Community NEWS & Perspectives from Faith Leaders

Interfaith Leadership Alliance raising funds to provide year-round shelter, protection to women and children

Posted: Sunday, April 24, 2016 11:15 pm | Updated: 12:03 pm, Mon Apr 25, 2016.

By Anne Constable
The New Mexican

After the Interfaith Community Shelter closed for the season just over a year ago, Executive Director Joe Jordan-Berenis said, two women who had stayed there during the winter months were badly beaten by their partners. One woman died of a drug overdose in a Cerrillos Road motel.

Another woman camped out behind the site of the new Krispy Kreme doughnut store, where she eventually was arrested.

Jordan-Berenis recalled talking with her in his office a week before the shelter closed. Something she said has stayed with him all year long: The most powerless men in the world are homeless men. And the only people they have power over is homeless women.

“These women are the most vulnerable,” Jordan-Berenis said, “and they really need protection and a safe place to be.”

Now, as the October-to-May shelter prepares to close again, the Interfaith Leadership Alliance has begun raising funds to keep the facility, in the old Pete’s Pets building on Cerrillos Road, open year-round for women and children. The group is hoping the city will be a partner in its proposed Women’s Summer Safe Haven, an $80,000 project, but it is still waiting for a signal from city officials.

In the meantime, the shelter board has scheduled a vote Thursday on whether to go ahead with the project.

Guy Gronquist, chairman of the shelter board, said homeless women have few options when the winter shelter closes. Some band together for safety, he said. Others partner up with a homeless man, which is sometimes dangerous. A third option is to seek housing at another women’s shelter in the community, such as St. Elizabeth Shelter’s Casa Familia program or the Esperanza Shelter for Battered Families. But sometimes there isn’t enough room. And the St. Elizabeth program — which requires guests to be sober — is off-limits to many people at the interfaith shelter, who often are struggling with addictions and mental health problems.

The Interfaith Leadership Alliance, which helped start the shelter, is asking everyone in its member congregations to contribute $5 each to raise $10,000 toward the cost of the Summer Safe Haven. The alliance also has received some sizable private donations and is asking the city of Santa Fe, now in budget talks, for $25,000.

Under its new president, Neil Amswych, a British astrophysicist and the rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom, the alliance is working to be more pro-active. The organization was founded in 2007 to address social needs in Santa Fe, and it helped get the Interfaith Community Shelter off the ground.

In addition to the seasonal overnight shelter, the organization also mentors families transitioning from homelessness to self-sufficiency, and it hosts resource days when homeless men and women can receive health care, employment assistance, veterans services and legal aid. Lunches are provided at the shelter five days a week.

Amswych, who also serves on the shelter board, is optimistic about the alliance’s new effort to house women and children year-round.

He is almost certain that the alliance’s congregations will be able to raise $10,000 in the next month to get the Summer Safe Haven started, he said. “For me, I think this is a huge thing. It is really exciting for me to see the interfaith community come together to say this is important to all of us and to act on it.”

During the shelter’s regular season last year, Jordan-Berenis said, it served 254 women. Neither he nor Gronquist is certain how many homeless women would take advantage of a summer shelter. Still, he said, they need the option.

“This is uncharted territory,” Gronquist said.

Initially, it will be pretty bare bones, he said. The program will begin with three paid overnight staffers, and guests will be served a simple sack supper. The volunteers who work at the seasonal shelter, checking in guests and preparing hot meals, are pretty burned out by May, Gronquist said, so they won’t be expected to help run the Summer Safe Haven.

On a new front, the Interfaith Leadership Alliance is responding to inquiries from people in the city’s faith communities about how they can help Syrian refugees. With the U.S. set to increase the number of refugees it allows in the country, Amswych said, Santa Fe is being considered as a possible refugee relocation site not only for Syrians, but also for Afghans, Congolese, Iraqis and people of other war-torn nations.

The talks began after the body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy, washed up on a beach. He had drowned, along with his brother and mother, after their boat sank while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Amswych told his congregation Temple Beth Shalom, in so many words, “This is our fault. We knew of the refugee crisis that was building for years, and we’ve done nothing.”

If Santa Fe is approved for the relocation program, Amswych said, he hopes the alliance will be able to help refugees find homes and jobs.

“It could be a very concrete chance to put our words into action,” he said. “… This is our duty. This is what we do. Being religious is not just about talking about God but living out a sense of divinity in all human beings.”

Contact Anne Constable at 505-986-3022 or

Letters to the editor

The Santa Fe New Mexican, January 26, 2016.

