by Alejandro Alfonso

Photos by Todd Drake

David Fraccaro turns strangers into neighbors

Days after 130 people were killed in the Paris terror attacks, as refugees and immigrants in the United States became the targets of vituperative political action and rhetoric, hundreds of refugees and immigrants gathered at First Presbyterian Church on Greene Street in downtown Greensboro for a Thanksgiving potluck dinner hosted by Faith Action International House (FAIH) and its executive director David Fraccaro.

News vans dotted the street curb as correspondents rehearsed lines under spotlights on the sidewalk. No one walking into the banquet hall passed through a metal detector. Some carried covered crock pots. The young brunette near the entrance, behind a table carrying brochures of information about the screening process for Syrian refugees entering the U.S., did not vet anyone walking into the banquet. There was no overt police presence.

The pots revealed potato and pea-filled samosas, boiled yucca with garlic, roasted pork, spiced chicken; a smorgasbord of international ethnic dishes were placed on tables at one end of the hall. Local ministers and leaders of community organizations were stepping up to a podium microphone on the other side of the room, addressing the news media, and U.S. Representative Mark Walker, (NC-06), who took a stoic stance by the entrance, or exit, with his hands clasped at his waist.

“Welcome Refugees and Immigrants,” read the hand-written banner held onstage. Welcoming Syrian refugees is in direct opposition to the stance taken by Congressman Walker and other state Republican representatives in the wake of recent terror attacks. “Given this development we have serious concerns about the ongoing resettlement of Syrian refugees to the communities we represent across North Carolina— calling for the Obama Administration to immediately cease sending Syrian refugees to our state,” they said in a joint statement.

Two days later, Walker voted to pass the American SAFE Act (H.R. 4038), which prevents Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the U.S. “without prior unanimous security clearance from top security officials,” according to a press release on his website. The vote took place a few days before the multicultural potluck dinner in late November.

It’s not the first time state lawmakers seemingly target Fraccaro’s work at FAIH and their Triad community partners in the name of safety and security. In October, Governor Pat McCrory signed NC House Bill 318, or the “Protect North Carolina Workers Act,” which would have undercut one of FAIH’s signature programs, the Faith Action ID initiative. The Faith Action IDs, available to anyone who is unable to obtain a state-issued ID, would have been outlawed by HB 318, but police chiefs in Greensboro and Burlington, who have supported the program, spearheaded an effort to amend the bill. The amendment allows law enforcement to accept the Faith Action ID if someone has no other identification.

Governor McCrory choosing to sign the bill in the office of Guilford County Sheriff B.J. Barnes, who has been critical of illegal immigrants, sent a clear message to immigrant activists in the Triad, Fraccaro said. The Faith Action ID program and the potluck dinner are what Fraccaro calls “Strangers to Neighbors dialogues.” Since taking the helm at FAIH roughly five years ago, Fraccaro has built relationships with local law enforcement and churches with large immigrant congregations to combat isolation and deportation of refugees and new immigrant communities.

The gauntlet thrown down by the McCrory administration and Republican state lawmakers has not tempered the Faith Action ID program or efforts by Fraccaro to integrate immigrant populations in the Triad. The day McCrory signed the bill, Fraccaro, and his activist partners, held an opposing press conference at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. The vote against Syrian immigrants turned the annual FAIH potluck Thanksgiving into a rally to support the resettlement of Middle East immigrants in North Carolina. And, as more city and county law enforcement agencies adopt the Faith Action ID program, Fraccaro is having more success giving police an excuse not to imprison immigrants, than state lawmakers are having giving police a reason for locking them up.

“Look around the room,” Fraccaro tells those attending the potluck dinner when he steps to the podium. “We don’t get together like this very often. It’s remarkable. Let’s be the community the world so badly needs to see.”

People began queuing up at 5 a.m., outside an old bingo hall tucked into the corner of Southeast Plaza Shopping Center in Winston-Salem, for the first Faith Action ID drive in Forsyth County, on Friday, January 8, even though the doors would not open until 9 a.m., according to Chaplain Glenn G. Davis, of the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office. About a month earlier, Davis, representatives from the Winston-Salem Police Department, Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, local church ministers, and volunteers met at the same dilapidated bingo hall for a “training session” with Fraccaro in anticipation of the drive. The initiative in Forsyth County is unique for having the support of both the Sheriff’s department and Winston-Salem police department.

The meeting in early December started with Fraccaro’s arrival, as law enforcement officials, church representatives, and volunteers followed his lead, sitting around tables near a wall lit up by a projector. Right at the start, as everyone is settling into their seats, Fraccaro addresses the dynamic he sees forming among the groups. There is a brown support beam in the space between aligned tables to the right of where the projector is set up. Police and deputies have taken seats at tables to the right of the beam. The church ministers and volunteers are sitting at tables to the left of the beam.

