Recently-declared sanctuary church preparing for undocumented arrivals

The First United Congressional Church of Christ declared itself a sanctuary for those threatened by deportation. (Nicholas Serpa/DD)
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A downtown church is preparing rooms and accepting donations for individuals and families threatened by deportation after church leaders declared it a sanctuary space last week.

Leaders at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, located on Second Street near McDowell Road, made the announcement after President Donald Trump’s executive orders regarding immigration and weeks before city council will decide whether to make Phoenix a sanctuary city.

The Rev. James Pennington, senior pastor of the church, said he wants those seeking sanctuary with the church to feel like part of the community.

“The goal is really for us to stand beside these individuals in solidarity,” Pennington said. “It’s not like we’re ‘taking care of them’ or taking them in — we’re standing side-by-side with them.”

U.S. immigration policy mandates that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers do not carry out immigration enforcement at churches and schools, unless doing so involves a national security matter or would prevent violence.

While the church has not taken anyone in yet, it is preparing for future arrivals, and will take anyone at risk of being deported as long as they do not have a criminal record. The building is currently able to accommodate one family, though Pennington said more rooms could be prepared if the demand for sanctuary increases.

In a statement released last week, Pennington said: “In times of crises people of faith have to return to ancient traditions. Refugees in the Roman Empire found sanctuary in Christian churches. Slaves in pre-civil war United States found sanctuary in the Underground Railroad and congregations across the country. Political refugees from the civil wars in Central America found sanctuary in over 500 churches in the United States when our federal government failed to offer asylum or refuge under existing laws.”

Rooms are being prepared and donations are being taken to support the First Congressional Church of Christ in its mission to host those threatened by deportation. (Nicholas Serpa/DD)
Rooms are being prepared and donations are being taken to support the First Congressional Church of Christ in its mission to host those threatened by deportation. (Nicholas Serpa/DD)

The church has two fully furnished rooms available for those who need them, complete with beds, televisions and small fridges. The two rooms share a restroom, and anyone staying at the church would have access to a kitchen and the courtyard. All of this was done to help create a sense of normalcy for anyone staying with them, Pennington said.

“When people are in sanctuary, normalcy is really hard,” Pennington said. “To have food for them to cook, for them to have a space that they can call their own home is important.”

Laura Ilardo is a member of the congregation, and part of the church’s Immigration Task Force, which helps run the church’s immigration outreach. She said the decision to offer sanctuary “shouldn’t be controversial.”

“If you really live your faith, it should be so simple,” Ilardo said. “It shouldn’t be about politics; it should be about ‘these are folks that we need to be in solidarity with.’”

Ilardo said the church’s decision to offer solidarity immediately after President Trump signed his immigration-related executive orders was not a coincidence.

“We realized that we really can’t sit on the fence anymore,” Ilardo said. “It’s just a moral imperative that if we’re going to talk about values and things that are really important as Christians, we have to do something and not just speak about it.”

The reaction among the church’s approximately 300-member congregation has been positive, according to Pennington. Since the announcement, the church received numerous donations of needed items like blankets, sheets and televisions. Donations came from as far as Tucson.

U.S. immigration policy mandates that law enforcement must respect the sanctuary status of churches or schools except in situations concerning national security. (Nicholas Serpa/DD)
U.S. immigration policy mandates that law enforcement must respect the sanctuary status of churches or schools except in situations concerning national security. (Nicholas Serpa/DD)

Ilardo said the biggest potential cause of fear among church members is the legality of housing refugees, but she was not personally concerned.

“There’s nothing in any law that says you can’t have friends over to stay the night, you know?” Ilardo asked.

Pennington considered the church to have a “really good” relationship with the Phoenix Police Department and does not see any issues arising there.

Police Sgt. Jonathan Howard said via email that the Phoenix Police Department does not have the authority to actively enforce immigration violations with people unless they are arrested for a criminal violation.

Both Pennington and Ilardo agree there are some concerns.

“With the previous administration, we realized we were able to do sanctuary in churches without being hassled,” Pennington said. “We’re not sure if this new administration will hold to that same policy.”

Despite this, Pennington believes offering sanctuary is a risk worth taking.

“There are some unknowns,” Pennington said. “But I think the higher causes of love and justice call us to be bold and not to be fearful.”

Contact the reporter at Nicholas.Serpa@asu.edu.

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