MOUNDRIDGE — Churches across the country are responding to concerns about the deportation of illegal immigrants by declaring themselves places of sanctuary.
Both Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton and First Mennonite Church of Christian in Moundridge have publicly declared that, should someone seek sanctuary, they could find it within the walls of their places of worship.
“The idea is that congregations, churches (or) places of worship that see a need for people who are being deported, who are being removed from their homes or separated from their families, to have a place to stay and take refuge from that deportation,” said Ben Woodward-Breckbill, associate pastor at Shalom Mennonite Church. “Those who have felt called have been able to open their doors to people who need that.”
In order to provide sanctuary, churches set up a space for someone to live and sleep in day and night.
“If you’re in sanctuary, you can’t leave the building,” Woodward-Breckbill said.
Coordinating volunteers and material support should Shalom Mennonite Church be asked to provide sanctuary is a project that is already underway.
“There’s a lot of community, people support that we need, whether it’s people to run errands or go get groceries or do laundry or come in and provide company or prayer support or moral support,” Woodward-Breckbill said.
By offering sanctuary, the church is seeking to care for their neighbors, just as they do when working with homeless shelters or other community services, Woodward-Breckbill said.
“We are here for the well-being of our community as a whole, and individuals in our community, specifically, and certain deportation actions — immigration enforcement actions — clearly spread fear in the community,” Woodward-Breckbill said. “They separate families, they create these holes in the community that are a source of fear and trauma and anything we can do to limit the fear and trauma in our community is very valuable.”
For Shalom Mennonite Church, honoring their Christian commitment was the primary motivation behind the decision to become a sanctuary church.
“The Old Testament consistently measures society by how vulnerable people are treated — immigrants and people without family; orphans and widows,” Woodward-Breckbill said. “These are some of the main markers of the health and justice of a society — if vulnerable people are being treated well and taken care of by the society as a whole. When it seems that’s not happening, I think the church is called to step in.”
According to Church World Service, there are more than 1,100 churches in the United States that are willing to provide sanctuary for illegal immigrants, only a few dozen of whom are taking advantage of the opportunity.
“Immigrations Customs Enforcement has a policy that there are certain sensitive places that they won’t do enforcement actions in — that includes places of worship, hospitals, schools and large public events,” Woodward-Breckbill said. “That’s not a law, that’s just a policy, so that could change at any time.”
Members of the congregation realize they are risking legal consequences by providing sanctuary.
“The question I ask myself is: if there is a population in this community that is constantly under threat of legal action against them that is life-changing, is there a way that people who are not under that threat can bear some small part of that burden. In this case, yes, there is a way that we can do that,” Woodward-Breckbill said.
While there is little precedent for churches being prosecuted for providing sanctuary, Woodward-Breckbill said he realizes it could still happen and that pastors like himself would bear the brunt of the charges.
“The question of what am I risking to do this ministry is, I think, secondary to the question of what do we as a faith community risk by not speaking up,” Woodward-Breckbill said.
Beyond the legal ramifications, there is also the concern about pushback from the public.
“There are many Christians in the community who would say this is totally inappropriate for us to do. Right, because we are violating the laws of the country that we live in,” Woodward-Breckbill said.
Still, members of the church feel compelled to act to preserve relationships illegal immigrants have formed by providing sanctuary.
“This story of sanctuary is less about Shalom ... than it is about the situation that undocumented people find themselves in,” Woodward-Breckbill said. “...We aren’t the focus here; we’re part of something much larger.”
“As a congregation, we are aware of individuals in the central Kansas area that live in fear,” said Laura Goerzen, pastor of First Mennonite Church of Christian in Moundridge.
The church’s board did some research about becoming a sanctuary church and found a multitude of online resources giving information about providing different levels of support to illegal immigrants — from advocacy to sanctuary. In November of 2017, the congregation overwhelmingly voted to become a sanctuary church.
In the past, First Mennonite Church of Christian has given people shelter when they needed a place to stay the night or safety from an approaching storm. After she visited with a pastor in Arizona whose church had decided to provide sanctuary, Goerzen said she was convinced it was a natural extension of the congregation’s purpose.
“Making this commitment of sanctuary made sense for us; it fit into our mission to care for our neighbors,” Goerzen said.
Taking in someone seeking sanctuary would require only minimal changes to the church’s building, Goerzen said, and there have been discussions about turning an unused classroom into a comfortable and safe space.
“We would want to make that, if we were housing someone, that they would be in a secure place,” Goerzen said.
The circumstances surrounding each person looking for sanctuary can be different, but there is a common element.
“Often it’s people who have fled extremely difficult circumstances in their home country and our immigration system is simply not set up to deal with that; to provide them with many options,” Goerzen said. “...Typically, I think when someone seeks sanctuary, it’s because they are looking for enough of a reprieve to file further appeals, to continue with some sort of process to be able to stay legally and a church can sometimes provide them the space and time to be able to do that.”
By providing sanctuary, the members of First Mennonite Church of Christian are motivated by a strong belief that caring for their neighbors is their highest calling before God.
“Mennonites have a history of obeying government in all things until government rules seem to conflict with our calling as Christians. You see that in our history of conscientious objection to wars and creating alternatives for people who do not want to be involved in violence,” Goerzen said. “I think we see this as following in that tradition.”
Contact Patricia Middleton by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her stories on Twitter at @MacSentinel.