Seth Kaper-Dale founded Interfaith-RISE after realizing his church needed to do more to help refugees.

KB grew up in Kandahar, Afghanistan, the son of a shop owner, finished high school, then took additional English language classes. This background enabled him to work as an interpreter for the United States Army from October, 2008, to March, 2010, and then to move on to other American organizations. His last job was as procurement officer for the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul.

He applied for a Special Immigrant Visa (a refugee category created for people who have worked with the U.S. Armed Forces or under Chief of Mission authority as a translator or interpreter in Iraq or Afghanistan), using a recommendation from his mentor-supervisor. The reason for this visa is simple, as KB explains: “Due to my work background with the U.S. government in Afghanistan, it was not safe me to stay there.”

“The Taliban don’t like people who work with the Americans. When some people see you working with Americans, they can report you and kill you right away.” Once when he was followed on his way to work, he says, “my supervisor said I had to change routes, or cities.” Whereas foreigners kidnapped by the Taliban may be released in a prisoner exchange, he continues, Afghani interpreters are routinely killed.

The Taliban’s justification for acts like these, KB says, was that “Americans are foreigners and don’t know much about our culture, living style, hidden places, and villages; and people who work with Americans” are like “the third eye,” providing information to the Americans.

After a wait of several years, KB received his visa, and when he, his wife, and daughter finally arrived in the United States in late 2017, they were resettled for their first six months in Highland Park, New Jersey, by Interfaith-RISE (Refugee and Immigrant Services and Empowerment), which provided a furnished apartment, as well as food for the first two weeks, and also assisted KB in finding a job.

KB’s brother then helped them find an affordable apartment in the Princeton area, and TJC Interfaith Refugee Resettlement Committee (TJC-IRRC) helped the family move, provided tutoring for his wife to get her high school equivalency, and found the family a computer and a second car. They also helped KB rewrite his resume and are assisting in a job search for a position with benefits.

Seth Kaper-Dale, who is co-minister of the Reformed Church of Highland Park with his wife Stephanie, began to envision an effort to resettle refugees in 2015 when, he says, “the eyes of our nation were opened to the suffering of refugees escaping Syria and North Africa, and there were vivid pictures of rafts jammed with people crossing the Mediterranean and lines of people crossing the mountains trying to get to Western Europe.”

The initial motivation for starting a refugee resettlement organization came when Kaper-Dale heard the second to sixth graders at his church sing a hymn interspersed with quotes from children in a Syrian refugee camp. Moved, he announced to his church leadership that they needed to do more for refugees.

Within two weeks he had formed a small interfaith coalition to visit Church World Service in Jersey City to begin learning how refugee resettlement works. They developed a campaign with the idealistic goal of encouraging every community in New Jersey to take 10 refugees. They then planned a walkathon in November, 2015, to support this project, but that weekend, before the walkathon, dozens of people in Paris were killed in a terrorist attack by suicide bombers.

Kaper-Dale did not cancel the walkathon, but instead used it, he recalls, “to say that most of the people fleeing for their lives were trying to get away from situations embodied by these shooters.”

Two days later, after Governor Chris Christie declared that no Syrians, not even children under five, would be allowed to come into New Jersey, the New York Times quoted Kaper-Dale as saying, “We would be happy to give and to raise as much money for whatever crumbs the governor decides to take away from refugees.” The unexpected consequence was donations of $30,000 to fund his new refugee resettlement organization.

By October 1, 2016, Interfaith-RISE had jumped through the legal hoops necessary to receive refugee referrals from the State Department as an affiliate office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

Also in 2016 a student pastor from the Princeton Theological Seminary told Kaper-Dale about a group from Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton resettling a Syrian family. He then met Louise Sandburg, who was also working with Church World Service to resettle a Pakistani refugee family with an interfaith group that grew out of the Social Action committee of the Jewish Center in Princeton, which had previously sponsored two other refugee families.

As refugees were streaming out of Syria, Adam Feldman, the synagogue’s rabbi, suggested to Sandburg and committee chair Melissa Hager that it was time to take on another family. Realizing they needed a larger pool of flexible volunteers to help with the myriad of tasks necessary to support a refugee family, they decided the most effective approach would be to reach out to the larger interfaith community in Princeton.

