Sarah Pundt wanted to tell a story – or stories, rather.

The Salem United Church of Christ Director of Christian Education sought to highlight the experiences of people like Chaplain Clementina M. Chery, of Honduras; Gladys Jimah, of Ghana; and Mary Kakesa and her family, of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – all immigrants or refugees who came to the U.S. seeking a better life.

Their portraits, among many others, adorned Salem UCC’s walls in a photo exhibit Sunday, Jan. 12, for people to make connections with. Pundt said that was the purpose of the exhibit, titled “Building Bridges: Portraits of Immigrants and Refugees.”

The public can view the exhibit at UCC until Sunday, Feb. 2.

To kick off the exhibit, Plymouth United Church of Christ from Madison presented on its trip to the U.S. southern border, shedding light on the conditions Mexican immigrants endure when they make the risky trek across the border. Madison’s Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ was also there to speak about its position as a sanctuary church, meaning they are open to those seeking refuge in this country.

Around 35-40 visitors attended the presentation.

With a congregation that’s predominantly white, representative of the greater City of Verona, Pundt said it was important to host the event to start a conversation about how we are all immigrants and how similar we truly are, no matter the color of our skin.

She said this is the first exhibit of its kind at Salem UCC, and she hopes to have more in the coming years that encompass more topics including gender, sex and mental health.

Pundt discovered the exhibits sponsor, the Family Diversity Project, after she asked her board what they would like to see in her Sunday class this year. One congregation member pointed the class to a book titled, “Waking Up White,” a nonfiction story about white privilege.

Being struck by that book, Pundt said she attended the church’s national conference where she found the project, which features exhibits similar to “Building Bridges” that use stories as a means of educating others about hard hitting topics.

“(The immigrants and refugees) are just people,” Pundt said. “We are so busy labeling each other that we are not listening to each other.”

Next to each portrait is a map pinpointing where each person is from and a few paragraphs describing their journeys into the U.S. Community and congregation members stopped to carefully scrutinize each photo – likely in an attempt to relate to the human being inside the frame.

The exhibit included a world map where visitors could point out where their own ancestors originated before coming to the U.S.

According to Kakesa’s portrait description, she came to the U.S. when she was 27 because her aunt sponsored her. She said her aunt was lonely and wanted more of her family around her. Kakesa said she now lives and works here with her three children, but achieving immigrant status was difficult. She said she is not happy with how our country treats its newcomers – “pushing people out of the U.S. is not the right way to handle things.”

Chery came to the U.S. under her mother’s care to seek a better life when she was merely age 10. But Chery did not become a citizen of her own volition – rather, her son Louis was killed in the crossfire of a shooting in 1993 and decided she needed to become a citizen.

“I realized that if I wanted to make a long-lasting impact, I needed to vote,” her description reads.

She said she now uses her vote to ensure that she as a Black Latina immigrant has power to affect change in her son’s name.

Jimah decided to immigrate to the U.S. to pursue an education, according to her portrait description. She said naturalization was an intimidating process, but now is studying for her Bachelor’s in nursing while working two jobs. She has two girls, who she hopes to take to Ghana someday so they can learn about their culture.

But Jimah’s portrait description reads that she has encountered racism in her new home, making her wonder if she and her girls “truly belong here.”

“I always tell my girls to never let anyone put them down and stand up for themselves and for what they believe in,” Jimah’s description reads. “Folks should welcome immigrants, for the beauty if this world lies in the diversity of its people.”

Email Emilie Heidemann at emilie.heidemann@wcinet.com or follow her on Twitter at @HeidemannEmilie.