Since we hope that people would one day stop misusing religion to justify discrimination, we are dismayed to learn of the presentation of House Bill 55 in this legislative session (“Mayor: Religion bill runs counter to King’s dream,” Jan. 19). The bill would grant personhood to companies and then allow them and their employees to discriminate against individuals on religious grounds. For example, a pharmacist could deny emergency contraception to a rape victim, or a counselor could deny support to a teenager struggling with their sexuality — thereby increasing their suicide risk — all due to personal religious disapproval.

We represent diverse religious traditions that affirm the worth of every individual and oppose the misuse of religion to discriminate. While we cherish the right to personal religious expression, we strongly oppose extending the same privilege to corporations, especially when that extension is being sought to curtail the rights of others. We urge all readers to go to to sign the petition opposing this misguided bill.

Rabbi Neil Amswych

Rabbi, Temple Beth Shalom, President, Interfaith Leadership Alliance

Rev. Harry Eberts

Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Vice president, Interfaith Leadership Alliance

‘Religious freedom’ measure assailed as ‘hateful’

By Deborah Baker / Journal Staff Writer

Published: Wednesday, January 20th, 2016 at 2:43pm

Santa Fe County Commissioner Liz Stefanics, third from left, and her spouse Linda Siegle, a member of the Santa Fe Community College Governing Board, attended a rally against HB 55, a bill that would allow businesses to serve or not serve based on religious beliefs.

SANTA FE – Legislation allowing businesses to refuse to serve gay and transgender people was denounced during a news conference Wednesday as blatant discrimination masquerading as religious freedom – a claim disputed by its sponsors.

House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, called the bill introduced by two House Republicans “hateful” and “the last gasps of the failing opposition” to equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

“To make it all the worse, it is couched in religious protection, which it simply is not,” the lawmaker told the news conference at the Capitol.

House Bill 55, introduced by Reps. David Gallegos of Eunice and Nora Espinoza of Roswell, makes changes to the state’s Human Rights Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

It effectively allows businesses to decide whom to serve based on “sincerely held religious belief” – although refusing service on the basis of race, age, religion, national origin, sex and other considerations would still not be allowed.

It appears aimed at undoing the 2013 state Supreme Court decision that an Albuquerque commercial photography business violated the state’s anti-discrimination law by refusing to take pictures of a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review that decision.

Espinoza claimed the legislation “is not about gay and lesbians at all.”

She said, for example, that if she were in business as a baker she should be able to refuse to put a satanic symbol on a cake because “it’s against my belief.”

“It’s protecting us all,” she told the Journal .

“You can’t force me to actually be part of celebrating something I do not agree with. … This is about respecting each other’s belief, period,” she said.

Espinoza also insisted the legislation would not allow businesses to refuse “normal services” to anyone. But critics said that’s exactly what the broad wording of the legislation would authorize.

Susanne Koestner of Albuquerque reminded the gathering that in 2012 she was refused a refill on a birth control prescription by a Walgreens pharmacist who said she would have to wait a day, for another pharmacist, because dispensing birth control was against his religious beliefs.

After discussions involving the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, the drugstore chain said it would ensure that individual pharmacists’ personal religious beliefs would not prevent customers from filling such prescriptions.

“These religious exemption laws are ripe for abuse,” Koestner told the crowd.

Rabbi Neil Amswych of Temple Beth Shalom, president of the Interfaith Leadership Alliance of Santa Fe, said the legislation would result in an “extremely problematic legal and social minefield.”

“This is not religious freedom, but religious intolerance in sheep’s clothing,” he told the news conference.

The Legislature’s 30-day sessions are largely restricted to budget and tax matters, constitutional changes and whatever else the governor OKs. It’s not clear whether the bill would get the go-ahead from the governor; a spokesman in her office said that hadn’t been determined.

But critics of the bill said that even if it’s never considered this year by a legislative committee, it’s important to stand up to such proposals.

“Don’t let legislation like this take any kind of foothold. … Hold your leaders accountable,” said Paul Sanchez-Hindi, executive director of the New Mexico Cancer Center in Albuquerque.

Letters to the editor

Santa Fe New Mexican, December 15, 2015. 

As president and vice president, respectively, of the Interfaith Leadership Alliance, we fully support The New Mexican editorial (“Call out Trump, or endorse hatred,” Our View, Dec. 10). We draw on Santa Fe’s historical tradition of being welcoming to diverse religious perspectives. We recognize our common humanity and celebrate religious diversity for all. As people of faith, we cherish the connection with our Muslim brothers and sisters, and any attack on them — physical or verbal — is an attack on us.

The Rev. Gail Marriner, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Fe

Rabbi Neil Amswych, Temple Beth Shalom, Santa Fe