Posts By Cathy Livingston

Sanctuary in Spirit

By , Published on November 28, 2017
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I recently wrote a blog post called “Sanctuary in Practice” [], about my conversation with Reverend Chris Jimmerson who serves as the Minister for Program Development at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, a level 1 sanctuary congregation. In this follow up blog post, I want to share how that conversation moved me spiritually.

Reverend Jimmerson first explained the process the Parish followed to become a Sanctuary Parish initially focused on the practical details involved. These were typical concerns: Would there be enough volunteers? Would the effort interfere with the Church’s other social action projects? Would raising money (if needed) divert financial resources from the Church’s fundraising efforts?

However, when their Sanctuary Committee met with the Parish Council to recommend becoming a Level 2 Parish, members of the Council challenged them to explain why they would recommend Level 2 as opposed to Level 1. The Council Members argued that if the process to become a Sanctuary Parish was viewed through the lens of the Church’s Mission and Values, the recommendation should instead focus on becoming a Level 1 Parish.

Later, the Congregation voted overwhelmingly to become a Level 1 Sanctuary. I was encouraged to hear this chain of events. Rev. Jimmerson believes the crucial element was when parishioners heard directly from the individual who had been a guest in Sanctuary at another church. This guest-in-residence shared his story, including the stress of living as an undocumented immigrant, the way his fears were realized when he received a deportation order, his challenge in deciding if sanctuary was the best option, and his explanation for why returning to his country was a dangerous option. Once congregants heard up close what many immigrants experience in their daily lives, they were so moved that the members voted overwhelming to become a Level 1 Sanctuary Parish.

Rev. Jimmerson said that his church’s spiritual growth since starting this process has re-invigorated his Church in a ways he had not imagined. He believes that having a guest in sanctuary has energized his members’ faith and their sense of empowerment, simply by recognizing how their actions and efforts could make such a profound difference in someone’s life. In fact, despite being less organized in their first time hosting a guest, he believes that more congregants stepped up to help the second time based on how people shared the positive benefits of living their faith. Their connection with the network of other Austin based congregations has also enriched them in numerous ways and provided additional insights, such as the additional danger one LGBTQ guest faced when some faith-based organizations refused to provide him sanctuary.

I wish I could better capture Rev. Jimmerson’s tone when he described these events to me. His passion and energy indicated both his joy in being a part of such an important movement and his renewed sense of purpose and love for his faith community and his faith. Yes, he admitted that at times at the beginning, when a guest arrived without the Church being fully prepared, it could be stressful, as if “the Church was building the bicycle as they were riding it.” But he takes pride that they now share these lessons with other congregations to make the process easier and enable more to join this movement.

I have been part of the Sanctuary Task Force that has been gathering information since June in order to enable our Parish to assess its willingness to commit to becoming a Sanctuary Parish. My efforts were guided initially by my belief in the importance of providing assistance to others who were experiencing suffering and disruption in their lives. But as often happens when working on such initiatives, my humanitarian impetus for getting involved became less visible as I became immersed In sorting through the practical aspects of such a decision.

Two events – both with their origins in Texas – brought me back to my center. The first was the news story that reported on a large church’s initial refusal to open its doors to flood victims in the Houston area. My immediate reaction led to my asking myself the question, “Will this be us – First Parish – if we choose not to get involved in the Sanctuary movement?”   My conversation with Rev. Jimmerson in Austin served as the tipping point in revealing the clarity of why I hoped our Parish would ultimately choose to become a Sanctuary Parish. His enthusiastic description of the spiritual benefits for all involved in becoming a Sanctuary congregation was compelling, and it re-enforced for me that the decision flows out of our stated spiritual beliefs. It provides us with an opportunity to put our stated values and beliefs into action.

On December 10 at 12pm in the sanctuary, First Parish will vote on becoming a sanctuary supporting congregation. Please join us.

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews, 13:2)

Sanctuary in Practice

By , Published on November 16, 2017
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As part of my work with our Immigrant Ministry, I volunteered to contact individuals working with Sanctuary Congregations. On Saturday, Oct. 7, I spoke with Rev. Chris Jimmerson, who serves as the Minister for Program Development at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Texas. In this role, he has overseen the Sanctuary project at the parish. Rev. Jimmerson shared that this is the second time the parish has hosted someone in Sanctuary. As a Level 1 Sanctuary, the parish is supported by a network of other organizations, including churches as well as non-profit organizations. Through conversing with Chris, I learned that certain volunteer needs are always necessary when supporting someone in Sanctuary, but there are also unique needs based upon the individual living in Sanctuary. 

