When Your Church Is the Last Stand Against ICE
The Kaper-Dales are fighting to shield Indonesian Christians from deportation
By Liz Leyden | Photography by Peter Murphy
Seth Kaper-Dale was in the car, running late for a meeting at the local bagel shop, when his phone rang.
“Pastor, where are you?”
It was Harry Pangemanan, a friend and member of the Reformed Church of Highland Park, New Jersey, where Seth and his wife, Stephanie, both MDiv ’01, serve as co-pastors. Seth could tell from Pangemanan’s voice that something was wrong.
“It sounds like I’m coming to your house,” he told him, and turned his car around.
In 2002, not long after the Kaper-Dales (pronounced COPPER-Dales) first arrived in Highland Park, Pangemanan and a group of other Indonesian Christians who had been sharing the church’s space sought advice sorting out their immigration status. Seth and Stephanie were 26 years old, newly ordained pastors taking over a small central New Jersey church whose membership had dwindled to about 35 congregants. They could not have known that they were embarking on an unexpected odyssey that would help turn the church into a beacon of social justice whose message has traveled far beyond Highland Park.
Since the election of Donald Trump, that mission has only accelerated. In 2017, 1,271 of the 3,189 New Jerseyans arrested by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency had no criminal convictions, up from 571 in 2016, according to the Star-Ledger, the state’s largest daily newspaper.
For members of the church, this was personal. Four Indonesians who had sheltered there for nearly a year in 2012 were deported last spring. Now, on this cold January day in 2018, it seemed to be happening again.
Pangemanan had spotted a car with tinted windows across from his driveway. When Seth arrived a minute-and-a-half later, the driver pulled away, beginning what seemed like a surreal game of cat and mouse.
Seth called his friend and told him to hurry outside.
“Get in my car. We’re going to church this second.”
Seth followed the car, but lost it in town. He circled back to Pangemanan’s house and saw that the car was already there. As he pulled up, the car again drove away.
Despite the urgency of the moment, Seth wasn’t worried. The church, he knew, would protect Pangemanan.
“The church is sanctuary,” he says. “The church is close. We just had to make them know that there are people standing on the side of love who are not going to let this happen.”
“There are people standing on the side of love who are not going to let this happen.”
Later that day, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy would visit; Seth had run against him in the election a few months earlier on the Green Party line, but he was grateful now for Murphy’s immediate support. The governor met Pangemanan and two other Indonesians who’d also sought sanctuary. Reporters from around the country began to call. But for the moment, everyone was safe.
Seth and Stephanie met at Hope College, a small Christian liberal arts school in Holland, Michigan. As first-year students, they began bumping into one another around campus: in the library, at fellowship events, and at a local church called Crossroads Chapel. The church was a bilingual, bicultural house of worship where Seth and Stephanie were drawn to the idea of reaching across cultures.
Seth said the church’s emphasis on faith and action made him reread the Bible.
“I realized it was a book about earth, not about heaven,” he says. “Life on earth and challenging injustice.”
On Wednesday nights, she and her sister happily memorized the Heidelberg Catechism.
Stephanie points to their involvement at Crossroads as key in bringing the couple together. “It said something about what we both really cared about.”
She’d grown up 20 minutes away in Hamilton. The family’s church, just across the street, formed the backbone of their life. On Sundays, they attended morning and evening worship; on Wednesday nights, she and her sister happily memorized the Heidelberg Catechism.
“No one can believe it,” she laughs.
Seth made his way to Hope from Vermont, where his father was social services director for Vermont’s Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services; his mother volunteered in the local soup kitchen and throughout the community. “Making sure the world was fair for everyone was very important to them,” he says.
Seth and Stephanie married at 21, just before senior year; they’d already begun dreaming of a future life as pastors.
After a year serving as humanitarian volunteers in Ecuador, they came to Princeton Theological Seminary. “Seminary really encouraged us to challenge assumptions and look deeply for meaning,” Stephanie says. “Our professors welcomed really probing questions, they loved it. It was a place that was definitely not about memorization. It was about struggling to make sense of the world, and not only master a body of knowledge but deeply engage with theological themes.”
For Seth, seminary provided the gift of time to focus on his studies. When students complain to him now that they wish seminary was more engaged in daily, practical ministry, he urges patience; those years of intense study are critical—and fleeting.
“If you’re going to be a person passionate about changing the world, three years is way too short,” he says. “Sink yourself and study and come out ready to give your life to all the movements that are part of the arrival of the Kingdom of God.”
The Kaper-Dales landed in Highland Park right before the September 11 attacks. A group of Indonesian Christians was using the church on Sunday nights for worship. Like many other immigrants, their lives would never be the same after the attacks.
Within a few months, as part of the global war on terror, all men ages 16 to 65 from predominantly Muslim nations who’d arrived on temporary visas were required to register with the government. It was this registry that prompted Arthur Jemmy, 42, and his friends to seek Seth’s advice.
Jemmy and the others came to the U.S. in the 1990s, fleeing the growing persecution of Christians in Indonesia and seeking a better life. Now, they feared that registering would lead to deportation for overstaying their visas. They wanted to apply for asylum but had only just learned that U.S. immigration law had changed since their arrival to the country; asylum applications now had to be submitted within a year of arrival.
They didn’t know what to expect from the new pastors. But Seth encouraged them to register and said he would help.
“That first time we met him, all the Indonesians said, ‘It’s so rare to find a guy who is so kind,’” Jemmy says. “Not only to Indonesians, but to everybody. It’s not easy to find.”
The couple had thrown open the church doors to the entire community. In a small town without many public spaces, that mattered. The church became a local hub, where other faith groups met, where communal choirs practiced and environmental groups plotted to save the world.
Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler describes the church as “a great resource for the municipality.”
Not long ago, town officials contacted the Kaper-Dales when they realized local children were struggling to find food when schools were out of session and parents were at work. Now, during school breaks, the town partners with the church café to provide lunch to those children in need.
“I do believe that pastors Seth and Stephanie see their roles not only as religious leaders within the confines of the building but also as community leaders,” Brill Mittler says. “It’s wonderful to have them as partners in making Highland Park a better place.”
A free afterschool program for middle schoolers turned into the church’s first nonprofit. Simple prayer requests during worship led to initiatives tackling affordable housing, refugee resettlement, and criminal justice reform. “When you really listen and drill down, one idea leads to another,” Stephanie says.
The struggle to protect the church’s immigrant parishioners is perhaps the pastors’ most personal mission.
In 2009, Harry Pangemanan was detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. After registering with the government in 2002, he’d applied for asylum and been rejected. With help from the church, he appealed, but in 2006 had received a final order of removal—the last step before deportation.
For more than two months, Pangemanan was held in an ICE detention facility in Elizabeth. Church members visited him daily. One morning, he was roused at 4 a.m., given his phone and belongings, and told he was going to the airport. Fearing the worst, he called Seth.
The pastor raced to Newark, managing to find and talk his way to the gate. Pangemanan was being sent to a detention facility in Washington, D.C.
Seth knelt and faced the plane. Seeing his despair, a gate attendant allowed him to board the plane and pray with Pangemanan.
For the next three weeks, Seth called every number he could find for local and federal ICE offices. Finally, Pangemanan was released and returned to New Jersey. Seth would eventually help secure temporary orders of supervision for him and 80 other Indonesian Christians in the state.
Over the next two years, appeals were made and denied. In 2011, the orders expired and the Indonesian Christians were ordered to report to ICE for deportation. Instead, in 2012, Pangemanan and eight others sheltered in the church for nearly a year, living in classrooms among children’s books.
Support from the congregation and its neighbors bolstered the men. Someone donated a badminton net, others brought special meals. Many simply visited to help break up long days.
Pastor Amos Caley, MDiv ’13, first interned at the church in 2011. Then, and now as its associate pastor, he watched the Kaper-Dales connect faith and action. The way they model their beliefs is contagious, he says, and has created a community of “faithful responders.”
On Valentine’s Day in 2013, the Indonesians again received temporary orders of supervision. They left sanctuary, and for a few years, life returned nearly to normal, revolving around work, faith, and family.
But after President Trump took office, the Indonesians worried time might be running out. Last April, four of the nine men who’d sheltered at the church in 2012 were detained after checking in with ICE as required under their temporary orders of supervision. All were later deported.
And on January 24, 2018, Pangemanan called Seth for help after spotting the suspicious car as he’d been about to drive his daughter to school. Neighbors from across faiths—Muslims and Jews, Catholics and Buddhists—circled the church the following Sunday, ignoring rain falling from gray skies, arms linked in support of the sanctuary.
A reprieve arrived soon after.
With this in mind, on the October day in 2017 he was due to report for his check-in, Arthur Jemmy instead sought sanctuary in the church. Yohanes Tasik did the same on January 19, arriving at the church after federal officials gave him an ankle bracelet and told him he would soon be deported.
On February 2, in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Pangemanan and other Indonesian Christians in New Jersey with years-old removal orders, a federal judge granted a temporary stay in the deportation proceedings. The men left the church.
“We have seen beauty on a scale that transcends the normal order of things.”
In a sermon a couple weeks later, Stephanie celebrated a community that had, over months and years, knit fiercely together around the Indonesian men and their families.
“We have seen people of faith and people of goodwill standing to support each other,” she says. “We have seen beauty on a scale that transcends the normal order of things.”
For Pangemanan, the uncertainty of the future is tempered by the community he has found in Highland Park, and specifically in the Kaper-Dales.
“We need more people like Pastor Seth and Pastor Stephanie in every town in this country,” he said. “They do so much for the community, for people that really need help and can’t get it from anywhere. For me, to be honest, I don’t know where I would be without both of them.
Nearly 17 years after the Kaper-Dales arrived, the church thrums with life. More than 300 people worship each Sunday, and another 3,000 pass through its doors each week.
On a recent day, the smell of spices from the Global Grace Café drifts through the hallways. Stephanie stops by to help organize an art exhibit for Lent; later she’ll visit elderly members in a nursing home and begin to write her Sunday sermon.
Seth’s phone continues to ring. In his office, beneath a wall filled with dozens of crosses from around the world, he speaks of the future between throat lozenges. Churches from throughout the U.S. call with questions—and fears—about giving sanctuary.
“My answer is ‘Don’t worry about that. Serve. Do the right thing. You might get into trouble, but it’s part of the territory.’”
He rises from his desk and reaches for a collared clerical shirt. That afternoon, he’ll enjoy some sunshine while playing softball with one of the couple’s three daughters. But at the moment, he’s late for a press conference announcing a new watch group from his church that will monitor ICE activity at a local courthouse.
“Faith is a verb,” he says. “As long as your faith is in action, it’s a good thing.”
“Faith is a verb,” he says. “As long as your faith is in action, it’s a good thing.”
He remains hopeful for his parishioners—and for the good that people can choose to do.
“I always say the thing the church is called to do is disrupt what is broken in the world,” he says, “and model something beautiful.”
LIZ LEYDEN also writes for the New York Times and Smithsonian Magazine.
PETER MURPHY’s photography has appeared in many publications, including The Atlantic and Time.