Community gathering encourages hospitality, welcomes immigrants and refugees

Several speakers delivered stories and sang Wednesday at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Eau Claire, Wisconsin


Photo by Lara Bockenstedt

Speakers sit toward the front of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation Wednesday night. Around a dozen speakers addressed issues concerning President Trump’s recent executive order barring immigrants from seven countries.

The crowd gathered Wednesday evening at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Eau Claire, Wisconsin sported the like of rainbow knitted hats, hijabs, a priest’s garb and a “Black Lives Matter” shirt.

They filled the pews and stood in the back while children sat cross-legged in front of the ambo. Shortly before the event began, the numbers reached room capacity.

“I’ve never seen this church so crowded,” said one attendee to another.

Local City Councilman Andrew Werthmann spread the word about the congregation’s rally on Facebook, meant to offer support to immigrants and refugees alike. Prior to the event’s beginning, many attendees signed a “Welcoming City Proclamation,” which was voted on toward the end of the event. It is intended to encourage the city council, county board and school board to pass similar measures, a gesture of welcoming toward immigrant inhabitants.

The rally was created in response to President Trump’s recent executive order a 90 day barring, preventing citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries. Syrian immigrants are banned indefinitely, suspending the U.S. refugee program.

In Wisconsin, 4.8 percent of the population are immigrants, two-fifths of whom are naturalized citizens, according to the American Immigration Council website. The city of Eau Claire’s population grew by 8.6 percent between 2000-2010, in part due to immigration, the site says.

About a dozen speakers shared parents’ and personal stories of difficult immigration journeys and community service through the years since arriving. A number of speakers alluded to the president’s executive order.

“They left seeking peace, seeking to have a home again,” said opening speaker Nizar Ottoman, an immigrant from Syria.

As speakers articulated stories from diverse corners of the globe, Thailand, Mexico, Turkey and Native communities included, the messages shared a common ground: hospitality.

“In this time of noise, I do not want to add to the cacophony,” said UW-Eau Claire professor Dr. Kaldjian. A welcoming community cannot be equated to a tolerant community; it must be hospitable, he said.

A speaker from the Lakota Sioux community said hospitality is a part of the Lakota culture, referring to the audience as relatives whom she would pray for. She further encouraged the audience to stay vigilant and educated concerning the DAPL project.

Later, a speaker performed “Rise Up” with Eau Claire freshman Alianna Sigala. Audience members stood and clapped through the piano ballad, as lyrics like “All we need is hope, and for that we have each other,” resonated.

Sigala said the event presented a challenge to its attendees: “Love isn’t just charity,” she said. “We have to take it one step further.”

Administrative Officer at UW-Eau Claire, Mark Goulet participated in the event to express support for the collective community, he said. “The spirit of Eau Claire is a welcoming, inviting spirit,” he said. “No matter where you’re from.”

This is part of a series of events initiated by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, which began with a post-election candlelight gathering.