Basic needs include food shopping and other typical outside errands that are part of daily life, such as mailing letters, picking up medications if necessary, etc. Because the Austin church does not have laundry facilities on site, there are volunteers who provide off-site laundry service each week. Unique needs may be based on the person’s preference, such as whether they prefer to pass the time with visits and company or through more solitary pursuits such as reading or other hobbies. The current guest at the Austin church has been doing fitness activities with individual parishioners to help cope with the stress associated with fear of deportation.

In an effort to better understand how our own members might be invited to support a Level 1 Sanctuary Parish, I asked him if he could categorize the service areas needed in his church. He suggested the following:

Medical/Emotional Needs:  Examples might include fitness equipment or training; volunteer counseling and/or support groups, such as with volunteer therapists; transportation for family members who may wish to visit; on-site doctors visits.

Basic Needs: Laundry, groceries, social interaction as desired, mailing letters, retrieving mail, picking up and returning library books, picking up medications.

Volunteer Coordination:  Provide training for volunteers; serve as support to volunteer teams; help resolve issues that arise; provide reflection opportunities.

Media Campaign: In conjunction with ongoing efforts by area sanctuary sites to pressure ICE to withdraw the threat of deportation, tasks may include attending area meetings; posting/monitoring social media; outreach to other groups.

Security: Depending on whether site has means to control access to the building, protocols may be needed to screen who is entering the building, so multiple attendants for multiple access points may be needed.

Each sanctuary church and immigrant in sanctuary will have unique needs.  Please use the above as suggestions rather than requirements.

On November 19, at 12pm in the sanctuary, the Immigrant Ministry will host a town hall discussion and Q&A about the upcoming vote on First Parish becoming a sanctuary supporting congregation. Please join us and know all questions and comments welcome.


“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt


Sunday Night Book Club: 20th Anniversary Reflections

By , Published on December 13, 2015


Who are we?
Our book club celebrated its 20th anniversary in October 2015.  We are affiliated with First Parish, Unitarian Universalist in Needham, MA, but welcome readers who are not part of the Parish. Since our inception in 1995, we have had more than 25 members, but like other groups, have lost members because of illness, death, or relocation.  As noted by our name, we meet one Sunday evening per month.  Typically we average between 8 – 10 participants each meeting, but some books like Being Mortal draw upwards of 15 people.

book club

How do we choose our books?
We typically select in advance what we’ll read for the next six to eight-months. When it comes time to choose new selections, members are asked to submit their recommendations in advance.  We then prepare a list of all suggestions and vote at our next meeting.  Our only requirement is that the book must be available in paperback. The selections getting the most votes are then assigned to an upcoming month, and members offer to host the meeting at their homes for a particular month.  We’ve established some favorite rituals at individual members’ homes over the years; e.g., ice cream sundaes at our July meeting; a December gathering that offers a real Christmas tree and treats!

How do we structure our discussions and keep track of what we’ve read?
Generally one or more of our long-standing participants will start the discussion.  Typically our discussions are lively, especially if the group is split on liking or not liking a particular choice.  If we tend to get off track – which doesn’t happen very often – anyone in the group can remind us to refocus our comments on the book under discussion.  One of our members keeps an electronic record of what we read each month, and the list of all of the books we’ve read is available on the Parish website.

Which books have we liked and why?
To commemorate our 20th anniversary, we sent a list to our past and present members of all of the books we’ve read since the group was founded.  Members were asked to vote on the books they liked and the ones they didn’t like.  Of the nearly 240 books we’ve read over the last 20 years, 53 made it to someone’s favorite list.  We were pleasantly surprised that our favorites included both fiction and non-fiction selections: Citizens of London; Cod; Guns, Germs and Steel; Old Filth/Man with a Wooden Hat; Orphan Train; Suite Française ; Team of Rivals; The Elegance of the Hedgehog; The Hare with Amber Eyes; The Housekeeper and the Professor; The Nine; The Professor and the Mad Man, The Warmth of Other Suns; and The Woman Behind the New Deal. Our group clearly has a strong interest in learning about past events as well as gaining more informed perspectives of historical events.  That said, we also enjoy beautiful writing that opens our hearts to a more compassionate understanding of the human experience.  

Which books were not so popular?
The good news is that we liked more of what we read than we didn’t like.  Our top  dislikes included: Claire of the Sea Light, Hotel du Lac, In Certain Circles, and The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Three books – Secret Lives of Bees, The Hare with Amber Eyes, and The Peabody Sisters appeared on both the “most liked” and the “most disliked” lists.

What do members enjoy most about participating in the Book Group?
Members frequently cited that the Group   motivated them to read books that they probably would not have chosen on their own, thus leading them to new authors and different subjects.  Everyone seems to enjoy the discussions, even when we disagree with one another.  Our most passionate and lively discussions remind us of the validity of different viewpoints as well as help us appreciate the author’s choice of language, style, tone, etc.  We sometimes have to remind ourselves of the difference between “not liking a character” and the author’s “purpose or point” in telling the story.