The Rev. Francisco Garcia is calling upon congregations across the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles to take an audit of their resources, to partner with their neighbors of all faiths, to consider how they might make a stand on behalf of undocumented persons who — already living in the shadows — are increasingly fearful in the wake of the most recent federal government deportation order.
President Trump, in a Feb. 21 executive order, doubled down on his intentions to deport those living in the country illegally whether or not they have committed serious crimes. More aggressive than previous orders, it attempts to enlist local police officers as deportation enforcers, to discourage asylum seekers and to speed up mass deportations.
Garcia, who co-chairs Episcopal Sacred Resistance–Los Angeles, the task force that sprang into being after convention delegates declared the Diocese of Los Angeles a sanctuary diocese in December 2016, called the order “terrible and very frightening … the exact opposite of what we want.”
He added, “We will have to fight it.”
Within a week, about 700 immigrants across the country were arrested in what Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly called “a series of targeted enforcement operations” spread over 12 states.
In response, Garcia urged Episcopalians to attend the upcoming “Rapid Response Training” scheduled for 1 – 4 p.m. on Friday, March 3 at Union Church, located at 401 E. Third Street in Los Angeles and sponsored by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), and a network of agencies and churches involved in the sanctuary movement.
Rapid Response, also known as Sanctuary in the Streets, trains volunteers to deploy at a moment’s notice to go to the site of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid to witness the proceedings and prayerfully surround and protect frightened immigrants families with love and compassion, said Garcia, rector of Holy Faith, Inglewood.
Lent — a season of reflection and sanctuary action
Since its inception, the task force has networked with community partners, hosting workshops and civil disobedience trainings, and offering resources for congregations and individuals. During Lent, the task force is planning a season of prayerful action, Garcia said.
“We’re going to have a prayer vigil at 10 a.m. on Ash Wednesday at the Cathedral Church of St. Athanasius,” he said. “It’s going to be ecumenical and interfaith. We will have some prayer, some song, imposing of ashes and some testimonies from families that are impacted and we will continue to publicly state our commitments to protect people, to do everything we can to stand with the immigrant and the refugee community.”
A number of Episcopal and other congregations, including his own parish, Holy Faith, as well as St. Luke’s, Long Beach, St. Athanasius, and Epiphany, Lincoln Heights (Los Angeles) all have declared themselves sanctuary congregations, he added.
“Through partnership with CLUE, we have a lot of churches that have made the pledge to be sanctuary churches and we are following up individually with them, finding out what are you able to do to assist our efforts,” he said. “For example, are churches able to provide physical sanctuary if needed?”
Comparing the resistance movement to the Underground Railroad — a series of compassionate individuals and churches that sheltered runaway slaves during the Civil War era — he said, “There is a greater need for churches to provide not just a public sanctuary but a kind of underground sanctuary.
“There is so much fear and uncertainty among the community, among the most vulnerable, and even among churches,” he said. “There may be churches that are unable to say publicly ‘we have someone here,’ but that are doing the private work of sanctuary without drawing attention to themselves.”
The task force, which is co-chaired by the Rev. Canon Jaime Edwards-Acton, rector of St. Stephen’s Church, Hollywood, continues to deepen its network connections and offer local communities the necessary tools for involvement. Churches are encouraged to contact Garcia or Edwards-Acton or another task force member for information or assistance (see “Sanctuary Resources” below).
Task force members will help organize “know your rights” workshops or help congregations learn how to become public and prayerful witnesses in the event of deportation raids in their communities.
Hopeful that sacred resistance will expand to areas outside the city of Los Angeles, Garcia added, “It is really important that the regions do a lot of this work.
“The more we can get connected and identify who are the people who can show up … that’s what really needs to get organized at the local level.”
Congregations need to discern what makes sense for them
Nearly 200 people attended a Jan. 10 workshop at the Cathedral Center of St. Paul sponsored by the task force (see related story here). Attendees raised concerns about possible legal repercussions for churches sheltering the undocumented, and uneasiness among church members in the country legally but not yet citizens. They are reluctant to travel, fearing they might not be allowed re-entry into the country and also worry that their documents will not be honored by the current administration.
Garcia assured participants that several immigration attorneys are committed to the movement and lawyers present at the gathering said they would report back to the group about some of their concerns. Generally, they said congregations will not face legal repercussions for aiding the undocumented unless they physically try to bring someone across the border illegally.
Garcia reassured participants, telling them to consider their local context and adapt participation based on that context.
“It is important that this process take form in whatever way makes sense for your congregation,” he said. “You know your members. The task force is open to you as a resource and we are willing to come out and sit with you, to meet with you one-on-one, to meet with the vestry, to hold a forum.”
A civil disobedience training held Jan. 14 drew about 40 people, who prepared volunteers spiritually for civil disobedience.
