brought to the Island through the media, as the community acted out of compassion and consideration in the moment it was needed. “That’s just what we do here,” she said. 

“I just felt proud and honored to be here,” Carla Cooper said of her volunteer work last week. 

When asked how he felt when news first broke, Seadale told The Times he knew the church and the stranded refugees were in good hands. At St. Andrew’s, “leadership is strong,” he said. 

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