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Assistsant Pastor and Leonor Embrace Before a Sunday Worship

But Boaz answered her, ‘All that you have done for your mother-in-law ... how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!’” (Ruth 2:11–12)


Throughout history, the people of God have provided safe space in their places of worship for those vulnerable under the laws and customs of the time. The Hebrew people had cities of refuge for persons wrongfully accused of crimes. In the years before the American Civil War, congregations provided safety for slaves fleeing the South in the Underground Railroad. In the 1980s, more than 500 U.S. congregations provided safe houses to Central Americans fleeing civil war but whom our government refused to acknowledge as refugees.

Today churches are providing sanctuary to people with final orders of deportation. Law-abiding parents and workers caught in the clutches of a broken immigration system are entering houses of worship to fight their orders of deportation from a safe space. Congregations are standing with families at risk of separation.

Why sanctuary and why now? Eleven million undocumented persons are living in the United States, the majority of whom have lived here for more than ten years. They are our friends, neighbors, and family members. All are at risk of deportation.

Year after year, Congress refuses to pass immigration reform. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to fund an 18 billion dollar a year immigration enforcement system that continues to deport persons with significant ties in the U.S. The film Journeying in Hope, captures the strife felt by families and ministries on the border that are offering witness and support in the midst of this crisis. Changes made in immigration policy during 2017 have made a desperate situation for many even more so and have added to the list of people likely to be targeted for immigration enforcement.

Many church communities refuse to sit by and watch another family torn apart. Congregations are standing alongside members of their church and community by assisting in the preparation of family care plans and forming communities of advocacy and support who provide accompaniment to court and advocacy to agencies and people in power. These acts of solidarity are, sometimes, enough to stop unjust deportations. When they are not, some bodies of faith are offering sanctuary.

Deciding to Enter Sanctuary

Individuals with final orders of deportation may decide to enter a place of worship to advocate for forms of immigration relief from a place of safety. Such a decision is a personal one that should be made after consulting with an attorney. There are so many factors to take into consideration, including personal safety, health needs, family, employment, available immigration legal remedies, the ethos of the worshipping community offering sanctuary, community support for sanctuary, and much more.

Meet Leonor Garcia
(A woman who made the difficult decision to enter sanctuary)

Meet Leonor Garcia from Office of the General Assembly.

Members and neighbors at risk of deportation can use the tools in our Family Care Plan to discern the best path of preparation for themselves in these uncertain times. Congregations can offer to be a part of the discernment and key actors in these plans.


Deciding to Offer Sanctuary

The decision to offer sanctuary should not be taken lightly. It requires more than just an understanding of U.S. immigration policy. It is more than a public witness. It is a relationship. Cultivating partnerships in the community, exploring one’s theological convictions, understanding of one’s own privilege, committing as a congregation to the care and nurture of the individual in sanctuary are key to the health of this relationship.

Meet Forest Hill Church Presbyterian
(The congregation hosting Leonor Garcia)

Deciding to Offer Sanctuary from Office of the General Assembly.

Advice to congregations discerning sanctuary

Out of their experience, Forest Hill Church Presbyterian and Leonor Garcia offer guidance about what to work through when discerning, why it is important to take the time to discern, and the significance of the decision.

Advice to Congregations Discerning Sanctuary from Office of the General Assembly.

Read the Sanctuary Discernment Guide created by the Office of Public Witness for more information.


Life together—highs, lows, and transformation—for the duration
A person’s need for sanctuary can be resolved in two weeks or ongoing for years. A life will be unfolding within the walls of a sacred space. Family life, health issues, and celebrations will be experienced by the person in sanctuary while the day-to-day faith-life of the congregation is going on around them. How do you prepare for this life together and how do you open yourself up for how you will all be changed?

Hear from Leonor Garcia and Forest Hill Church Presbyterian
(About their life together)

Life Together from Office of the General Assembly.

While weighing whether to offer or support sanctuary, here are two other things to consider:

Is sanctuary legal?
This is a question a session needs to discuss thoroughly with an attorney before a church offers sanctuary. Congregations that offer sanctuary can certainly be charged with the crime of harboring, but could they be convicted? While the congregations offering sanctuary today are not bringing individuals into the country, there is a question of whether they are harboring. The law forbids the act of harboring someone in a building who is known to be remaining in the U.S. in violation of the law. Some courts have held that harboring requires that the person being charged actually hide the person remaining in violation of the law. If harboring does require hiding or concealing a person, these churches are not in violation because they are all publicly calling on the government to rectify the final order of deportation of the person living in sanctuary. Unfortunately, there is also case law that defines the act of harboring as providing shelter. If simple shelter with no concealment is harboring, then all the churches offering sanctuary and any family member or friend with an undocumented person within their household is in violation of the harboring statute. While we pray this is not the case, both decisions with their conflicting definitions need to be considered.

Read more about the legal implications of Sanctuary and other Ministries of Welcome in Welcome and the Law.


What does the PC(USA) say about sanctuary?
The General Assembly of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has made the following statements about the offering of sanctuary:

Additional resources about sanctuary
How to build a coalition (webinar) from the New Sanctuary Movement. The webinar guides you through the process of building a sanctuary coalition in your community.

Latino USA podcast (National Public Radio)—Churches as Migrant Sanctuaries Then and Now—In the mid-1980s, Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson gave refuge to Central Americans fleeing civil war. Thirty years later, the same church sparked the rebirth of church sanctuaries nationwide. Interviewed during the report, immigrant advocates and Presbyterian pastors, the Reverend John Fife and the Reverend Alison Harrington. From March 24, 2017.

Code Switch report (National Public Radio)—Sanctuary Churches: Who Controls the Story? The report looks at why the movement has to wrestle with important questions: Who controls the story and the message? How much say does an individual or family have in how a sanctuary church leverages their story? Immigrant activist and sanctuary leader Jeannette Vizguerra and immigrant advocate and Presbyterian pastor, the Reverend Alison Harrington are interviewed . From March 29, 2017.

Code Switch–Podcast Extra en Español: Jeanette Vizguerra (National Public Radio)–The full interview with immigrant and sanctuary activist, Jeanette Vizguerra, about the new sanctuary movement and her life in sanctuary as she strives to control her story. Interview is in Spanish." Who Controls the Story?". Parts of the interview were interpreted to English in the Sanctuary Churches. From April 1, 2017.

Ask for support from your local government. Can they become a sanctuary or welcoming government (PDF)? Can they refuse to participate in 287(g)?


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