Three churches in Ohio are among the dozens nationwide who are openly providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants who face deportation. This weekend, the Beacon Journal’s Doug Livingston profiled two of those churches – one in Akron and one in Cleveland Heights. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze spoke with Livingston about the sanctuary church movement and the differences between it and higher profile – and more controversial -- “sanctuary cities.”
Doug Livingston notes there are differences among churches that offer sanctuary. But he says, unlike sanctuary cities, most try to keep open communication between the families they’re housing and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“When a church takes in an immigrant that is working through or negotiating with ICE, they have two options: They can go public or they can stay quiet.
“This church in the Akron area which spoke to us on the condition of anonymity did not want to go public because the family they are helping has worked with ICE in the past. And ICE has always been very easy to work with, so they want to continue that good will. And they don’t want to step on (the relationship) by having a big press conference, which is what we saw at the (Forest Hill) Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights and the (Columbus) Mennonite Church.”
Matthew and Leviticus
Livingston says the churches doing this are primarily part of a growing movement of churches “have tendencies toward social activism. And they say they’re doing this to offer protection and help to the most disadvantaged people in society. They think this follows the moral teaching that are set forth in the biblical teachings.”
He says they also think they’re stepping in on a crucial issue where Congress and the White House – both current and former administrations – have failed, “which is to pass comprehensive immigration reform to deal with the more than 10 million people in America without legal status.”
The impact of Donald Trump
Livingston notes that the concerns about the immigration system didn’t start with the election of President Donald Trump. But for people like Leonora Garcia, they accelerated.
“Miss Garcia up in Cleveland Heights has been visiting ICE since 2011, and it wasn’t until January, weeks before the Trump inauguration, that ICE really started tightening the clamps on her status here. And six months later, at her next check-in, she was told, ‘Buy a plane ticket, (and) that date you better be out of the country.’”
That ratcheted up the move by the Forest Hills church toward sanctuary status.
“They had already had discussions months before about possibly becoming a sanctuary church. They convened the congregation, the voted 150-0 to move toward sanctuary status. But it was this determination by ICE that this woman should buy a plane ticket right there on the spot and then show up at the airport and leave” that propelled the church from talk to action.
After ICE put an ankle bracelet on her and she feared separation from her four children, the process was sped up and she took sanctuary I believe in August.”
Her oldest child, 19, dropped out of Kent State University to care for the three younger siblings.
“They visit mom Friday afternoon to about Sunday afternoon and then they come back to Akron for the week.”
At the Akron church, “there were discussions with the pastor of the church, who was reaching out looking for information on this sanctuary church movement and what it meant, and (he was) trying to make sure that what they’re doing was lawful and also had the best interests of the community and the congregation in mind.
“They voted in August and found out later that month that a local family was in a pretty sticky situation with ICE, so they outfitted a room with a bed, installed a shower.” That’s similar to the churches in Cleveland Heights, Columbus and other sanctuaries, who are converting open space into living quarters.
Still, the Akron church is “hoping that their (the family’s) past relations with ICE will continue to help reach some resolution in this family’s case,” Livingston says.
ICE has stopped short at church doors
Overall, he says, Ohio churches are counting on past guidance for ICE.
“ICE is operating under a longstanding guideline that says, ‘We are not going to go into sensitive locations and pull people out.
“They know that the ICE officials aren’t going to risk the bad publicity of kicking in, or knocking on or beating on a church door and pulling families out and then separating them through deportation proceedings."
Livingston says advocates expect more churches will convert open spaces and accept more families as the national debate continues.
The Rev. John Lentz, pastor of Forest Hill Presbyterian on the biblical passages that support sanctuary.
Leviticus 19:34: The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.
Matthew 24: 34-45: For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty ad you game me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in..."
The Rev. John Lentz on three reasons Forest HiIl decided to go public with its sanctuary:
Link here to the Beacon Journal's stories on sanctuary churches.