As the ‘sanctuary church’ movement gains steam, many congregations are exploring a more vigorous theology of resistance, where believers hold services in the homes of immigrants about to be deported.
MARCH 17, 2017 NEW YORK—When the early morning distress call came, it took about 20 minutes for Peter Pedemonti and a group of some 70 members of a consortium of Philadelphia faith communities to gather downtown at the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement office to protest and pray.
An undocumented immigrant had called their network’s hotline as ICE agents arrived at his home to take him into custody. “It was intense,” recalls Mr. Pedemonti, the co-founder and director of New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia. “You could hear yelling, ‘Open the door! Open the door!’ and the man on the end got increasingly panicked, and then the line went dead before he had a chance to give us his address.”
Pedemonti is part of a widespread revival of “sanctuary churches,” a movement of mostly left-leaning faith communities that first coalesced in the 1980s. Now, as then, the US is tightening its borders, so churches are offering protection and even housing to Central Americans fleeing violence in their home countries.
Many congregations are also exploring a more vigorous theology of resistance, both in the spirit of recent street protest movements and a conviction that their faith compels them to heed the biblical mandate to love their neighbors and welcome the stranger in the land, Pedemonti says. They call it “sanctuary in the streets” – a strategy based on ICE guidelines, where agents generally refrain from enforcement actions at “sensitive locations,” such as schools, hospitals, and places of worship.
“If ICE comes to your house, there’s no way you can leave to find sanctuary in one of our congregations,” says Pedemonti. “So the idea came: How do we bring the congregation to the house?”
Whenever they can respond to an enforcement action in progress, he says, “we organize an interfaith service, claiming that home as a place of worship, as holy ground. We’re saying ICE should not be conducting enforcement at that place.”
The strategy was put in place last year after the Obama administration announcedthat it would begin to deport Central American mothers and children who entered the country illegally after 2013, Pedemonti says. Along with their 24/7 hotline, staffed with multilingual volunteers, the activists also set up a network of volunteers, who are required attend a series of training sessions. Once that’s completed, they become part of the rapid response team, receiving text message alerts that provide an address for an enforcement action in progress.
Last year, about 65 members of local faith communities volunteered to undergo the training, Pedemonti says. Since the election of President Trump, however, there have been more than 1,300 volunteers, and more than 550 have completed the network training sessions.
Volunteers with more advanced training, Pedemonti says, would also “prayerfully and peacefully try to disrupt the raid” by forming a linked circle around the house or ICE vehicles.
A Trump effect
The rise of the “sanctuary in the streets” movement parallels the growth of the broader sanctuary movement as the Trump administration begins to target a wide range of the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants now living in the US.
“After the election, we’ve seen a doubling of churches interested in becoming sanctuary congregations,” says the Rev. Alison Harrington, the pastor at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz., and a national organizer with the consortium sanctuarynotdeportation.org, which now includes more than 800 congregations.
“People are emailing, ‘Do you have a checklist of what we need in place if we decide to house someone?’ ‘What should our strategy be?’ ” she says. “And we’re trying to get congregations involved with a lot of new ways to get engaged.”
Like the term “sanctuary cities,” which has no official definition, but refers to a broad array of state and local government policies that generally limit local agencies from cooperating with immigration officials without a warrant, the label “sanctuary church” is often nebulous, notes Reverend Harrington, who has been a national organizer since 2009. Many sanctuary city policies, in fact, have sprung directly from the early efforts of sanctuary churches, scholars say.
Last month, a network of 37 Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations announced a #GreaterAs1 campaign to mobilize a total of some 30 million Americans to express their opposition to Mr. Trump’s executive orders on immigration. In December last year, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles declared itself a “sanctuary diocese,” adopting a resolution that called its congregations to provide “material and pastoral support for those targeted by hate due to immigration status or some perceived status of difference.”
And among the hundreds of congregations expressing new interest in joining the sanctuary movement, dozens of other mostly liberal, mainline churches across the country, from Boston to Chicago to Los Angeles and others, are also beginning to offer living spaces to shelter undocumented immigrants from deportation.
“The sanctuary church movement definitely seems to be enjoying a revival,” says Brett Grainger, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. He notes that social justice-leaning Christians in the Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations often “take their foot off the gas” when the federal government pursues like-minded policies.