Episcopal Migration Ministries will host a March 8 webinar on ways to cultivate a ministry of welcome in faith communities. It is a follow-up to a previous Feb. 1 webinar, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes Refugees.” For information, contact Allison Duvall, EMM Manager for Church Relations & Engagement, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A short history of sanctuary: love as a weapon
Rabbi Jonathan Klein, CLUE Executive Director, called upon the Jan. 10 gathering to “remember we are not alone.” He reminded participants that God called upon enslaved Israelites to remember that “when love is used as a weapon, we have to believe that our enemy can be changed.”
In reference to President Trump, he said, “It doesn’t work unless we believe all people can be changed … and God is beckoning us come, change this person, to hold your ground, sacred resistance.”
The Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, former CLUE–LA executive director and co-founder of the New Sanctuary Movement, contextualized the current sanctuary movement, from the 1980s response to the hundreds of thousands fleeing the Central American wars to a galvanization in 2005 with a failed Congressional attempt to classify the undocumented and those who aided them as felons.
It is scripturally grounded in Numbers 35, where the people of God were instructed to give refuge to an accused person until he or she could get a fair hearing, in the understanding that the punishment did not fit the crime, she said.
The sanctuary movement was sparked in the 1980s when the Rev. John Fife, then minister of Southside Presbyterian Church, met with refugees from wars in Guatemala, El Salvador and other Central American countries, and were undocumented and living in Tucson, Arizona. He began to organize to aid them, an effort that “ultimately involved 500 churches across the country and other organizations that were not Christian,” Salvatierra said.
Offering refuge is just one half of sanctuary, however. The other half is “to change public perception, to change hearts and minds by people who did not have to suffer, but are choosing to suffer in solidarity, choosing to put themselves at risk to demonstrate publicly the value of people who were being targeted.”
Over time, the movement enjoyed some successes and endured some challenges, including comprehensive reform.
Public witness helped shift perceptions that eventually ended funding for the Central America wars. In 2005, the sanctuary movement galvanized in the wake of the Sensenbrenner Bill, which proposed penalties for illegal immigration and, if successful, would have classified undocumented persons and anyone who helped them as felons.
With Sensenbrenner, “it could be interpreted that if you baptized an undocumented person you had committed a felony,” she said. It sparked national protests in major cities, including a demonstration in Los Angeles that drew 500,000.
During that time, four families in the Los Angeles area were living in sanctuary in local churches. “We thought they would live there until we passed immigration reform in 2007; we had 75 percent support in the polls.” But ultimately, “the ball didn’t go through the hoop. We had no exit strategy for them. They were very public and they were targeted.”
The movement was successful in enacting regulatory reform, including deferred deportation on an individual basis, and designation of “sensitive zones” such as churches, where ICE is reluctant to enter without a specific warrant.
The Rev. Noel Andersen, grassroots organizer for Church World Service told the gathering that the agency has helped stop hundreds of deportations by offering legal and other resources and is hoping for more prosecutorial discretion.
The number of congregations declaring themselves sanctuary churches has doubled in the past few months, from 400 in 2016 to about 800 currently, he said.
“Trump wants to bring back a program we organized to stop. Essentially, it allowed local police to come in and help enforce immigration enforcement by honoring these ICE requests,” Anderson said. Typically, he said, local law enforcement is required to hold those on the detainer requests for 48 hours, but “they are being held for two weeks with no probable cause, no judicial warrants,” he said. “It is unconstitutional and it breaks our Fourth Amendment.”
“Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves which laws are we willing to follow,” he said. “We think we have a higher law. We have a higher calling and we know that no human is illegal.”
Salvatierra said immigrant congregations are practicing private sanctuary all over Southern California by offering protection and defense and hospitality of the undocumented, she said.
She created the Matthew 25 Movement to partner immigrant and non-immigrant churches because “I really believe, brothers and sisters, we’re not going to have a movement that wins justice for immigrants until we create peer partnerships between immigrant and nonimmigrant congregations.
“When that happens you have the exchange of hope and passion. Immigrant congregations often don’t get involved because we don’t have hope or we don’t sustain the engagement, and nonimmigrant congregations don’t get engaged because there’s not enough passion because it’s not happening to them. But when we work together … Matthew 25 movement is a vehicle for that to happen, to protect immigrants, young people of color in the justice system and Muslims.
Garcia said the work of sanctuary extends “beyond the church walls, to concrete policies at the city level and at schools” and throughout our communities.
He encouraged Episcopalians to contact the task force for assistance (see Sanctuary Resources links below).
Episcopal Sacred Resistance — Los Angeles
The Rev. Canon Jaime Edwards-Acton
The Rev. Francisco Garcia
Sanctuary tool kits are available at:
The American Association for Justice