Sandburg, along with Katie Stoltzfus-Dueck from Princeton Friends Meeting and Karen Longo-Baldwin from Princeton United Methodist Church, formed the TJC Interfaith Refugee Resettlement Committee (TJC stands for “The Jewish Center,” which acts as the group’s fiduciary). Hager was a cofounder but had to step back after she took on a full-time job.

TJC Interfaith Refugee Resettlement Committee had been assigned the Pakistani family through the Church World Service but in mid-2016 joined the I-RISE coalition. The committee has helped a variety of refugees over its four years: an Ahmadiyya family from Pakistan, who came because the type of Islam they practice is considered to be heretical and as a result their women have been raped, men killed, and mosques burnt; a Christian Pakistani refugee family; an African domestic violence survivor; another Afghan Special Immigrant Visa family; an Eritrean refugee; a Tibetan asylum seeker; and a family of climate refugees from St. John’s, devastated by the two hurricanes that also hit Puerto Rico.

Looking at the range of services these families need, Sandburg says, “we provide ESL, we get families through medical screenings, vaccinations updated, and children registered in school; we are helping them to figure out transportation — got a second car for one family and did bus orientation for another; getting social services lined up so a newly arrived family has food stamps until he has gotten his job secured; helping to make sure their skills are up to date and that they are getting certified in multiple areas so they can move on; and getting them jobs that are more appropriate.”

About 15 volunteers are very involved with these day-to-day activities, and a larger group of 300 on the committee’s listserv has responded to requests for items like winter clothing, furniture, and even a car and a computer.

Kaper-Dale says, “We would work collaboratively. Our goal has been that the core services [those that had to be provided within the first 90 days] — we want those to be rooted in Highland Park because we are ultimately responsible. The more local volunteers are building rapport, there is a better chance that the refugees will have the community support they need going forward.”

The refugees have also received housing support from the Princeton Theological Seminary. “It has had its arms open wide” to families from “a variety of faith traditions,” Kaper-Dale says. The way it works is that the Affordable Housing Corporation — a nonprofit operated by the church — takes on the lease and subleases to the refugees. “We make the commitment that we are supporting this family and the rent will be paid on time, and Princeton Theological Seminary is extremely reasonable with the amounts.”

KB is appreciative of the support from Interfaith-RISE and the TJC Interfaith Refugee Resettlement Committee. With the help of the two groups, KB started working in February, 2018, first in a restaurant, and now as a driver for Lyft and Uber. “If someone wants to help you get on your feet, it’s nice,” he says. “I didn’t want to rely on assistance from the government.”

Seth Kaper-Dale is in his 18th year serving as co-minister of the Reformed Church of Highland Park, a community that reflects the social-action values he developed as a youngster.

With a father who was director of social services for the Vermont Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services and a mother who was a teacher, Kaper-Dale says, “I grew up knowing that it really mattered to care about others.”

And his religion also played a role, as he explains: “I think the regularity of attending worship services and being grateful to someone higher and believing that the response to the life given to us is to care about bringing life to other people and caring about other people was a subtle religious component in my childhood that impacted me.”

Passionate about sports, and baseball in particular, while he was growing up, Kaper-Dale also was a caring person from early on. “I was the kid who always welcomed the new kid and defended the unpopular kid. I had friendships from all types of backgrounds, although in Vermont there were not a lot of different backgrounds in terms of racial and ethnic diversity; it was more socioeconomic diversity,” he recalls.

During his time at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, which he describes as “a small liberal arts school rooted in the historic Christian faith and connected to the Reformed Church,” two experiences influenced his future path. First, in his religion and sociology class in the fall of his freshman year, he says, “I started realizing that all the things I cared about could be connected to the ministry.”

Then he started attending a Spanish-English church, Crossroad Chapel, which, he says, believed “that at the foot of the cross everyone belongs together — we should be one community in faith of all types of people before this sign of love.” The pastor, Andres Fierro, who mentored Kaper-Dale and performed his wedding ceremony, preached in both languages. In the first sermon that Kaper-Dale heard, Fierro spoke of making a video of the poor living conditions of farmworkers in the blueberry fields “and turning it into the mayor, complaining that the owners weren’t treating the farmworkers fairly.”

Kaper-Dale remembers complimenting him on his sermon and saying, “Your church lets you do that as part of your work?” Fierro’s response, “Man, you’ve got to read your Bible again — the whole Bible has stories like this,” Kaper-Dale recalls, “really began my journey into seeing liberation as a centerpiece of faith.”

