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An interview with Deacon Jill Singleton on Hispanic/Latino ministry

The Rev. Deacon Jill Singleton, Director and Chaplain of The Lighthouse, with part-time social worker Jacob Pirogovsky, in front of The Lighthouse last April. NINA NICHOLSON PHOTO
Nina Nicholson, Director of Communications
The Rev. Deacon Jill Singleton, Director and Chaplain of The Lighthouse, with part-time social worker Jacob Pirogovsky, in front of The Lighthouse last April. NINA NICHOLSON PHOTO

In April we reported on The Lighthouse in Union City, a temporary residence established by the Rev. Deacon Jill Singleton for asylum seekers, the majority of whom are from Latin American countries. Recently Jill sat for another interview in which she shares what she sees as the challenges and opportunities of Hispanic/Latino ministry in the Diocese of Newark, plus gives an update on The Lighthouse. The interview has been edited and condensed.

When we talked last April, you had applied for an ACTS/VIM grant to help fund a women’s empowerment program for the female residents of The Lighthouse 2. What’s the status of that?

We just got the money in July. So we really just started. The things that made it into the ACTS/VIM application were, first and foremost, increased English classes, which have already started. We have the blessing and the curse of being located in Union City. A blessing because so many people speak Spanish, but then it's also a curse, because the need to learn [English] doesn't have the same sense of urgency that it might if you were living in another area.

Financial literacy classes have been really popular. We have somebody who works individually with the families. None of these people have ever had a savings account before – they've never really thought about saving money, they've really just been living hand to mouth. This person is talking with them about how you prepare a home budget, how you have to anticipate costs that may come up. So that they're saying, “Okay, I'm putting away this much money every month because this is going to be for my future.” This person also has been helping them with how to establish credit, because so much depends on having credit, even renting an apartment.

We're in the final stages of setting up our self-defense classes, that was something they all really wanted to have. I would say all of the women have been party to, either personally or somebody very close to them, some form of sexual assault, of feeling vulnerable of men taking advantage of them. We're really excited that we found somebody bilingual who can come and teach them. We're also going to include the children.

Another one we’re about to start is digital literacy. We’re talking about really basic things: How do you use a mouse? How do you open a Google Doc? How do you have an email account?

We also put in driving lessons. They’re all very keen to drive. We have not had as much luck with that because passing the written test has proven challenging, finding time even to study for the written test has proven challenging. I don't think that's necessarily going to work out.

What are some of the challenges you see to Hispanic/Latino ministry?

I really worry about the anti-asylum seeking rhetoric that's developing. Seeing things like we saw on Staten Island, for example, where people were rioting and picketing over not wanting to have a building repurposed for housing asylum seekers.

We had a generous, consistent donor who backed down on their partnership with us, because they're getting heat about, “Who are these people? They're not vetted before they come here. They could be criminals.” People don't understand that they are not here illegally. Every single person who is in The Lighthouse is following the law [on seeking asylum], that's a requirement for living here.

The problem of immigration is a concept that can't be made real until you have a relationship. Yes, we can see images on TV. But when you have a relationship with somebody, and you are crossing that bridge – language, culture, sometimes religion – that's when you're transformed. And that's when your love is transformational.

What are some of the opportunities you see for Hispanic/Latino ministry in the Diocese of Newark?

There's got to be something between living at The Lighthouse, where you have all the support provided, and boom, you're on your own, now you're independent. We have many churches that have space available. And so if we could find a way for some of our churches to open their doors, I think it would be a beautiful ministry. They [the asylum seekers] would be able to pay a little something [to the church], because these are people who have been here for a couple of years, maybe they have a job now, but they can't quite make it on their own.

A church could try it with one family and say, “You know what, we tried it, we're happy that we supported them. And as they move on, we're not going to replace them.” And that's fine. Maybe they'll feel called to help in other ways.

You know, I cared about the issue before, but it wasn't till I visited somebody in detention, and I met them, and I looked them in the eye, that it became real. And then when you meet children, that's when it becomes super real.

I just think that it's a real opportunity for us to practice what it means to be followers of Jesus, and what it means to be Christians and what it means to be putting the gospel to action in the world. We have so many opportunities right at our fingertips. I would just love to see our churches scratching their heads a little bit more and thinking about and dreaming and imagining. Being a Christian requires a lot of imagination, because we need to imagine the world in a different way than it currently is.