Once a shower is installed, First Church will be fully prepared to offer shelter to undocumented immigrants facing deportation.
Pastor David Hill said the church is “pretty darn close” to offering a temporary home to those sought by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
Earlier this year, congregational members voted unanimously to join three other churches in Northeast Ohio and more than 1,100 sacred places across the nation that have chosen to adopt the designation.
Since then, an ad hoc sanctuary committee was appointed to coordinate food, shopping, laundry, overnight shifts, and medical and legal services. A fund was established and donations were used to create a private housing space within the church.
A living space was furnished with two twin beds, a couch, two overstuffed chairs, and a little table with straight-backed chairs. A kitchen is also available for use as well as a private bathroom.
John Gates, a leader of the sanctuary committee, said he also wants to install a washer and a dryer and to dedicate another space in the church where a person seeking refuge could meet with their family and lawyers.
“We’re not quite ready yet but if somebody came to us and said, ‘I am in danger of being arrested, deported, and separated from my family this week unless I receive sanctuary,’ we would do it. We’re that close,” Gates said.
The priority isn’t to have a lavish living space but to keep families together while they work to obtain citizenship, he said.
Oberlin College students and professors, parishioners, and community members have expressed interest in taking local action after the escalation of President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy over the summer.
“We’ve built the interest and we have the core volunteers to take this forward,” Gates said. “We think that if we have a core of 12 to 20 people, this is not going to be a problem. We can provide the overnights, we can provide meals, medical needs, and transportation.”
Meetings were held with police chief Ryan Warfield, fire chief Rob Hanmer, and building codes administrator Tom Hall, and letters were sent to city manager Rob Hillard and to council president Bryan Burgess to inform them of the church’s plans.
ICE agents typically avoid carrying out enforcement actions at “sensitive locations” such as churches, synagogues, and mosques, but officials with a warrant can arrest undocumented immigrants regardless.
Warfield said police officers can’t interfere with ICE agents. Yet he doesn’t think the safety of the community is in jeopardy if First Church carries out its plans.
A network of immigration lawyers and volunteers will be notified when the church is ready to shelter someone. Gates said his hope is to accommodate just one person at first but ample space is available to house a family.
During a stay, sanctuary committee members will work with lawyers to assure that the process for obtaining U.S. legal status has begun.
“We haven’t picked out a definite time period but we thought it’d be wise to put an end period on the covenant so we could revisit it and say, “OK how are things going? Is this working? Are you satisfied? Are we satisfied?” Gates said.
He said committee members could add amenities and gather support and never house a single person but it’s important that a plan is in place — just in case.
A congregational meeting billed as a “celebration of First Church” will be held Sept. 16 to update parishioners on the sanctuary program and to officially open the church’s doors to those in need of refuge.
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.