That vision has informed Kaper-Dale’s own ministry at the Reformed Church of Highland Park and most recently inspired his work to settle refugees in Central Jersey.

Kaper-Dale and his wife, Stephanie, who serves as his co-pastor, got married during their senior year of college, graduating in 1997. Steeped in liberation theology, a South American movement within Catholicism that pushes for social change rooted in faith, they moved to Ecuador for a year to work with homeless children in Guayaquil. “We had an amazing year where we just grew in understanding the connection between faith tradition and service,” he says.

In fall, 1998, they began a three-year stint at Princeton Theological Seminary. “We struggled emotionally with the reality that after a year of struggling to find drinking water, we were now bathing in drinking water. It was just that the disparities of the world really hit us hard, especially Princeton’s wealth, because we had never lived in such a wealthy place,” Kaper-Dale says. Nonetheless they loved the theological rigor at the seminary and concentrated on serious study. “We did not attempt to pour ourselves into major social justice activity,” he says.

Having had internships in Brooklyn and Trenton, he graduated in 2001 and started as co-pastor of the Reformed Church of Highland Park the Sunday before 9/11; the church then had only 35 active people. But the size has changed big time. “Now we have about 500 people active in the worshiping life of the church, that includes members, children, and adherents, people who come regularly and haven’t joined — sometimes because they are Buddhist or Jewish,” Kaper-Dale says.

The more than 3,000 people in the building each week include many religious and community groups, the Global Grace Cafe, a fair trade store, an after-school program for middle schoolers, an affordable environmental camp, and a reentry program for people coming out of the county jail. Under the church’s umbrella is its Affordable Housing Corporation, a 501(c)3 that owns and operates 25 buildings and leases and subleases another 35, for nearly 300 people who otherwise would have difficulty finding housing, including refugees.

The Affordable Housing Corporation is also the legal home of three programs: Interfaith-RISE; Still Waters Anti-Trafficking, which assists people who have been subjected to human trafficking; and Accompany Now!, which provides home studies and post-release services to unaccompanied minors who have crossed the U.S. border. Kaper-Dale is executive director of the Affordable Housing Corporation.

The church also hosts two other 501(c)3s: Who Is My Neighbor?, which provides enriching social and educational programs for children, families, and adults to create connections and foster a sense of belonging; and Churches Improving Communities.

Beyond housing, Interfaith-RISE now has all the resources it needs to help refugees in-house: an employment program, a refugee school impact specialist; an English language learning program, with group classes and a network of individual tutors; and adjustment services to help people get the benefits they are eligible for, whether that be education or medical attention; and all the traditional case management wrap-around services.

Many church members serve either on the boards of the three 501(c)3s or volunteer within the different program areas, but the volunteer base is entirely interfaith. Of the 60 to 70 people who show up at the monthly meetings of Interfaith-RISE, for example, maybe 10 are affiliated with the Reformed Church of Highland Park. “That’s important to us — that these issues matter across faith communities and communities of people of goodwill,” Kaper-Dale says.

Sandburg grew up in San Diego, where her father was a civilian who worked for the U.S. Navy, and her mother did not work outside the home. When she graduated from California State Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo in sociology, she worked in Israel, Germany, Scotland (where she met her husband, Peter Smith), then Thailand with Peter. During those years she taught art, photography, and English. When she returned to the United States, she taught English as a second language to Russian Jewish immigrants.

After earning a master’s degree in counseling from the University of Bridgeport, she worked as an art therapist with chronic schizophrenics for a decade. Once she had children, she got an ESL teaching certification at the College of New Jersey, then taught adult ESL at the YWCA. As an empty nester, she wanted a change and went to work for Lutheran Social Ministries in Trenton, where she was a legal case manager helping to resettle refugees. Funding cuts ended her job, and that is when she got more involved with Interfaith-RISE.

As a descendant of immigrants, Sandburg appreciates what she has but knows where she came from. “We live in this wonderful community. Our children have all these privileges, and we are comfortable.”

But for her this creates an obligation: “We know where our grandparents came from, and it was horrible, and we should do what we can. We are fortunate, and we have the ability to do a lot for people who are getting started. The people who come here are survivors, and they are going to do well.”

Interfaith-RISE, 19 South 2nd Avenue, Highland Park 08904. 732-249-7349.

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