Tangible effects and challenges
And while consternation over the direction of the Trump administration has been fueling the revival of the sanctuary movement, “I think it’s also happening because sanctuary is a form of social and religious protest that has such tangible, real-world effects,” Professor Grainger says. “Sharing meals with immigrant families become powerful reenactments of the ritual of communion. Showing actual love and mercy to families facing deportation is a tangible, living expression of Jesus’ command to his disciples that ‘insofar as you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me.’ ”
Many in the movement, too, highlight the words of resistance from the famous World War II theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
Driving that spoke, however, can be challenging logistically. For the sanctuary in the streets effort, for example, there are a lot of false alarms from undocumented callers feeling especially fearful when they see law enforcement officials. And of the eight confirmed ICE actions in Philadelphia homes this year, Pedemonti says, most of the calls came in after the fact. The “intense” call from the immigrant last month, only gave volunteers an opportunity to conduct a prayer vigil at the ICE office in downtown Philadelphia.
Churches with more conservative theologies, especially those of white Evangelical Protestants, have mostly rejected the ideas behind the sanctuary movement. Rank-and-file white Evangelicals remain among Trump’s most ardent supporters, including his executive orders on immigration.
Last November, the Georgia Baptist Convention passed a resolution stating that “it is a violation of federal law to bring in, harbor, shield from detection, transport, employ or encourage an unauthorized immigrant to remain in these United States or to engage in any conspiracy to commit any of the preceding acts,” citing federal immigration law within their resolution.
The resolution by Georgia Southern Baptists also encourages its members “to act redemptively and reach out to meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of all immigrants and within the law, to offer English As a Second Language and Citizenship classes” and to “make the most of the tremendous opportunity for evangelism, ministry, and discipleship.”
Savannah Hauge, the Micah fellow at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston however, draws upon her upbringing in the Quaker tradition, which has a long history of maintaining conscientious objections to civil law.
“We’re in a really unique position of being able to do some of the nitty gritty work to house someone,” Ms. Hauge says, noting that St. Mary’s, a declared sanctuary congregation, has a living space that includes a shower and a kitchen. The congregation has also been partnering with other Boston area churches that are now offering help to keep any undocumented person staying at St. Mary’s well-fed, emotionally cared for, and provided with legal services.
“So this is an opportunity to dig deeper into my own spiritual journey, and also get to do the kind of organizing that I love to do in a faith context,” she says, recalling how she grew up going to peace vigils with her parents to protest the Iraq war, as well as engaging in community projects with other Quaker youth.
Breaking the law
Harrington, who also helps organize the Southern Arizona Sanctuary Coalition, says her role is often to simply listen to those most affected by the administration’s efforts to deport a wider range of immigrants here illegally.
“Churches can’t do this as if in a vacuum, determining what’s important in this new moment, without talking to those who are directly affected,” she says, adding that it’s important to resist having a “white savior complex.”
A lot of the work of providing sanctuary for unauthorized immigrants is against the law, she cautions. “People are always asking about it, and we want to be honest about the risks people are taking.”
Her predecessor at Southside Presbyterian Church, the Rev. John Fife was one of the first ministers in the nation to provide sanctuary for undocumented workers from El Salvador in 1981, becoming one of the pioneers of the nationwide sanctuary movement.
After the federal government infiltrated his network, however, Reverend Fife and seven other activists were convicted of alien-smuggling charges, and he served five years probation.
For Pedemonti, the kind of risks he takes is part of his Christian journey of faith.
“I’ve been thinking during this Lent how it was the women who showed up, who were with Jesus the whole time while he was on the cross,” he says. “I imagine that would have been a great risk for them, being associated with Jesus, a convicted criminal. So I think we have a lot to learn. How can we show up when people are being arrested and persecuted, even when that can be a risk to ourselves?”
And if activists really believe that they want the Trump administration and ICE to form policies around love and compassion, then they need to practice that themselves, he says.
“That means also extending love and compassion to ICE agents,” Pedemonti says. “You know, inviting them to pray, even while we’re trying to disrupt what they’re doing, yet still seeking their humanity and seeking the divine in them as well.”