By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Long aligned with progressive causes, Augustana Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon, did not hesitate when Pastor Mark Knutson announced 20 years ago that the church would be a “sanctuary congregation” where undocumented immigrants could avoid federal agents with warrants to deport them.

But that did not mean Augustana’s congregants were fully prepared when their commitment was suddenly tested in 2014.

With federal agents in pursuit of El Salvadoran national Francisco Aguirre, Augustana’s chancel was transformed overnight into a sleeping space. A husband, father, and local labor organizer, Aguirre also faced charges for drunken driving and illegal reentry after a prior deportation. How long he would be a 24/7 resident of the church was anybody’s guess.

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“It’s like having a baby,” Knutson said. “You don’t know everything you’re going to do, and you start to figure it out as you go forward.”

Insight gleaned from churches like Augustana became a sought-after commodity after Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President. Calls have poured into Augustana’s office from at least 15 congregations in the post-election period, Knutson said. Callers want to know what it takes to be a sanctuary church, to hold off government agents and help an undocumented immigrant remain in America.

Nationwide, more than 400 congregations take part in the sanctuary movement, either by offering their buildings or taking other steps to thwart individual deportation orders. Department of Homeland Security policy classifies houses of worship like schools and hospitals: as “sensitive locations” where immigration enforcement actions are discouraged.

Active on and off since the 1980s, the sanctuary church movement has been dramatically revived by Trump’s election. More than 300 churches have taken new steps since November to become involved, according to Church World Service, which is coordinating these efforts. Church activists turned out in December for informational sessions in Boston, Washington, D.C., and other cities.

At annual meetings in the fall, the dioceses of Oregon and Los Angeles voted to become sanctuaries, meaning in effect that staff will now help coordinate and equip sanctuary efforts among congregations. In Oregon, the goal is to ensure that immigrants are not deported before their cases are heard in court.

“One of the common misconceptions is that providing sanctuary is doing something illegal,” said Heidi Pitts of the Diocese of Oregon. “The reality is that we are doing it in order to help enforce the law.”

Now those with firsthand experience of providing sanctuary are speaking out about what churches should know. They are explaining the toll and benefits that come with putting themselves between federal agents and immigrants on the run.

That is how events played out in Portland. When Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents came for Aguirre at his home, his wife called a group of local union leaders, who rushed to the scene.

Thirty of them surrounded the ICE agents,  Knutson said. “At that time I got a call saying, If we can get him to the church, can he be there [in sanctuary]?  “I said yes.”

While agents sought a warrant, union leaders rushed Aguirre 10 miles to the church, where he hunkered down for 81 days. He left only for court. To attend his DUI hearing, he rode in an old green bus that church leaders made into a church — a mobile religious sanctuary ICE would not enter — by outfitting it with a cross, Bible, and a kit with bread, wine, and chalice for administering Communion.

In court, Aguirre got some relief as criminal charges were dropped. Now aspiring to become a Lutheran pastor, he is still seeking legal status through petitions. He is pursuing both a U visa (for crime victims) and asylum with hopes that either will come through, Knutson said. A federal judge’s protection order freed him to leave the church.

God’s Law, Human Law
“God’s law is higher than human law, and our human law is deeply, deeply unjust,” said Judy Goldberger, a Quaker organizer of the sanctuary church movement in Boston. “The congregations that are offering sanctuary are saying: We’re going by God’s law.”

The vision might seek God’s law, but execution entails many an earthly challenge. Augustana congregants and staffers had some adjusting to do as Aguirre, a local labor organizer, settled in. Outfitting the space to meet fire codes for a dwelling was the easy part. More nerve-wracking was having federal agents circling the property for a time in unmarked vehicles, being the focus of television news coverage night after night, and having their pastor denounced on social media as “Satan.”

Not all situations wrap up as tidily as Augustana’s did. Just ask the people of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, in which a Guatemalan woman lived for seven years after she ran out of legal avenues. The Rev. Frank Alton, who is now pastor at St. Athanasius Church in Los Angeles, was at Immanuel at the time.

“Seven years is a long time to be stuck inside,” Alton said. “Not only does the person get tired of it. So does the caring network.”

The experience taught Alton that having a team with a “relay” mindset is critically important. Not everyone at Immanuel supported the effort since it lacked an exit strategy, he said. The church tried to find ways to keep the woman busy, such as cleaning the church and working in the food pantry in exchange for room and board. Finally she dared to move out and live in an apartment, even though that meant risking deportation if agents ever found her. She still lives in Los Angeles.

