Religion

Two churches say they’ll protect undocumented immigrants, even if it means arrest

Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton has voted to provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants facing deportation. Rev. Rachel Ringenberg Miller and associate pastor Ben Woodward-Breckbill say that move allows the church to provide temporary relief to immigrants.
Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton has voted to provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants facing deportation. Rev. Rachel Ringenberg Miller and associate pastor Ben Woodward-Breckbill say that move allows the church to provide temporary relief to immigrants. The Wichita Eagle

The Rev. Rachel Ringenberg Miller remembers receiving a call from the pastor of a Hispanic church.

An undocumented immigrant, a member of the Hispanic pastor’s congregation, had been arrested. If the woman was released from jail, would Shalom Mennonite Church provide her sanctuary?

Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton, which Ringenberg Miller pastors, is one of a growing number of churches nationwide that have joined the sanctuary movement. Those churches have pledged to offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants at threat of deportation.

Other churches have opposed the sanctuary movement, saying they have no legal authority to protect immigrants or that it is immoral to harbor people who are in the United States illegally.

Shalom has not yet harbored an immigrant. The woman Ringenberg Miller was called about ended up being deported and left behind her children who are American citizens.

“Had she had space and time, perhaps she would have been here,” Ringenberg Miller said.

First Mennonite Church of Christian in Moundridge also is willing to offer sanctuary.

“Our mission as a church is to serve our neighbors in the name of Christ,” said the Rev. Laura Neufeld Goerzen, pastor of First Mennonite. “In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus makes it pretty clear that our neighbor is anyone who happens to be in need regardless of their race or nationality. Designating our place as a place of sanctuary felt like a natural outgrowth of our mission.”

More than 1,000 houses of worship have been designated as sanctuaries, according to a January report called “Sanctuary in the Age of Trump.” The New Sanctuary Movement began in 2007, opposing increasing deportations under the Obama Administration.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have never gone into a house of worship to make an arrest, so the idea is that sanctuary in a church may give an immigrant protection while they work on their legal case.

The first person publicly entered sanctuary in 2014. He left 28 days later with a stay of deportation.

Because of the Trump Administration’s hard-line immigration policies, more people are taking sanctuary in congregations than at any time since the 1980s, according to the New Sanctuary Movement. Of 37 people who went into public sanctuary in 2017, nine left with some sort of deportation reprieve.

Ringenberg Miller said her church voted to become a sanctuary congregation after several years of engaging with the Hispanic community in the area. At first, the church wanted to focus on education and building relationships — not breaking the law by knowingly harboring an undocumented immigrant.

Later, there were questions and concerns about the possibility of their church leadership facing arrest, but most of the congregation came on board, she said.

Both Shalom and First Mennonite will undergo renovations to create apartment-style spaces where an immigrant or immigrant family could live.

Goerzen said she hopes that if someone sought sanctuary in her church, it would give them time to press their immigration case in court or find a good attorney.

“We can’t guarantee that ICE wouldn’t come in and remove them … but there is an understandable hesitation on the part of ICE to arrest someone in a holy space,” Goerzen said.

According to federal law, it’s a crime to conceal, harbor or shield from detection anyone who has entered or remains in the United States in violation of the law.

Pastors at both churches said they wouldn’t try to conceal that they were harboring someone but understand there could still be consequences.

Ben Woodward-Breckbill, associate pastor at Shalom, said he’s had to process the idea of facing arrest, but that disagreeing with the law isn’t uncommon in Mennonite tradition.

“In my upbringing I was taught to value this idea that sometimes the church should be a witness to something that can be against a law,” he said.

Sanctuary cities have become a hot topic in recent months, but the modern movement began more than 30 years ago in Tucson, Arizona.



Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @kathsburgess.
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