The First Parish Blog

Annual Meeting Presentation on Sanctuary

By , Published on June 1, 2017

The following remarks about Sanctuary were given by Will Rico at the Annual Congregational Meeting on May 21.

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On behalf of the Immigrant Ministry, thank you Parish Committee, congregation and Reverend Catie for giving me the opportunity to speak to you this evening about sanctuary.

One year ago, Si Si Goneconto and I stood here to report to you that we were starting an Immigrant Ministry. I spoke to you about violence in Central America and the women & children fleeing that violence. Instead of treating these people as trauma victims (which they are) or with human dignity, our government’s reaction was to fund prisons built and run by for-profit corporations. It was the first time we’ve built prisons for families since Japanese internment, and the main results have been further traumitzation for the families and record profits for the prison corporations.

And remember, that was before the new year and the new political climate. Do you think the situation has gotten better or worse?

For our part, along with the Needham Area Immigration Justice Task Force and The First Church in Belmont, we raised money for a case worker at the Irish International Immigrant Center — a brand new position — dedicated to the women and children who are bonded out of prison and reach Massachusetts. That case worker is currently serving 120 families with issues ranging from emergency housing to healthcare to helping them secure legal representation.

As we’ve stepped forward, political and cultural forces are pushing us back. To put things in perspective, consider that President Obama’s administration deported over 2.5 million immigrants (more than all other presidents…combined) and a central tenet of the new administration is that this was not enough…it was too kind.

But in the numbers, we lose the people.

To see the human story of the amped up anti-immigrant rhetoric, we need to look no further than to a piece on WBUR from Wednesday about Jose Flores. Mr. Flores has been in this country for 17 years with his partner and now five children (three of whom are US citizens). The violence they fled in Honduras, is a painful memory.

Two months ago, Mr. Flores, an undocumeted worker, slipped from a ladder while at work and broke his leg. His employer failed to have workers compensation insurance, and as a result, will need to pay for medical bills and fines on top of that. As the case is being worked out, the employer invited Mr. Flores into the office to pick some money to tide him over. When Mr. Flores left the office, ICE was waiting outside for him. His lawyer, Christine Corbaci, had this to say: “Now we have this added fear, could an employer use someone’s immigration status against him?”

The family is petrified. The children are without their main bread winner. The father is sitting in prison awaiting deportation with a leg broken so badly that he won’t recover for another six months. And the mother is scared that ICE will come for her next. To picture why someone would seek sanctuary, we only need to have this mother in our minds and hearts.

But what does this have to do with us?

I’m not here today to propose to you that First Parish offer sanctuary to this mother or her children. Quite frankly, we’re not ready and there are other churches that are more prepared. I’m here, on behalf of the Immigrant Ministry to announce that we are exploring what it would take for First Parish to become a sanctuary congregation or a sanctuary supporting congregation. On Thursday of this past week, we convened a small working group to study the logistics and feasibilty of sanctuary with the intent of reporting back to you in the fall.

But again, what does this have to do with us?

A few years ago, the UUA, put out this statement of moral concience specifically about immigration:

A belief in “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” is core to Unitarian Universalism: every person, no exceptions. As religious people, our Principles call us to acknowledge the immigrant experience and to affirm and promote the flourishing of the human family.

Our Sources “challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” Hebrew scripture teaches love for the foreigner because “you were foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34). Christian scripture reports that Jesus and his disciples were itinerants. When asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan, a foreigner who treated a badly beaten man as the foreigner would have wished to be treated (Luke 10:25-37). The Qur’an teaches doing “good to…those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer that you meet” (4:36). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country” (article 13.2). Unitarian Universalist Principles and Sources call us to recognize the opportunities and challenges of human migration—caring for ourselves and our families, interacting with strangers, valuing diversity, and dealing with immigration systems.

Now, as Unitarian Universalists, we have a long history with sanctuary, from religious scripture to active involvement in the Underground Railroad to leading the modern sanctuary movement of the 1980’s. In 1980, 1984 and 1985, the UUA General Assembly passed resolutions supporting sanctuary and refugee rights as migrants fled wars in Central America — wars in which our government help fund and train rightwing death squads.

Today, the UUA and our core religious principles are calling us to live our faith through action by reaching out our hand to those who need a lift up. In partnership with UUSC, the UU College of Social Justice and UURISE, the Unitarian Universalist Association released a 44 page “Sanctuary Toolkit” in February.

UU churches in Austin, TX; Reno, NV; and Denver, CO; have recently provided sanctuary to immigrants and right here in Massachusetts, First Parish in Bedford declared themselves a sanctuary congregation last month.

Let me pause for a moment to share some important definitions. First, “what is sanctuary?”

When we discuss sanctuary, we sometimes refer to a church providing physical sanctuary – meaning housing an individual or family – as a Level 1 sanctuary congregation, and the churches that support the level 1 church through a myriad of services, donations of time and money and solidarity, as Level 2 sanctuary congregations, also referred to as sanctuary supporting congregations.

If any of this sounds simple, it isn’t. To provide support for even one person in sanctuary requires not a team, but teams. Since someone in sanctuary is effectively under house arrest, they will need support to purchase items for food, medical care, social engagement, child care, legal resources and a media campaign broadcast as far and wide as possible to get their case heard in the court of public opinion and thus put pressure on the government.

I’ve heard an array of responses from parishoners here at First Parish regarding the possibility of us becoming a sanctuary congregation. I put those responses into two buckets: scarcity and abundance.

A reaction of scarcity might sound like: we don’t have space; well, maybe we have space, but then we won’t have enough room for our own meetings; we’re already doing a lot at this church, how can we add one more thing? do we have the money for this?

Reactions of abundance look at things from a different angle. They look around Needham and see enormous wealth and fortune, in which many of us share. They see members of our congregation who are professionals of the exact type needed for sanctuary: doctors, social workers, educators, lawyers, professors – including at least one that specializes in immigration law – and the list goes on. They see a congregation with a social action committee and racial justice task force that have done, and continue to do, the hard work of confronting hard truths about racism and inequality.

They see our faith organization – the UUA – providing toolkits, guidelines and resources on the how to provide sanctuary, and sister churches who have taken that step and are eager to share what they’ve learned so we can join them. They see a dynamic minister whose loving spirit is matched only by her passion for social justice and her ability to communicate the societal and faith-based under-pinnings that make love of the less fortunate a moral imperative.

They see a Welcoming Congregation with a welcoming spirit, and how on a week-to-week and day-to-day basis, we care for each other with a soft touch and loving hearts. They see informed minds and loving spirits who challenge the status quo, not just because they believe in social justice, but because they live their beliefs through action and care.

In short, they see who we are and what we are capable of, and it is quite something, isn’t it?

Both reactions – scarcity and abundance – are natural. I’ve had both myself. As our task force explores sanctuary, we will consider both along with all the questions and aspirations that you share with us. And I invite you to share as much as possible with us throughout this process and commit to you that we will respond not with judgment but gratitude.

As I close this talk, I want to leave you with a final thought. Sanctuary is not a one way street. It is not a charity case that we sacrifice for, to fill up someone else. Rather, when we sit here on the inside of this church, sometimes contemplating our role in a racist and unequal world, we have but the appearance of freedom. It is not until we open the door, that we will truly be free. So, if ultimately we do become a sanctuary congregation or a sanctuary supporting congregation, it will be with the spirit of aborignal activist, artist and academic Lilla Watson who said:

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”


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