St. John the Divine hosts vigil for unhoused and asylum-seekers in New York as migrant crisis worsens

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Oct 25, 2023

The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City hosted an outdoor public prayer vigil on Oct. 25, 2023, for unhoused people, including asylum-seekers and migrants. Photo: August Kissel

[Episcopal News Service] New York City is facing a humanitarian crisis as more than 130,000 migrants have arrived since spring 2022. The city is legally obligated to give beds to anyone in need; however, migrants are housed alongside the city’s homeless, and its shelters are overcapacity.

“The city has been hollowing out our shelter and homeless service systems for decades and hoping that New Yorkers wouldn’t notice that the care of those most vulnerable has really suffered,” said Eva Suarez, canon for community engagement at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. “Now that we are needing those systems to step up at this time of crisis, the city’s not able to.”

In response to the worsening migrant and housing crises, St. John the Divine hosted an outdoor public prayer vigil Oct. 25 for “all unhoused in our city,” including asylum-seekers and migrants. More than 60 representatives from faith groups, churches and nonprofit organizations attended the vigil, according to Isadora Wilkenfeld, the cathedral’s communications director.

New York Bishop Andrew Dietsche, Bishop Coadjutor Matthew Heyd, Bishop Suffragan Allen Shin and retired Suffragan Bishop Catherine Roskam spoke at the vigil. Faith leaders representing other religions, including Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, also spoke.

“The idea was that people who might not have felt comfortable taking a political stance could be welcome at a vigil where we talk about this issue from an ethical angle,” Suarez said.

The vigil event was a collaboration between St. John the Divine and the Episcopal Diocese of New York, as well as the newly formed New York Shelter for All in Need Equally coalition, a group of nearly two dozen advocates and religious leaders dedicated to preserving the city’s right-to-shelter law.

The Very Rev. Patrick Malloy, dean of St. John the Divine, told Episcopal News Service that the cathedral has a “long history of hosting public events and for taking stands about moral issues.”

“The cathedral wishes to publicly assert the values of the visible church of our diocese, so we consider this to be a real opportunity for us to speak out on behalf of the health and welfare of unhoused people,” he said. “We also use this opportunity to speak out on behalf of upholding legislation that preserves the health of our city overall.”

A year ago, New York Mayor Eric Adams declared a state of emergency in response to the influx of migrants, calling for emergency federal and state assistance. In August, he said it will cost the city $12 billion over three years to house and care for the migrants. Earlier this month, Adams traveled to Mexico, Ecuador and Colombia in part to discourage further immigration. Most migrants arriving in New York are coming from Latin America.

Additionally, Adams and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul have asked a judge to temporarily remove the city’s right-to-shelter law, drawing protests from local activists and religious leaders. New York’s right-to-shelter law has been in effect since 1981, following a class action lawsuit brought by the Coalition for the Homeless.

Suarez told ENS that Adams’ proposal to remove the right-to-shelter law — even temporarily — is ironic because of New York’s well-known history with welcoming migrants, citing Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” poem, which is cast onto a plaque in the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal as an immigration symbol.

“The mayor’s answer is to do away with the right to shelter instead of trying to double down on our commitment to caring for those who need — ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’ etc.,” she said. “We believe as Episcopalians in the dignity of every human being, and that can’t be our answer, to pull up the drawbridge behind us and hope everyone else figures it out.”

Like Washington, D.C., Chicago, Illinois, and others, New York attracts migrants because it’s a designated sanctuary city, meaning it has passed laws that protect undocumented migrants from deportation and prosecution by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement despite federal law prohibiting illegal immigration. New York designated itself a sanctuary city in 1989 and reaffirmed its status in 2017.

The vigil concluded with local interfaith leaders and asylum-seeker advocates sharing opportunities to “help welcome and protect new arrivals” to New York.

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at