Brooklyn Heights

Immigration rights activist Ravi Ragbir honored by bishop of Long Island Diocese

Bishop also names Ragbir as Ecumenical Canon, declaring him essential to Church’s work

February 5, 2018 By Francesca Norsen Tate, Religion Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Ravi Ragbir at the high pulpit in St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church. Brooklyn Eagle Photo by Francesca N. Tate

Ravidath Ragbir, the immigration rights leader who has personally faced imprisonment and deportation, received the Bishop’s Cross Sunday in Brooklyn Heights for his work in the community.

During a service at the Church of St. Ann & the Holy Trinity, the Rt. Rev. Lawrence Provenzano — bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island— awarded Ragbir for a lifetime of service, capping off a week that began with the activist’s release from detention.

On Jan. 29, a federal judge in New York City ordered Ragbir’s immediate from immigration jail, calling his detention “unnecessarily cruel.” U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest read aloud a statement from the bench, comparing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) tactics to those of regimes that the United States reviles as unjust. A group of clergy and immigration advocates, including Bishop Provenzano and many in attendance at St. Ann’s on Sunday had marched in protest, and believe that their action helped pressure authorities to release him.

Although Ragbir’s visit to St. Ann’s and the invitation to preach had only been announced to the media the day before, there was another surprise in store, with Provenzano naming him as an ecumenical canon to the Diocese of Long Island, eliciting an extended standing ovation from the congregation.

“In recognition of the tremendous ministry that you have provided, your prophetic witness and the sacrifice of your own life in the midst of this work, and that of your family, today it is my privilege to name you an ecumenical canon for immigration work in the Diocese of Long Island,” Provenzano said. “And with that title, Canon Ravi, comes the privileges, the rights and the protections of the Church. Sisters and brothers, help me welcome Canon Ravi Ragbir.”

Ragbir, 43, from Trinidad and Tobago, is a known leader of the immigrant rights movement in the United States and executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition. He had been picked up by ICE during a routine check. Because he has a prior conviction, he was detained and marked for deportation, which could take place as early as Saturday.

“His invitation to preach and the extraordinary recognition come as the escalating mistreatment of immigrants in America has become a central national issue,” according to the statement issued in advance of Ragbir’s visit to St. Ann’s. “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has focused in past weeks on detaining and deporting leaders and activists within the growing immigrant rights movement. At least five movement leaders have been swept up recently by ICE in what is widely seen as an effort to silence popular opposition to the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies.”

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Ragbir, who identifies as a Christian and lives in Brooklyn Heights, spent two weeks in federal custody. In his homily, Ragbir blended his own experience with the message from the day’s appointed Gospel selection: Mark 1:29-39, in which Jesus casts out demons and heals illnesses in a community.

“We have a tangible sickness of fear,” Ragbir said. “We have children who are scared of deportation. When you have children who are in school, crying because [they] don’t know whether their parents are going to be home when they get back home, they cannot work, they cannot study, they cannot focus, they cannot learn, because every day they are worried about their parents, about their lives.”

Ragbir said this is a fear through which he has personally lived, calling it a public health crisis.

“Our children and also our adults are debilitated,” he said. “They are weak because of the fear.”

Ragbir pointed out that it isn’t just the shift of the immigration policies since President Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration, but rather policies that date back as far as the Clinton administration in 1996. But, referring often to the same scripture passage in which demons are driven out, Ragbir praised the witnessing of the communities. He asked the congregation why the ICE authorities had begun to fear him.

“They were afraid of me because of you!” Ravi exclaimed. “They were afraid of me because of the community of people who stepped up to protect me and support me. The intention was to work in community and create disciples.”

The Very Rev. Michael Sniffen, dean of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City on Long Island, was among those clergy vested for the service.

“It’s the highest honorary office that exists in the Church,” The Very Rev. Sniffen said, “ it is given to people really for a lifetime of service in the communities that the church serves, is that Ravi is now a titled leader in the church. And in a very real way, it gives the Bishop an open end to be able to say, ‘We need Ravi in this community. He is one of us. He is one of our leaders. He is very important to our organization and the way we do work. It provides an opening to be able to speak to us about integrated he is into the life and ministry of the church.’”

The Diocese of Long Island convention last November overwhelmingly passed a resolution titled “On Long Island Becoming a Sanctuary Diocese” that urged all congregations “to consider providing sanctuary to immigrants and migrants” who are “targeted by xenophobia, racism and discrimination.”

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