Hosting Rosa Robles for 461 days at the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, in 2016 taught the Rev. Allison Harrington a lot about what faith and solidarity really mean.
A major lesson: “You can’t do this work alone,” Harrington told about 200 people who gathered at the Cathedral Center of St. Paul in Los Angeles recently for a workshop hosted by Episcopal Sacred Resistance–Los Angeles, the diocesan sanctuary task force.
Co-chaired by the Rev. Francisco Garcia and the Rev. Canon Jaime Edwards-Acton, the task force has sponsored several trainings and is the network for congregations and others wishing to carry on the work of sanctuary.
Harrington said that a number of factors — what was then the most stringent anti-illegal immigration law in the nation, SB1070; the targeting of a day labor center located at her church; rising deportation rates and the inconsistency of deportation policies and practices — prompted her to realize that “in this particular moment the best thing to do was to rise up and to practice courage in faithful ways.”
“We’ve been here before,” said Harrington, whose church was active in the 1980s Sanctuary Movement. “We’ve been living this reality and all the work we’ve been doing has prepared us for this moment right now.
So we don’t have anything to fear, we know what to do.”
Initially, bearing public witness helped — holding press conferences, shedding light on some of the inconsistencies and on families torn by deportation proceedings. But “then we began to fail,” she said. “And we began to whisper the word ‘sanctuary.’”
Sanctuary — cultivate the will; the logistics will follow
When Rosa entered sanctuary at Southside, Harrington created a coalition of local churches to assist. Clergy took turns officiating daily prayer vigils.
“What do you need to do the work in your congregation? Just the will to do the work and the logistics will fall into place,” she said.
“It is helpful if you have a dedicated space, an office, a Sunday school classroom you’re not using anymore, something you can make private and that can be respected as only their space. It’s also convenient if they have their own kitchen to do their own cooking.
“And there is the question of showers. You don’t have to have a shower; you can do creative hook-ups. There is a need for transportation, medical care. Rosa was in sanctuary for 461 days, 15 months.
“We needed a doctor to check in with her, and her mental health. We needed a counselor to check in with her. Those are the infrastructure things you need for someone to be living in your church building.”
It also requires a financial commitment and recognizing the balance of power.
Harrington cited a Denver, Colorado coalition that has created a covenant for those in sanctuary and those hosting them “to say these are our responsibilities and we want to give you permission to speak up for yourselves. It is hard, because people (in sanctuary) feel indebted.
“The financial costs of sanctuary, the indirect costs, cannot be calculated. Someone who used to be earning money in the community and now is in sanctuary can’t earn money,” she said.
Yet Rosa was giving briefings about five times a week. “We kept telling her, you are working and we need to compensate you for that. And there was also a financial aspect, and the cost of trying to get a legal case closed.”
Three levels of sanctuary
She said the work of sanctuary is multi-layered. “One of the most brilliant and beautiful things about sanctuary is that everyone practices it in different ways.
The first level is hospitality. “What does it mean to provide someone hospitality and the logistics around that?”
The second layer involves advocacy, organizing in community to get some sort of legal remedy to allow the person to return home without fear of deportation; and third, to build a movement to stop deportations.
It is also vital, she said, to offer 24-hour accompaniment of people in sanctuary. “You don’t want them to be alone. There also needs to be a secondary location where volunteers sleep. It doesn’t have to be this private single-use room, it just needs to be a dedicated space for a person accompanying the person in sanctuary.”
Organizing into committees is very helpful to facilitate the process, she said. Committees can govern hospitality, fundraising, communications strategy, and prepare for a response “in case the border patrol shows up, in case the media shows up, in case protestors show up.” A vigil committee also is necessary, she said. “It is important to have vigils every single day.”
Legal and political participation is also essential. “You have to have a lawyer, working on a legal strategy, working on getting [the undocumented person] out of sanctuary. You need to have a strategy of how you get out, especially in this new era, of what are you going to do to get the person out safely.”
It is also helpful to engage church members in making calls to local political leaders, “to write letters, to local unions, to get the city to pass a resolution in support of the person, to help determine how do you get people involved and active in the case.”
‘Important to understand who we are’
Harrington also said it is important to recognize “who we are in this work individually. It is important to identify what brings us to this work, what brings our hearts to this work.”
She recalled “a moment of conversion” when she felt anxious after a police car drove up behind her. “I did what we all do. We tense up. We check our speedometer. We put our phone down. I had that moment of relaxation … my white privilege. That I can relax in the presence of law enforcement.
“Our privilege and power keep us blind,” Harrington added. “When we have that moment of being able to see, what do we do? Too often we create narratives that make that injustice okay … narratives of who is worthy of compassion and prayer and solidarity and who is not. When we don’t try to explain the injustice away, when we lean into it, we have to act.”
That action was undergirded, she said, by four principles:
• “respecting and following the leadership of directly affected folks always;
• “be steadfast in adherence to our own faith traditions;
• “be relentlessly imaginative and great;
• “pledge our highest allegiance to the mandates of our faith and not to the laws of the land.”
She added, “The executive order of the president is difficult for me to understand, but the executive order of my faith is Matthew 25 and it is pretty clear to me (“…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me”).
After 15 months, Rosa was able to leave sanctuary but the work continues, she said. “It’s a work in progress and will always be a work in progress. We’ve learned a lot.
“We learned the most what does solidarity really mean. In the beginning when Rosa was in sanctuary, there were 30 to 50 people at prayer vigils. It was an easy thing to do, when we were getting great press coverage and recognition. We felt we were on the cutting edge of living out the Gospel. It was easy.
“But when we were getting a ‘no, no, no’ at the top level of the Department of Homeland Security and there seemed to be no hope, and we decided to stay the course and tie our fate to Rosa’s fate, that’s when we learned about solidarity. Not when it’s easy, but when it’s really, really hard, and when it’s scary. But you know what our faith mandates and you keep going and you continue to be courageous and lift up the moral imperative of the moment.”
She paused, and laughed. “It was only 15 months, but children change a lot in 15 months. It feels like Rosa helped raise my two wild children. I took my two daughters to the [Jan. 21] women’s march. And I asked my 2-1/2-year-old, ‘What are we going to chant?’ She said: “We stand with Rosa.’”