Immigrants at risk of deportation are finding refuge at churches across the nation, and First Church in Oberlin is considering joining the sanctuary movement.
Since President Donald Trump’s election, the number of American sacred places to be declared sanctuaries has climbed from 400 to more than 1,100, according to Church World Service, an international humanitarian nonprofit.
First Church will vote in an April 22 congregational meeting to determine whether the church will shelter those sought by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
Sanctuary churches are not to be confused with sanctuary cities. Oberlin city council strengthened its position on the subject in 2017, saying local police will not cooperate with ICE officers in carrying out deportation orders for undocumented immigrants who have not been accused of serious crimes.
When undocumented immigrants take sanctuary, they have no guarantees. There is no law that stops ICE from arresting immigrants who have taken shelter in houses of worship.
However, ICE agents generally avoid arrests at “sensitive locations,” following a policy created in 2011 under President Barack Obama’s administration.
Other sensitive locations include schools, health care facilities, sites for funerals and weddings, and public demonstrations such as rallies, marches, and protests.
The policy doesn’t rule out enforcement in certain circumstances, such as when a supervisor approves the arrest or in instances relating to national security, terrorism, or public safety.
Churches, synagogues, and mosques that declare themselves sanctuaries see themselves as a last resort. First Church pastor David Hill said taking refuge can be a lot like an indefinite house arrest.
“Once you move in the church, you can’t leave. Period,” he said. “You can’t go to the grocery store, you can’t take a day trip to see your friends. Once you’re here, you’re basically imprisoned in this building until your situation is resolved. That’s tough. Imagine being in your house and never being able to walk out of it. Or worse, being in somebody else’s house.”
He said the church’s message to the community is one of “extravagant welcome.” After Trump’s Election Night victory, the congregation started looking for ways to support the immigrant community. Two signs were hung outside of the church that read “Immigrants & Refugees Welcome” in both English and Spanish.
The movement resurfaced when Hill received a phone call last fall from Debbie Kline, the director of Cleveland Jobs with Justice. Two young women in danger of being deported in less than a week were seeking sanctuary in Lorain County.
The women ultimately decided to seek sanctuary elsewhere, but it made the church’s executive council aware of their unpreparedness for such requests.
“We were already thinking about (sanctuary) but it got serious when we got a phone call out of the blue and realized, ‘Wow, we were totally caught flat-footed. We are not ready for this at all,’” Hill said.
Offering sanctuary involves providing food and shelter for an immigrant, as well as carving out a bedroom that isn’t exposed to the entire church. It also requires volunteers to stay with that person or family around the clock, which Hill said is his biggest concern.
People would be needed to take shifts staying in the building, grocery shopping, doing laundry, and transporting children to school.
The congregation will have to rethink its day-to-day work life, but helping people in need is the city’s responsibility, said Anne Elder, chair of the First Church outreach committee.
“Will it be an inconvenience? Yes, because there will be somebody whose home is in our church,” she said. “We will have to make a plan, but it isn’t the plans we’re voting on. It’s really the whole concept of taking care of someone in need.”
She wants members of the church to consider Oberlin’s history of helping people in trouble.
Oberlin was a hub of the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves flee the South in the 1800s. In the 1980s, the city was also part of the Overground Railroad, which helped get refugee status in Canada for people from Guatemala and El Salvador.
“We need to be more thoughtful about our immigration policy and who we are as a country and then we need to think about who we are as a church community and what we’re called to do,” Elder said.
“Is it right to just sit back and not do anything?” said John Gates, a member on the outreach committee. “Can I pass this by because this person doesn’t look like me?” After all, Jesus was the one who said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” Gates said.
Discussions on the importance of sanctuary are being held through March at the church. Leaders will discuss the church’s long history of responding to the needs of people seeking safety, information on the topic of sanctuary, hear stories from other congregations participating in sanctuary, and answer questions.
If broad support isn’t vocalized, Hill said the answer may “very well be no just because we know we can’t pull it off.”
Through the Interfaith Hospitality Network, the church has a small taste of what it looks like to host a family. For one week, the church provides homeless families with overnight lodging and meals for a week. Sanctuary will be an even more intense program, Hill said, one that is 24/7 for months.
“If we end up taking somebody in, we will have a press conference and it will be very public. It’s not kept in secret. I don’t know how people will respond,” he said. “I know when those banners went up on the front of the church… I made the mistake of reading the comments (on a story) and it was really ugly and a bit frightening. It does make you wonder, will someone throw a rock at the window? I doubt it, but you don’t know.”
“As a church, you have to make decisions based on what you think is right and you try to stay within the law, but if you get into conflict, sometimes what’s right needs to be more important,” he said.
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.