Fraccaro, making a back-and-forth motion with his closed hands, leaning toward law enforcement’s side of the beam, tells everyone these seating arrangements are not “going to work.” He doesn’t ask anyone get up and move, but encourages them to leave the comfort of their seats to reach across the aisle, “risk stepping outside your bubble,” Fraccaro said, a phrase he uses often. “You’re a team,” he said, warning any division within the team can hurt its perception in the community. “It’s important that you are already integrated (at the ID drive) in January, because if you are not, the community will notice.”

“I apologize if I’m using a very theatrical voice, but I’m trying to project to everyone in the room,” the former actor turned ordained minister said. He then asks for everyone to introduce themselves individually with one or two sentences. One woman, whose words are translated from Spanish to English, takes time expressing herself to the police officers. Facing the police across the aisle she talks about being afraid to interact with them. She fears, because of her immigration status, she could be separated from her children.

“Some of the reason people want to speak a little more is because they haven’t been able to speak like this to law enforcement directly,” Fraccaro said, when she finishes. He asks again to keep introductions to one or two sentences. But the next person to speak also takes the opportunity to tell her story with more than a few sentences, turning to face the police and deputies. Fraccaro does not interrupt. After all, giving new immigrants, illegal or not, more confidence to dialogue with local law enforcement is the fundamental role of the program.

Instead of discouraging the talk, Fraccaro explains to police what they are witnessing happens at the actual drive when people are issued new IDs. “When they have this ID, they have more sense of community,” he said. “And, you’ll see tears sometimes because they are finally able to talk to law enforcement, and that means so much.” Since the program’s inception in 2013, FAIH has issued more than 3,000 ID cards to individuals in more than 50 cities throughout North Carolina and Virginia, according to Fraccaro.

Charlotte and Cincinnati, Ohio, are now exploring similar programs. The Faith Action IDs cost ten dollars, which covers the cost of production, Fraccaro said. The IDs expire in one year.

Fraccaro explains the ID is not a “getout-of-jail-free card.” The text of HB 318 is flashed on the wall by the projector, as part of Fraccaro’s presentation. Forsyth County Attorney Lonnie Albright chimes in from the right side of the beam to confirm Fraccaro’s interpretation of the law. Local law enforcement officers can accept the ID as a last resort if no other form of identification is available. Getting a Faith Action ID requires another form of picture ID, a passport, driver’s license or foreignnID card. Bank statements, utility bills and rental agreements are accepted to show proof of residency.

The Forsyth County drive this month added more than 500 people with Faith Action IDs in the community, Chaplain Davis said. Fraccaro credits Davis for bringing the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office’s support to the ID drive. In other Triad counties, namely Guilford and Alamance, the sheriffs are not endorsing the program. Forsyth is the first county where the program is being vocally supported by both the sheriff and police departments.

Photo by Jeff Sykes

“Yesterday’s event now being behind us, I can say it was a great success,” Davis said. “The sheriff himself came to speak.”

The participation in these “Stranger to Neighbor” initiatives will “build trust” and immigrants will be “less afraid” to contact authorities, Davis said. “Law enforcement has a moral obligation to protect and serve,” the people in the community no matter their immigration status, he said. The success of the Faith Action ID program in Greensboro, where it was developed and pioneered by FAIH and Greensboro police, gave the FCSO the confidence to bring the program to Forsyth County, Davis added.

Fraccaro approached the Greensboro Police Department shortly after taking over at FAIH to develop a way to reach the underserved immigrant communities in the city, said Greensboro Police Captain Mike Richey, commander of the criminal investigation division. The Faith Action ID program originated from those dialogues. Greensboro police detectives were able to close two human-trafficking cases and numerous, severe, domestic violence and abuse cases as a direct result of the initial Faith Action ID drives, according to Richey.

The IDs also solved a manpower issue for police. A routine police encounter that would take 20 minutes and end in a citation, can become a two-hour ordeal, if the subject doesn’t have valid identification. Accepting Faith Action ID cards allows patrol officers to “make more contacts in the community,” Richey said.

“Immigration is not our purview, taking care of all the people in our community is,” he said.

Guilford County Sheriff B.J. Barnes thinks the Faith Action IDs give illegal immigrants a false sense of security. He said the $10 charge may be some kind of moneymaking scheme and that he would rather see the federal government fix the immigration system, so people have a clearer path to citizenship.

