I was “brought up” as a Baptist—and even had a minister as an uncle. But as my cousins used to tell me, our Uncle Hugh wasn’t a fire-and-brimstone style of preacher—he was one of the “good kind.” That always made me laugh.
Our regular family church attendance fell by the wayside as I approached my teens, but still today I remember the times as a child listening to Uncle Hugh’s sermons, delivered in a cavernous Baptist church in small town in Arkansas.
Just being in that building made me feel comforted and secure.
There has been a lot of talk recently about the rise of the Sanctuary movement. Los Angeles, New York, and many other U.S. cities have declared themselves to be Sanctuary Cities. All twenty-three sites of the California State University system have recently declared themselves to be Sanctuary Campuses.
And the movement is also emerging in churches.
A recent article I read in the L.A. Times notes that Trump’s promise of a crackdown on illegal immigration has church congregations across the country mobilizing to shield undocumented immigrants. Churches are becoming a key component of resistance. To these congregations it is seen as part politics, and part moral duty to help those who they feel deserve to stay in this country.
Since 2014, in the United States there have been twenty-two public cases of immigrants taking sanctuary in churches. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has held to a longstanding policy of generally avoiding enforcement activities at “sensitive locations” such as churches, hospitals, schools, and the courts.
But the practice of designating these areas as off limits may be coming to an end. In the past several weeks, court attorneys and prosecutors in California, Arizona, Texas, and Colorado have all reported teams of ICE agents — some in uniform, some not — sweeping into courtrooms or waiting just outside to arrest undocumented immigrants as they enter and leave these facilities.
On March 16th, our California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye asked the Trump administration to stop immigration agents from stalking the state’s courts. “Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws,” she wrote.
Are churches next?
The number of congregations willing to offer sanctuary has more than doubled since Trump’s election and the number is still growing. In addition to providing critical relief to undocumented immigrants, church leaders believe that the church sanctuary movement may score public relations points in the drive to achieve immigration enforcement relief. But others are not at all sure whether this strategy will work with this administration.
“My guess is they’re going to make an example of a church,” says Reverend Tim Kutzmark of Fresno, California, in another recent article. “It’s to scare people.”
And it has happened before.
On Wikipedia, I found a page for the “Buffalo Nine.” During the Vietnam War a group of students, primarily from the University of Buffalo in York, had been evading the draft and protesting the war. When they and their supporters sought sanctuary in Buffalo’s Unitarian Universalist church, a large group of FBI agents, U.S. Marshals, and the Buffalo Police surrounded the premises.
On August 19, 1968, law enforcement stormed the church, using blackjacks to force their way through the crowd. Nine students were arrested on charges including draft evasion and assaulting a federal officer.
In February of this year, two men who sleep at the Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church’s hypothermia shelter in Alexandria, Va., said that ICE agents detained seven immigrants. As the men left the shelter that morning, they noticed three unmarked cars parked across the street.
A group of seven or eight Latino men split off and headed for a shopping center down the way. As soon as they stepped onto the opposite sidewalk, a dozen federal agents burst from the cars, forced them up against a wall, and handcuffed them.
Many people today believe that raiding churches would be a huge public relations blunder for the government, and would provoke massive demonstrations and dissent. But such acts will also score major points with Trump’s key constituencies.
To the new administration it could be worth it to slam home the point—that no place is safe.