Churches mobilize to protect immigrants in Massachusetts

As nationwide uncertainty continues for immigrant communities, several parishes in the Diocese of Massachusetts are mobilizing to put in place networks to protect their neighbors, regardless of immigration status. Those taking action have a twofold mission: one, to build a network of sanctuary churches and sanctuary-supporter churches that can be deployed quickly if the federal government takes new steps targeting undocumented immigrants, and two, to take political action that may prevent the sanctuaries from ever being needed. 

The modern sanctuary movement in the United States first arose in the 1980s, when religious communities offered protection to asylum-seekers fleeing conflict in Central America. The movement is experiencing a resurgence as the Trump administration signals that protections such as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) may be rolled back. The Church World Service estimates that about 400 churches nationwide have stepped forward to offer sanctuary if needed. In a strictly legal sense, churches are not immune to raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but historically authorities have been hesitant to target houses of worship. 

press conferece Tracy J. Sukraw Faith leaders gathered for a press conference at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul Episcopal City Mission and the Massachusetts Community Action Network (MCAN) are working together to connect churches and community organizations around the state to work together on issues of sanctuary and immigration. 

“We feel if you think about this moment politically, socially, spiritually, there’s an opportunity to be in deep alliance with those who are most vulnerable,” the Rev. Arrington Chambliss said in an interview. She is the executive director of Episcopal City Mission. “The notion of sanctuary is deeply aligned with what the church is called to be, period,”  she said.

MCAN, Episcopal City Mission and other religious and community advocacy organizations held a press conference on Jan. 31, where dozens of interfaith leaders voiced their deep concerns about executive orders recently issued from the White House, specifically regarding the travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries, the suspension of visas for refugees and President Trump’s stated intent to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. The press conference was hosted at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston. 

“Scriptures remind us again and again that the champions we celebrate, Abraham and Isaac and Moses and Jeremiah and Jesus, all had the experience of being refugees,” the Rev. Edwin Johnson said at the press conference. “All of them had this shared experience of being dependent on a nation that was not the nation of their birth for justice.” 

Johnson is the rector of St. Mary’s Church in Dorchester, one of the churches in the Diocese of Massachusetts currently taking active steps to become a sanctuary site. Johnson said in an interview that although he hopes the sanctuary will never be needed, his church is mobilizing its leadership and networks to be ready.

For St. Mary's, there is a lot of uncertainty, both surrounding the day-to-day practicalities of providing sanctuary and the rapidly shifting picture of immigration in America. But Johnson said that he sees his community responding with grace to this unsettled landscape.

edwin boston herald Edwin Johnson speaks with members of the press at the Jan. 31 press conference. “There are questions about practicality, about safety, but there’s a lot of courage,” he said. “This permutation of the sanctuary movement in the greater Boston area doesn’t really have a lot of substance unless some of us are taking this radical step [of offering physical sanctuary], and we’re proud to be doing it.”

St. Mary’s is working closely with MCAN, which is a tenant of the church property. MCAN has led several workshops for churches interested in becoming sanctuaries or supporting sanctuary churches in their communities. St. Mary’s is designated as a “level 1” church, meaning that it is planning to be a place of physical sanctuary if needed, but there are many ways to become involved as a “level 2” or supporting congregation, or to support the movement as an individual.  Johnson said that the crucial thing to do now is for people to register their support.

“If this is something you’re interested in, the important thing to do is to communicate now, before we need to activate, not when we have people showing up needing shelter,” Johnson said. “The big thing is for us to know who our supporters are before we need them.”

Johnson also encouraged people to engage with the political process surrounding immigration by staying informed, calling legislators and attending rallies and events.

“Being involved publicly and raising awareness is a way we can all be involved now that can prevent any of us from having to house people in our churches,” he said.

Community organizations such as MCAN and Episcopal City Mission can connect churches and individuals with ways to help support the sanctuary movement or become a sanctuary church. Johnson also welcomes anyone to reach out directly to him to learn about supporting St. Mary’s or sanctuary in their own community.  

“I’m in a space where any and all outreach, partnerships, questions are welcome and deeply appreciated,” he said. “Wherever you are in the process, whether you think your parish is ready for this or whether your parish thinks you’re kind of nuts, just reach out. Now is the time for us to be talking with each other and building stronger bonds than ever before.” 

silvestre at safe communities rally Cherish Casey The Rev. Silvestre Romero speaks at a rally in front of the State House in support of the Safe Communities Act. In Salem, the Rev. Silvestre Romero, the priest-in-charge at St. Peter’s-San Pedro Church, is part of a coalition of local clergy working to strengthen their community and protect the undocumented individuals in their midst. St. Peter’s-San Pedro is collaborating with the First Church of Salem and Tabernacle Church, Salem to be prepared to provide sanctuary if needed. The St. Peter’s building is not suited to hosting long-term guests, Romero said, so the hope is that it could support another church in Salem in providing sanctuary. 

The St. Peter’s-San Pedro community mobilized quickly after the election, reaching out to community and faith leaders in Salem to discuss what the Trump administration's policies could mean for the city’s immigrant communities. 

The mayor of Salem convened a group of clergy and community leaders to draft a document to present to the Salem City Council. The group met weekly and eventually produced a proposed ordinance that declares Salem a “sanctuary for peace.”  Under this ordinance, Salem would not explicitly be a sanctuary city, but would continue some policing practices that shield undocumented immigrants from federal immigration authorities. Romero emphasized how important it is for law-abiding people to be able to trust their local police. 

“When you have an environment where people are scared of their own police, what you end up creating is a less safe community,” he said. “If you see a crime or something unsafe, but you’re afraid to go to the police, you’re not going to participate to make the community safer.” 

Romero is also speaking out for statewide action to protect immigrants. Along with the Essex County Community Organization (ECCO), an MCAN affiliate, Romero and St. Peter's-San Pedro have been urging state legislators and citizens to support the Safe Communities Act, which would block state resources from being used to enforce federal immigration law. State Senator Jamie Eldridge, one of the sponsors of the bill, invited Romero to speak at a State House rally for the Safe Communities Act on Feb. 1. Text of the bill can be found here. 


On Jan. 31, the Episcopal Public Policy Network announced the “2x4 Fight for Refugees” campaign, challenging Episcopalians to call national, state and local officials at least four times in the next two months to voice opposition to new laws targeting undocumented immigrants. 

The Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations is offering a series of free webinars on immigration advocacy, the refugee crisis and general public policy advocacy in the Episcopal Church. Find dates and RSVP here

The Sanctuary Not Deportation site connects faith communities around the country that are joining the sanctuary movement. The site includes resources and links to local coalitions. 

Episcopal City Mission's site and Facebook page include many resources for churches and individuals, including trainings on becoming a sanctuary church or a sanctuary supporter. 

--Ellen Stuart Kittle