Last summer, the pastor and rabbi of a church and synagogue that share a building in Denver raised their hands in blessing over the head of Araceli Velasquez and officially welcomed the undocumented immigrant and her family to take sanctuary in their house of worship.
Nearly a year on, Velasquez, her husband and three young sons are still living in the cavernous, 100-year-old building that is home to Temple Micah and Park Hill United Methodist Church.
Velasquez came to the United States to flee the gang violence she had experienced in her native El Salvador, but her asylum request was denied.
The subsequent decision to give her sanctuary is part of a groundswell of grassroots actions by Christians, Jews and Muslims seeking to protect undocumented immigrants in the United States – particularly Latinos – who are facing an unprecedented crackdown under the administration of President Donald Trump to detain and deport them.
Seventy synagogues in the United States, organized by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, now designate themselves as sanctuary communities. The number of overall religious sanctuary communities soared from 400 in 2016 to 1,100 in 2017, according to Church World Service – a U.S. Christian social action agency that has been tracking the number of congregations.
Only a fraction of these communities physically host undocumented individuals and their families. Other communities that are part of the growing sanctuary movement will accompany migrants to hearings, provide them with food, pro-bono legal services and take part in demonstrations.
“After the elections of 2016, there was a feeling that we are living in an important historical moment and, perhaps with the hindsight we have as Jews, I thought: What can we do?” Temple Micah Rabbi Adam Morris tells Haaretz.
Together with the church they share a building with, they thought, “Can we step up and do this?”
“At the time, we had no idea how much the immigrant issue would blow up and become such a balagan,” he says, using the Hebrew word for chaos. “Part of why we are doing it is purely for justice and because it’s the right thing to do for us personally. And partly we are doing it to respond some way to what is happening in our national discourse. It feels the world is treating these people unjustly, and we wanted to give a show of support,” adds Morris.
A year after Trump took office, religious leaders who have become activists on the immigration issue say groups have become more strategic in their actions and know that statements alone can no longer suffice.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism – the movement’s lobbying arm in Washington – says interfaith coalitions have rallied around the biblical injunction to “love the stranger.” He says this “has led to a very fertile movement of resistance to deportation and protecting undocumented people.
“It has to be made crystal clear to those in power that we are months away from an election, and that the broad cross-section of American society is outraged by the immigration issue – it’s not just a Jewish, Muslim, or Christian issue, but an American issue,” says Pesner.
Temple Micah, a Reform congregation of some 200 families, is the one synagogue out of 41 churches that are actually providing physical refuge to undocumented immigrants.
According to the 2017 Church World Service report, there were 37 people seeking physical sanctuary inside religious communities, compared to just five in 2016.
Muslim leaders have explained that no mosques offer physical sanctuary out of fear that anti-Muslim sentiments in the country, and police surveillance of Muslim places of worship, would make these unsafe places for refuge.
But Muslims have taken part in high-profile demonstrations in support of undocumented immigrants. In January, for example, imams joined with rabbis outside the office of Rep. Paul Ryan (Wisconsin) to demand that Congress pass legislation that would protect immigrant youth amid Trump’s threats to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (aka DACA).
The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) is one of the groups that has taken the lead in speaking out in defense of undocumented immigrants and aligning with Jewish and Christian community partners.
The predominately Christian sanctuary movement dates to the time of the civil wars in Central America in the 1980s: Churches were looking for ways to help refugees who were fleeing the violence and crossing the border into the United States illegally.
Pre-Trump, the policy was that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents should avoid arresting individuals in what are termed “sensitive” locations – including houses of worship. That policy is still in effect.
Religious leaders and activists involved in the movement say that the current interfaith action aims to provide a moral voice on the issues.
“The impact of faith communities being involved avoids certain conversations or objections,” says Ravi Ragbir, executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City. “So if someone from a secular community protests immigration by saying ‘This is the law of the land,’ we can say we are answering to a higher authority when we argue, for example, that we cannot rip families apart. We can cite all the moral fiber written into scripture. It helps us keep grounded and also deflects those objections, because we can show how certain laws are unjust,” adds Ragbir, whose faith-based grassroots immigration advocacy group works to reform detention and deportation policies.
Most recently, they and other interfaith groups have been rallying against a new Trump administration policy that separates immigrant children from their parents when they cross the border together. Aimed as a deterrent to cross-border illegal immigration, it has been denounced by critics as cruel.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, says that when people think about religious issues, they often “think of issues like abortion and same sex marriage – thinking the voice of religion is an evangelical voice,” she says. “But the majority of religious voices are pro-humanity, protecting every single person created in [the] image of God and about preventing any harm to human beings. This argument hopefully changes attitudes and is able to move people in ways that maybe a public policy argument does not,” she adds.
Wardah Khalid, a spokeswoman at the Church World Service’s immigration and refugee program describes a moment where people of all religions are citing their faith as what compels them to take action now. “The interfaith community is seeing this as a spiritual calling,” says Khalid, who is Muslim. “As Muslims,” she adds, “we have a saying that you should want for your neighbor what you want for yourself.”
Invites to bar mitzvahs
The congregations of Temple Micah and Park Hill United Methodist Church wanted to give Velasquez and her family – her husband, who is legally in the country, and three sons ages 5, 3 and almost 2 – a sense of home, despite their unconventional surroundings. So they converted a room into a bedroom and built a shower for the family off a stage in the building. The stage has now become their general living area and they use the social hall kitchen to cook meals. Occasionally, some family members briefly leave their sanctuary, even though they risk arrest doing so.
Every night, a different member of one of the two communities sleeps in the building so they can alert the community in case ICE agents decide to make an arrest. And to help offset the challenges of living in a confined space, volunteers come regularly to play with the children and tutor Velasquez in English.
“We want them to have as much normalcy as possible – to let them live their lives, but to know we are here to help,” Morris says.
They have been invited to bar and bat mitzvahs, and over Hanukkah were judges at the annual latke cook-off.
“There is a sense of pride that we are doing this together,” says Morris of the co-hosting. “Most of the time, we are two institutions. But for both communities to sit down and not just have a nice Bible study but see how we work together and understand each other is deepening our two communities’ relationship,” he adds.
“The way religion impacts our communal and national narrative is powerful, and it’s more powerful when we do it together,” Morris concludes.
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