By Elizabeth Sollie, ministerial intern
As interest grows around the sanctuary movement, I have been asked to share my particular experience with the New Sanctuary Movement. My home congregation voted to become a sanctuary church and brought Arturo Hernandez-Garica into sanctuary in 2015. I was the president of the board during our discernment process. After nine months in sanctuary, Arturo Hernandez-Garcia received a letter saying he was no longer a priority for deportation and decided that was enough to return home on. This fall FUSD welcomed Jeanette Vizguerra into sanctuary. I want to share a little bit about our discernment and a little bit about what effect our decision had on the church.
Jennifer Piper of the American Friends Service Committee approached us with the request to offer a particular person sanctuary. At that time we had recently changed the way we were doing social justice work in the church in order to put that work at the center of the congregation and it was going well. The newly formed Faith in Action Council had just turned down and emergency proposal for women’s shelter and encouraged the applicants to follow the newly established process (which they subsequently did and were approved). Several members of FIAC were on the board when Piper made her request, so the board was torn between the urgency of the request and the importance of consistently supporting our new social justice process. They decided to offer sanctuary for a very limited time with the understanding the congregation would be brought into the decision-making process as quickly as possible. Fortunately, the immigrant in question received a stay of deportation. Now FUSD had time to make the decision in process and in covenant.
Three things immediately happened. First, a group of volunteers moved the archives, freeing up a room in the basement and then did some remodeling. They did this on their own dime and provided all the labor. Second, a Sanctuary Team formed. About ten people heroically made sanctuary their life’s work for many long months. And third, the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition was formed to garner support and partnerships for the work. The coalition members are largely other Denver metro UU churches and the Friends. We were also blessed to have the tireless assistance of Rev. Kierstin Homblette who was, at that time, a UU community minister in Denver and Kate Burns, a member of FUSD in a lay leadership role.
The discernment process was intense. Because this action would involve public witness, our bylaws required that we vote to become a New Sanctuary church by a margin of two thirds of the voters. People expressed their fears by articulating concerns about insurance, code regulations, zoning laws, harboring laws, etc. Early forums were full of questions that were actually fear-based accusations, but Kate and Kierstin gently and lovingly answered all questions without getting defensive or trying to convince anyone. One board member consistently went out to lunch with people who were most vocal in their fears and just listened. She also made sure we addressed all the questions that came in. A pro bono lawyer was found. The Sanctuary team spent long hours researching questions and communicating answers. Our minister, Rev. Mike Morran, expressed his desire that we offer sanctuary, but reminded us that good people were on both sides of the issue. As president, I also expressed my desire that we do this reminding people to stay in their prefrontal cortex and out of their reptilian brains. Personally, I trusted that we had the collective capacity to handle any adversity. We voted by a comfortable margin to become a New Sanctuary Church. Nobody who had voted against the idea left the church. I think much of the success can be attributed to how hard we worked to make this decision in covenant, how dedicated the lay leadership and the sanctuary team was and how deeply people engaged in discernment.
As to the effects this had on the church, I think they have been positive. When we made this decision we were already hosting overnight guests who were homeless and had a long history of social justice work under our belts. I think our prior social justice work lent courage to try something new. Subsequently, I am told the church has deepened its LGBT work and is starting to be a useful ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. I think awareness and courage grow with each social justice effort we embrace. Each time our worst fears are not realized, we gain confidence to take bigger risks.
I also think it was important that we took on some risk as well. Our social justice work is more authentic if we are sharing risk and not just doing what is comfortable. There is value in tying your fate to the fate of others.
We were consumed with our discernment and proud of our decision and so I think we were a little taken aback when we were mentioned merely as a building in subsequent news stories. But of course, that was right and good. The real story is about unjust immigration laws and the people who are hurt by those laws. It was important to learn to be the extras and not the leaders. It was good to acknowledge our role was to provide the support asked of us. We learned something about being allies.
I do not know what this congregation’s role will be in the New Sanctuary Movement, but I can attest to the notion that being brave is good for the spirit.