Immanuel’s case serves as a cautionary tale. Movement organizers say an immigrant should have realistic options to pursue while in sanctuary, such as receiving prosecutorial discretion or U visa, before taking up residence in a church building.

So far, the strategy of taking refuge in churches is rare. While the Obama administration deports 400,000 immigrants per year on average, only 19 individuals have accepted church sanctuary since 2014. The strategy is seldom used because it is helpful only under two conditions: an immigrant knows agents have a deportation order and has a legal avenue in which to pursue relief.

In most cases, undocumented people either are not aware that agents are coming for them or have no legal options left, said Harlan York, an immigration attorney in Newark, New Jersey. After checking court records, he sometimes surprises clients with news that they are on a deportation list.

“I’ll [say], You know, you’ve been a fugitive for the last 10 years and you had no idea,” York said. “I’ll have to break the news to them. They’re kind of perplexed by that. They almost don’t want to believe it.”

Though churches are mobilizing to thwart Trump’s deportation efforts, York does not foresee more immigrants seeking refuge under steeples in the coming years. Yet despite the long odds, congregations occasionally have a chance to provide the shelter they have waited years to offer.

That was the case last fall at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, where Javier Flores has lived since Nov. 13.

Volunteers cleaned out a storage space to create a bedroom in which Flores, an arborist from Mexico, lives and his family visits him. Adjusting has been relatively easy for church members and staff because they are used to having people around at all hours, said the Rev. Robin Hynicka. Arch Street hosts a homeless shelter for men in winter months and has groups coming and going every day. Taking a few more proactive measures has helped all go smoothly thus far.

For example, under the legal protocol for all sanctuary congregations, Arch Street leaders announced publicly that they would be sheltering an immigrant from deportation. Doing so at a press conference assured that the government knew his location.

Hynicka also notified community partners that the church might need support. Allies now stand ready to descend on Arch Street within minutes and surround federal agents to protect Flores, Hynicka said. Volunteer security patrols have increased to monitor hallways on every floor during worship services. Some continually monitor the web to remove hostile posts and defend against sabotage from those who believe Arch Street is obstructing law enforcement.

“A portion of our baptismal vows require us to resist evil, oppression, and injustice in any form,” Hynicka said. “For anyone who asks, Why do you do this?, I say, I’m keeping my baptismal vow. And I’m honoring the provisions of my denomination that say the family is a sacred unit.”

Supporting sanctuary efforts can be strenuous even for congregations that do not provide housing. Parishioners at St. Matthew’s Church in Auburn, Washington, helped immigrant Renee Martinez pursue legal status in 2007. They accompanied him to monthly check-ins with ICE and raised about $8,000 to cover his legal bills. The church is ready to shelter an immigrant if necessary, said Dianne Aid, a layperson at St. Matthew’s and activist with the Episcopal Network for Economic Justice.

Doing so could attract resistance in Auburn, but that is not a concern, she said. Parishioners have experienced community tensions as a consequence of taking stands in the past. When the church launched a feeding ministry, neighbors grew irate at the influx of homeless people (including immigrants) passing through the neighborhood. One hacked the church’s Facebook page. Another made threats that led to a restraining order.

“We are not inviting conflict, but we are certainly ready for it,” Aid said.

Planning and Flexibility
Congregations have not seen their insurance premiums go up when they have sheltered would-be deportees. Nor are they courting legal jeopardy just by offering sanctuary, York said, because the government “has more important things to do than to subject churches to liability.”

But safety risks can be real if a church has not done its homework on  anyone seeking sanctuary. York expects tough criminals generally will not want to hide in churches. But responsible faith leaders still ought to check criminal backgrounds before offering shelter to someone who could have a violent past and rap sheet.

In such cases, “whoever runs that house of worship is going to say, You’re dangerous, and I’m not sure we can let you stay here,” York said.

Providing sanctuary, according to those who have done it, requires both thorough planning and flexibility. Hynicka, Alton, and Aid all say churches must take stock and ask such questions as these:

  • Do we have a network of volunteers from other local organizations at the ready to provide manpower and supports, such as pro bono legal counsel or household furnishings?
  • Can we quickly establish security systems to watch for anti-immigration activists who might harass church leaders, breach entryways to cause harm, hack websites, or sabotage social-media platforms?
  • Do we have a high tolerance for conflict with neighbors and others in our community who believe we are obstructing justice?
  • Do we bring a deep sense of calling that says U.S. immigration laws are unjust and must be resisted on moral grounds?

If so, then a church might be a good candidate to offer sanctuary.

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