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Over 1,100 Congregations Have Agreed to Provide Sanctuary to Migrants

Places of worship are harboring families facing deportation, defying the law but fulfilling a moral imperative.

Migrants from Guatemala rest near the altar at the El Calvario Methodist Church on June 3, 2019, in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The church is housing migrants who are seeking asylum after being released by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

It’s a hot, humid Wednesday in July but the doors of Manhattan’s Holyrood Episcopal Church are wide open. A rainbow flag flies high above the entryway and a table covered with bilingual pro-immigrant leaflets greets all who enter. The leaflets explain the rights of immigrants, outline important precautions for immigrants to take, and offer tips to allies who want to help stop Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids.

But the church has also done much more than this, providing in-church sanctuary — a home inside the building — to two families facing deportation. Although this is illegal, Father Luis Barrios, the head of Holyrood’s Sanctuary Ministry, notes on the church’s website that offering sanctuary is a moral imperative: “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind honors God.”

Rev. Nathan Empsall, campaign director of Faithful America, a 165,000-member online emergency network of Christians who oppose Trump’s immigration policies, calls this “social justice evangelism.”

It’s a position, he says, that is deeply rooted in Gospel. Leviticus 19:34 states that “the foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native born.” Likewise, Mark 12:30-31 advises us that there is no commandment greater than loving our neighbors. Exodus 22:21 emphasizes the point further: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Then there’s Deuteronomy 10:19, “You shall love the immigrant.”

Indeed, as the right wing’s anti-immigrant fervor gains steam, entire denominations and individual congregations — Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Quaker — have been mobilizing to support immigrants in a variety of ways, from protesting at the border and at local ICE offices, to visiting detention camps in witness to the atrocities unfolding there, to offering physical sanctuary and protection to those at risk of deportation. Religious activists have also signed countless petitions, written letters and visited lawmakers, attempted to get law enforcers to sever ties with ICE, and helped the newly arrived acclimate to U.S. life.

Rev. Paul Eknes-Tucker, senior pastor at the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Birmingham, Alabama, says the Trump administration’s brutality has prompted a renewed religious resistance to government immigration policies. Shortly after the August 7 raid on Koch Foods in Mississippi, he reports, a coalition of nearly 50 Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations came together to offer sanctuary to those targeted by ICE in Alabama’s Jefferson County. “We resolved to take a stand against policies that dehumanize our immigrant siblings,” he said.

Melissa Chandler, clinic coordinator at New York City’s New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC), knows firsthand how essential this support can be. Chandler came to New York from Venezuela in April 2018, on a tourist visa. She later applied for asylum, citing her role in organizing protests against President Nicolás Maduro. Chandler reports that she got involved in the anti-Maduro movement because of limited economic opportunities and political suppression in her home country, but after the Venezuelan National Guard killed more than 100 protesters in July 2017, she became fearful. “My brother was already in the U.S. and soon after I arrived, he brought me to the New Sanctuary Coalition at Judson Memorial Church. There, the faith leaders and other staff were always supportive. They came with me to every appointment until I got asylum in December,” Chandler said. “After that, I volunteered and then got hired by the NSC in January 2019.”

Evangelical Lutherans Become a Sanctuary Body

Religious resistance to Trump’s immigration policies got a boost in July, when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA) — a denomination with 4 million members in congregations located throughout the U.S., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands — became the first “sanctuary church body” for undocumented people.

Mary Campbell, program director for ELCA’s Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities program, says the church began to organize around sanctuary in 2016.

“We’ve been called to welcome the stranger and to provide radical hospitality to vulnerable children of God,” Campbell tells Truthout. “We now have three congregations with people in sanctuary,” she says, living in church buildings and pressing ICE to rescind deportation orders and grant them asylum. ELCA members have also held prayer vigils at ICE offices and have helped immigrants find legal assistance and other concrete help.

But what, exactly, is radical hospitality? The concept, explains Rev. Alison Harrington of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, had led her congregation — located one hour from Nogales, Mexico — to give food, clothes and shelter to asylum seekers who’ve been apprehended at the border. “People usually come through the desert in groups and once they’re put into custody, they typically request asylum,” she says. If they have a sponsor — typically a family member with whom they can live while their asylum application is pending — they’re released to Catholic Community Services in Tucson and then brought to a monastery that is no longer in use. This is where they get a medical evaluation and can shower, eat, get clean clothes and sleep. “The role of my congregants and I, all of us volunteers, is to stay with the new arrivals until they’re put on a bus or plane to their sponsor’s home,” Harrington tells Truthout. “We buy the food, do the cooking and serving, do intake, translate and arrange transportation for each person. We also raise the money to pay for this short-term hospitality.”

