HIGHLAND PARK, NJ - If you hadn’t been following the news of the past week, Sunday morning at the Reformed Church of Highland Park almost looked like normal weekend business.
Between two and three dozen congregants prayed in the pews on either side of the main aisle, while different church leaders led them through the 75-minute-long service.
The atmosphere switched between solemn at times (moments of silence and prayers for those in need) and festive (guitar songs and clapping).
But outside, an equally large crowd stood in support of three men, all Indonesian immigrants, who have been taking sanctuary in the church, in the hopes that ICE agents do not take them into custody.
The most recent to take sanctuary, Harry Pangemanan, came in the morning of Thursday, Jan. 25, after federal immigration officials attempted to detain him.
During the Sunday service, Pangemanan, a minister in the church, frequently came up to play guitar and sing, along with the Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, a former gubernatorial candidate and an immigrant-rights advocate who heads the church.
Pangemanan has been working at the church for several years now, and has been a Highland Park resident since 2000.
Less than two weeks ago, he was awarded the borough’s 2018 MLK Humanitarian Award for organizing more than 3,000 volunteers to rebuild 200 homes destroyed in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
Now Pangemanan is seeking sanctuary in the church, along with two other Indonesian men: Arthur Jemmy of Edison and Yoahes Tasik of Woodbridge.
All three men say they fear deportation back to Indonesia, where, as Christians, they could face religious persecution in the Muslim-majority country.
Jemmy has been taking sanctuary in the church since October 2017, while Tasik has been there since earlier in January.
The Sunday service was a show of force in support of the three immigrants and their families, advocates said.
A day earlier, the homes of Jemmy and Pangemanan were found broken into and vandalized. Authorities are investigating the two incidents and Kaper-Dale said he’s been in touch with NJ Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to investigate the incident as a possible hate crime.
Outside, in the Sunday morning drizzle, residents joined hands to form a human-chain semi-circle around the front stoops of the church.
Many brought signs; some with crudely drawn messages of support, and others with elaborate designs.
One read “Hate Has No Home Here,” and another read “Always Choose Love, Refugees Welcome, No Ban.. No Wall.”
“They’ve been law-abiding for 20 years, for decades, it’s just outrageous,” said Steven Richmond, a Highland Park resident of 15 years.
Richmond, a Rutgers University professor, and his wife Judy, now retired, both came out to show support.
“We love this town, and we can’t imagine that ICE came to terrorize people in our town, and we certainly have all of us the right to worship as we want and we’re here to protect our neighbors,” Judy Richmond said.
TAPinto New Brunswick is partnering with ProPublica to track hate crimes in the region. The partnership is part of a nationwide project to track and report bias incidents across the country.