Written by Connie Larkman
Two days before the Presidential Inauguration, a group of Tucson-area faith leaders came together to affirm sanctuary, claiming their communities as places of radical welcome for all. The day after the new administration took office on Jan. 20, advocates from participating United Church of Christ congregations rallied with the Women’s March, to protect the rights and dignity of all Americans. Today, with President Trump’s executive order that calls for construction of a wall at the U.S-Mexico border and a crackdown on undocumented immigrants, The Good Shepherd UCC congregation remains committed to the effort to build a just world for all people.
"Immigration has always been a core value of the United States and immigrants are what makes the United States strong, because they have always brought energy, innovation and helped remind us as a nation what our values really are," said the Rev. Randy Mayer, pastor of the Sahuarita, Ariz., church. "It makes no sense for us to turn our back on our core values and regress economically, culturally and spiritually."
"UCC congregations throughout Arizona are mobilizing with a variety of ecumenical and interfaith partners to support migrants, undocumented permanent residents and dreamers in what the new administration has promised will be their new assault against human rights and personal dignity," said the Rev. William M. Lyons, designated conference minister of the Southwest Conference UCC. "Congregations previously uninvolved in these ministries are attending organizing meetings and volunteering with a new sense of urgency. Efforts range from teaching undocumented permanent residents their rights under the law to legal challenges to the deportation-to-prison pipeline."
This week, in anticipation of the changes outlined by the Trump administration, Good Shepherd UCC, other UCC organizations and hundreds of churches involved in the Sanctuary Movement around the country are taking part in a national week of action, public and educational events that pledge to accompany and protect people and communities targeted by discrimination and deportation. Mobilization that becomes more important with the President’s Wednesday, Jan. 25, decision reshaping U.S. immigration policy to increase deportation of undocumented people, boost patrol forces, pull funding from sanctuary cities and construct a wall along the U.S. southern border.
"The reality is that there is already a 30 foot high fence over much of the border here in Arizona," said Mayer. "A wall is just a replication of a failed idea, it sounds like a good idea when you are sitting far from the border, but when you come to the desert region and see first hand how rugged and isolated the border is you begin to see how stupid the idea is."
Mayer also points out that illegal immigration numbers are down. "Those that are coming are coming to the ports of entry and are presenting themselves as asylum seekers or asking for other sorts of relief."
Since the presidential election, there have been a record number of people from Central America, Asia and the Caribbean entering the country legally, seeking asylum at points of entry in the Southwest. Once processed, UCC and other Arizona churches are helping as many as 40-60 families a day without resources make connections with loved ones across the country so they can fulfill their conditions of release.
"There are new forms of ministry to assist asylum seekers and undocumented residents here legally, the risks of which prevent the stories from being told because of rhetoric of the new administration," said Lyons. "Congregations that weren’t involved before are now seeing the need, and joining the movement."
"At the Good Shepherd we take this to mean that the church needs to be a safe place where immigrants, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, women, and anyone that feels threatened can come and feel secure and safe--and receive support as they decide what their next move might be and put their security plan into place," Mayer said.
And because of the potential policies of the new presidential administration, the number of churches involved in providing assistance is growing.
"Prior to the election, we saw at least 400 congregations engaged in the Sanctuary Movement," said the Rev. Noel Andersen, national grassroots faith coordinator with Church World Service, and organizer of the UCC immigration collaborative. "Since the election, over 800 congregations across the country are now involved in creating sanctuary spaces for undocumented immigrants and people in need."
"There are important distinctions between sanctuary, asylum, providing emergency housing and providing refuge," said the Rev. Ken Heintzelman, pastor of Shadow Rock UCC in Phoenix. "Our congregations and leaders need to know what the differences are so they are equipped to make the right decisions around those issues." Shadow Rock has been involved for more than two years in sanctuary, sheltering immigrants involved in legal proceedings so they are not deported before their case makes its way through the system.
On Tuesday, Jan. 24, the day before the Trump order, the Southern California Nevada Conference of the United Church of Christ initiated a conference call on sanctuary with more than a dozen interested congregations. They talked about how a church prepares to become a sanctuary church, and the process of protecting undocumented residents legally.
"It was a great conference call," said the Rev. Felix Villanueva, conference minister, "and as a result of that, our conference will start organizing a sanctuary network so churches can support one another in the process."
In addition, members of the SCNC Board of Directors approved a resolution on Jan. 21, declaring themselves to be a sanctuary board. They wanted to make a statement in this unusual step of approving the measure as a board first, and will send a resolution in support of sanctuary to the annual meeting for the conference to follow suit.
"In 30 years of ministry," Lyons said, "I have not seen progressive people of faith as committed to social justice as I see right now."