On Elm Street, A Leap Of Faith

 Pastor Juhye Hahn at Sunday night's prayer vigil for Marco Antonio Reyes Alvarez. Lucy Gellman photo. 

Pastor Juhye Hahn at Sunday night's prayer vigil for Marco Antonio Reyes Alvarez. Lucy Gellman photo. 

If you want to walk on the water, there is only one way. We need to get out of our boat … and jump into the sea. - Juhye Hahn, First and Summerfield United Methodist Church

It is 10 a.m. on a warm, sun-soaked Sunday morning, and Pastor Juhye Hahn is tired.

She has had a week, she tells the congregation. Many of them have. On Tuesday morning, members of her flock at First and Summerfield United Methodist Church welcomed Marco Antonio Reyes Alvarez, a Meriden father of three fleeing Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, into their sanctuary. After a 2:30 a.m. call came in from Pastor Paul Fleck, a committee comprising the church’s congregants jumped into action, preparing a room for Reyes in just under four hours. 

The church is a safe haven for him: ICE is encouraged not to enter houses of worship. 

The committee that welcomed him Tuesday is a well-oiled machine; it has prepared for this moment for months. In late April, First and Summerfield joined Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal, Hamden Plains United Methodist Church, and Congregational Mishkan Israel as a sanctuary congregation.

 Marco Antonio Reyes Alvarez with his daughter earlier this week at the church. Christopher Peak photo. 

Marco Antonio Reyes Alvarez with his daughter earlier this week at the church. Christopher Peak photo. 

Hahn was not yet with First and Summerfield — she began as pastor in early July, replacing Pastor Thomas Gye Ho Kim — but said she considers it part of her faith to welcome immigrants into the sanctuary, because “we are all children of God.”

Last month, those congregations began to make good on their word when Norwalk mom Nury Chavarria defied an immigration order to return to Guatemala, taking refuge in Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal.

One week in, Chavarria was granted a stay from ICE. There has not yet been any word on whether the same will be true for Reyes, who is originally from Ecuador but has lived in the United States for 20 years. 

In that sense, Hahn says, it has been a revitalizing week. Messages of support have come in from spiritual leaders, legislators and activists across the state, including Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton. But there are also daily messages tinged with anger, and bitter “words that I’ve never heard in my life.”

None of that is supposed to intrude today. It is Sunday, quiet and bright on the church’s corner in downtown New Haven, and she is ready to lead a small congregation in worship. After a week filled with media, legislators and organizers, the sanctuary has been returned to its original purpose. A congregation of around 30 has entered, fidgeting with their hymnals and purses as organ music fills the space. It is hard to believe that almost 300 parishioners belonged in the 1980s, until a choir of just nine begins to sing, and wraps the whole room in sound, and their small size is rendered irrelevant.  

Hahn smooths her tunic, straightens her starched, upright collar. A heavy turquoise cross hangs from her neck and sways as she brings the microphone to her mouth. Just as she is welcoming, congregants — Rejoice in the Lord. Call God’s holy name — Reyes enters with his wife Fanny and daughter Adriana. Adriana’s hand juts out from a crushed velvet jacket to grab her father’s palm, and they head to a row of chairs. Just moments later, Hahn asks him if he would like to say a few words. He strides toward the front of the sanctuary in a striped polo.  

 Supporters rally outside First and Summerfield Tuesday afternoon. Christopher Peak photo. 

Supporters rally outside First and Summerfield Tuesday afternoon. Christopher Peak photo. 

“I just would like to thank all the members of this church, and especially Pastor Hahn, for allowing me to take sanctuary in this place,” he says. “My family and I really appreciate it …Thank you, and God bless you.”  

Hahn takes a minute to soak in the words. And then, she is full speed ahead. The gospel reading this week is Matthew 14:22-33, a passage that she says she knows well. It picks up right as Jesus walks on water, frightening his 12 disciples when they see him from afar. Bobbing atop a stormy sea in a small boat, they take him for a ghost, and shrink back in fear.

Take heart, Jesus comforts them. It is I. They remain fearful. Except Peter, who asks for a directive, and puts his faith in whatever words may come from the figure on the water. 

Come, Jesus urges him. At first, Peter slips beneath the black surface of the water, sinking like an anchor. Undeterred in his faith, he cries out to Jesus, who extends a hand. And then, just for a moment, Peter is walking on water too. 

“A kind of experience that Peter could never forget,” Hahn says. An experience, she continues, that rings strikingly true to her own life. And a trip to the amusement park she took with her daughter and husband some time ago. 

At first, it’s unclear where the story’s going, or where Peter comes in. There is a roller coaster, a stomach-churning several-foot drop called the “Free Falling,” and an innocuous choo-choo train. Hahn begs her husband to mount “Free Falling” with their daughter; she opts for the train instead. When they regroup, Hahn has taken a choo-choo loop around the park, and her husband and daughter have bonded over the scary ride. And she wonders: should I have banished the fear and taken that free-fall after all? 

 A vigil held Sunday evening featured music in English and Spanish. Lucy Gellman photo.

A vigil held Sunday evening featured music in English and Spanish. Lucy Gellman photo.

By this time, it’s clear that she’s not talking about amusement parks. She’s talking about the family nestled back in the fifth row, arms around each other. She’s talking about why she’ll protect them with her faith, which is her life. 

“I kept wondering, what if?” she says. “What if I had gotten out of my boat?”

A few mmms and yeses go up around the congregation. 

“In the sea, risky waves and wind will rise,” she presses on. “Sometimes, like the 11 disciples, we just want to stay inside of the boat because we feel safe there, and don’t want to try anything new."

“But we have to know that when we follow Jesus Christ, we live in tension between two different choices. One is desire of staying in the boat safely. The other one is a desire of taking a leap of faith and getting out of the boat, [out of] our comfort zone, despite of fear.”

Then, straight to the heart of the matter. In another world, Peter is getting out, and swimming until he walks. 

“At our church, we also face a moment that we have to make decision whether we will stay in our safe boat or get out of our boat, and start walking on the water … Our boat was in the middle of the sea. We could stay in the boat with the other11 disciples. However, if you want to walk on the water, there is only one way. We need to get out of our boat … and jump into the sea.”

“Many people … supported our action of getting out of the boat,” she says, already looking toward the day’s later prayer vigil outside of the church.“But not everyone is supporting what we are doing. Many people left hostile messages on our church answering machine. I saw the wild wind riding and battering our boat. When we see the world in cold and dark, we don’t want to get out of our boat … Sometimes we wish our boat is just a kind of cruise, so that we can enjoy our ride. 

“But the boat Jesus made us get into is a mission boat. Our mission boat is the vehicle that helps us to go where Jesus is. Brothers and sisters, Jesus is not sitting inside of the boat. He is standing in the middle of the stormy sea, and calling his disciples to come where he is.”

This article is part of our new “News From The Pews” series, exploring the intersection of religion and spirituality and current events. If you’re a member of a congregation — any denomination, anywhere in New Haven — and think your institution should be profiled, send an email to lucy@newhavenarts.org.