Harrington notes that some of her congregants have actively participated in immigration work since the 1980s when Southside became the first congregation to designate itself a “sanctuary congregation” in the U.S. In addition to hospitality work, many Southside parishioners are simultaneously working to push the county jail to sever its ties with ICE, ending a practice in which law enforcers automatically contact ICE agents when an undocumented person is brought in.

Offering Sanctuary

In addition to radical hospitality, more than 1,100 congregations in the U.S. have agreed to provide sanctuary — a safe space, as well as food, clothing and human contact with the outside world — to those at risk of deportation.

It’s a decision that neither congregations nor at-risk immigrants take lightly.

Myrna Orozco-Gallos, organizing coordinator of Church World Service (CWS), oversees nationwide sanctuary efforts and emphasizes that “sanctuary is a pretty heavy lift.”

As of July, she says, 45 people in eight states were in sanctuary. “It’s always hard. Some folks who are in sanctuary are separated from their children. The kids come to visit after school and on weekends, but it’s difficult. One Missouri woman was in sanctuary three hours away from where her family lived and had to decide whether it was better to uproot everyone so they could be closer or keep her kids in the same school they’d been attending,” she says. “This is family separation, not at the border, but right here in the U.S.”

Sanctuary also takes serious coordination and planning, Orozco-Gallos adds. Not only do congregants have to fundraise, buy food, do laundry, ferry kids between the sanctuary and their schools, and arrange legal consultations, many congregations also coordinate volunteer rotations to ensure that someone stays in the space 24/7 in case ICE shows up.

“The person in sanctuary has to be really strong — even stoic — but even so, not being able to go outside and live a normal life takes a toll,” Orozco-Gallos said. “I host a weekly video call so that people in sanctuary can speak to one another and be reminded that they’re not alone, but they still get sad and lonely. This impacts their mental health. We have counselors come in to offer support, but it’s rough. Kids who live in the congregation with their parent miss a lot of school activities; those who live elsewhere miss their parent. We try to coordinate with other family members, but it’s safe to say, everyone suffers.”

Alternative to Long-Term Sanctuary

In addition to long-term sanctuary, Orozco-Gallos says that CWS has increasingly encouraged congregations to open up as short-term places of respite, especially during raids. “People can use these sites as central organizing hubs to find family members and feel safe,” she says, since at least so far, religious institutions, deemed “sensitive locations” by Homeland Security, have not been violated by ICE.

The call to serve as either a long- or short-term sanctuary has resonated with many synagogues, says Rabbi Salem Pearce, director of organizing at T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. “For many Jews, our families have had the experience of being refugees and asylum seekers. It’s in our recent memory and is also part of our mythic history,” Pearce told Truthout. “In addition, a key Jewish value is loving the immigrant as oneself. It’s mentioned repeatedly in the Torah.”

This value, Pearce continues, led to more than 50 #CloseTheCamps protests on Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning to commemorate the destruction of both Solomon’s Temple by the neo-Babylonian empire in 587 BCE and the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. What’s more, the mistreatment of immigrants has prompted many progressive Jews to address racism within Jewish institutions and within society more broadly. “We’re looking at ways we’ve propped up white supremacy and are working to make Jews of color, who have historically been excluded, feel welcome,” Pearce says.

Faithful America’s Rev. Nathan Empsall says that his organization is also addressing wider social concerns, from opposing the death penalty to addressing “misuse of the Christian faith.” The group, which Empsall says is patterned after MoveOn, has petitioned mainstream media outlets to demand that it broaden its list of spokespeople of faith to include those who oppose Trump’s policies. Faithful America is also targeting Rev. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and president of Family Talk, for his recent false, dangerous and damaging characterization of migrants incarcerated at the border as “violent” people whose “numbers will soon overwhelm our culture as we have known it and it could bankrupt the nation.”

“Dobson’s writings are used as a reference by many Christians,” Empsall says. “Bible Gateway, a company owned by HarperCollins, publishes three devotionals by Dobson every day. We’ve gathered more than 13,000 signatures asking HarperCollins to drop Dobson and cut ties to Focus on the Family. We have to stop the hijacking of the gospel by the religious right and show that Christianity still welcomes the stranger.”

As Manhattan’s Holyrood Church says in its mission statement, “A sanctuary church is a liberating place where those who congregate share spiritual, moral, emotional, psychological, social, cultural, financial, material, political and legal support and protection.”

It’s obviously a gargantuan mission, an agenda that envisions a world in which care and compassion override greed, division and hate-mongering. But in the age of Trump, we need to pursue such a goal more than ever.

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