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How to talk about immigration: Training session held in Riverhead

Marylin Banks-Winter remembers walking down a street in Colorado Springs, near the Army base where she lived, when a couple of young men following her in a pickup truck yelled out a racial obscenity directed at her. 

She was about 23 years old and pregnant. Ms. Banks-Winter, who is black, said it was the first time she became aware that she was different from others. She grew up in a military family — her father was in the Air Force — and later joined the Army herself. The military was a family unit to her and she had lived in Aquebogue as a child, where there was also a close-knit community where she felt accepted.

“Not until I became an adult did I experience any type of racial slurs,” said Ms. Banks-Winter, a member of the Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force. “I was hurt.”

On Saturday, she shared this story from about 30 years ago at St. John the Evangelist R.C. Church in Riverhead during training on how to have difficult conversations about immigration. It was her response to the question: “When did you first realize you were different?” It was one of about a dozen exercises included in a toolkit developed by Fairfield University in Connecticut  and designed to open discussions about immigration in congregations by finding common ground between members’ own lives and the immigrant experience.

Long Island Jobs with Justice hosted the training as part of an ongoing effort to support law-abiding undocumented immigrants, not those who have committed serious crimes, noted Richard Koubek, the organization’s community outreach coordinator.

Through focus groups, Long Island Jobs with Justice found that congregations want to discuss immigration, but do not want to be preached to about specific policies or politics.

“It’s an attempt not to go into politics, but into hearts and minds,” Mr. Koubek said.

The hope is to expand the base of congregation members who are understanding of immigrants currently living in fear, he said.

The toolkit helps people place themselves into the migration narrative, an arch that is found in the Bible and other religious texts, said the Rev. Marie Tatro, the vicar for the community justice ministry for the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island.

About 20 people attended the training Saturday. Some belonged to congregations from the North and South forks seeking to learn how to approach difficult discussions about immigration. Others represented community groups such as Neighbors in Support of Immigrants on the East End.

Ms. Banks-Winter said she came to the training for awareness and to make sure she’s open in her community.

Participants divided into two groups to learn what the toolkit offered them to take back to their peers.

In one exercise, members of Mr. Koubek’s group shared their own family histories of coming to the United States. Often, they revealed that their relatives, many Irish and Italian, left their home countries for reasons related to persecution, poverty or the desire to find a better opportunity.

“The stories are all the same,” Mr. Koubek said, adding that it’s a way to build empathy, relating to immigrants who come to the United States because they are also fleeing difficulties.

Other questions explored were: “What topics are taboo in your home?” and “When did you realize your class?” Another group, led by the Rev. Tatro, conducted a “cultural speed-dating exercise” as a way to learn about each other’s lives.

Donya VanBuren of Greenport and Laurie Ullman of Southold, both members of First Universalist Church of Southold, said they wanted to bring what they learned Saturday to their congregation.

“Social justice is one of our principles,” Ms. VanBuren said. “We not only want to talk about it, but to do something about it.”

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