“They should never have a problem reporting something to us, unless you’ve committed a crime I can charge you with,” Barnes said. “(The federal government) should be finding some way to make them legal, bad behavior is coming here illegally. If this is just to make them feel good – which I don’t think it does – but if you really want to do that, why are you charging them ten dollars? Is this a money-making thing?” Barnes also questions the reliability of information on the IDs. There is too much opportunity for fraud, he said, “The ID has no basis, it has no background, nothing that is tracked. It has no investigative value. They don’t have information of value.” Despite his criticism of the initiative and the process, Barnes does concede the Faith Action IDs can give his deputies a place to start if they encounter someone with no other ID. “As it stands, it is not in violation of HB 318. The question is, who is going to accept it,” Barnes said. “If this is the only ID you have, we’ll use it as a starting point.”

There is a flower pot on the shelf of the conference room at Faith Action International House made from woven, colored, paper. Turn it over, the bottom reveals it was, at least partially, made from Ramen Noodle packages. Rotate it to read the blue lettering weaving through its side and it spells out David. The pot is a gift Fraccaro received from a Buddhist woman held in an immigration detention center.

Before becoming an ordained minister and executive director at FAIH, Fraccaro was the son of a minister, and a struggling actor in New York City, from a small town on the Indiana/Kentucky border. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Fraccaro was on the way to an audition. After witnessing the airplanes crash into the World Trade Center towers, killing more than 3,000 people, he never made it to the audition.

One Sunday in church, as anger towards Muslims and immigrants in general began to permeate the nation’s dialogue and the conversations of Fraccaro and his friends, he listened as the preacher recited the parable of the Good Samaritan. A Jewish traveler is robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the road to Jericho. He is passed by a priest and then later a Levite; both avoid the distressed man. Then, a Samaritan on the road helps the injured man, takes him to shelter, and pays his bills. The story is shocking for its time because Samaritans and Jews hated each other. Jesus uses the parable to identify the neighbor, as when God commands “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Struck by the context of the parable in his own life, Fraccaro volunteered through the church to visit with immigrants at a detention center. He was appalled by the conditions and treatment of people who were fleeing religious persecution and war-torn countries seeking asylum in the United States, he said. The experience convinced Fraccaro to quit acting to become an ordained minister and activist for immigrant rights. The paper flower pot is evidence something beautiful and delicate can come from the worst human conditions, according to Fraccaro. He calls the Buddhist immigrant woman locked in a cage as the reason he reclaimed his Christian identity.

“For something that beautiful, and delicate, to come out of that kind of hell— and it has my name on it,” Fraccaro said.

The “Stranger to Neighbor” ethic permeates the work at FAIH since Fraccaro’s arrival at the non-profit organization, which offers legal help, language classes, and job training to new immigrant populations throughout the Triad. With photographs of immigrants from different countries playing soccer and ministers of different faiths speaking together at a press conference, the walls at Faith Action International House are covered with images to reinforce their mission. “Pictures and art are important to us,” Fraccaro said.

“I know that David has tried to not fall into the model of the combative activist leader,” wrote Todd Drake, who worked as a graphic designer and photographer with FAIH for three years, in an email. “For example, working with allies inside the Greensboro Police Department rather than ‘shaming and blaming’ them.”

“I have at times found his dedication to this inclusivity comical. For example, in designing posters for the ‘Unity Walk’ that FAIH puts on each year,” Drake wrote. “David was very careful to look at each character I drew and ask me to make some of them less ‘hipster-ish and activist’ looking. ‘I want some men in suits, older folk, and everyday school-teacher types in the crowd,’ he would say.”

Drake added, “David is well aware of his white, male, privilege and always looks for ways to empower others and make sure that, while he is working as an ally for marginalized communities, he does not try to be their voice, rather he takes a lot of time to enlist members of those communities and quietly helps them develop their own powerful voice.”

Addy Jeffrey, another Greensboro community activist, echoes the sentiments made by others about Fraccaro. Jeffrey is the daughter of Cuban immigrants. She spoke at the FAIH potluck Thanksgiving, pointing out her immigrant parents at the dinner, and voicing support for Syrian and Middle Eastern refugees coming to the U.S. Jeffrey served on the committee formed by the FAIH board of trustees to hire an executive director.

“They (the board of directors) asked a few community leaders to help with the transition, they had some big shoes to fill and wanted to make sure they got it right,” she said. “What sealed the deal for me, after looking at his resume, I went online and found a YouTube video about his work in the detention centers in New York City.”

“The notion that we can do better— I really saw that he gets it. I felt, personally, that this was the person, thankfully the others were thinking along the same lines. It was obvious he was really passionate and understood activism from a grassroots level. He has been a wonderful leader.” !