As faith communities throughout our state continue prayerfully to discern what it means to ‘love our [undocumented immigrant] neighbor’ in this time of heightened danger and uncertainty, we are the first NH UCC congregation to have chosen this way of ensuring “Sanctuary”—safety, dignity, and love—for ALL our neighbors, even and especially for those whom others would exclude and/or deport.
The Valley News article below describes this momentous decision.
Meriden Congregation Votes to Be ‘Sanctuary’
By Tim Camerato, Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, October 23, 2017
Meriden — As he preached to about three dozen congregants on Sunday, the Rev. John Gregory-Davis said that being a good Christian isn’t always synonymous with following the laws of man.
The early Christians offer a good example of the conflict that sometimes arises, he told those gathered at the Meriden Congregational Church. At a time when the Roman emperor was considered supreme, he said, preaching the gospel was considered treasonous.
Similar allegiances also pose a challenge in today’s political climate, Gregory-Davis said, especially when it comes to immigration policy.
Last Sunday, the same congregation voted unanimously to become a “sanctuary church,” offering to house up to six at-risk, undocumented immigrants in the nearby parsonage and parish house.
According to Gregory-Davis, the move is an extension of past efforts to make the “spiritually progressive church” in Meriden a more affirmative and inclusive space.
The vote is just as landmark as the congregation’s 2000 decision to welcome to the LGBT community, he said.
“To me, the great progressive/liberal Achilles heel is we love to talk the talk,” he said after service on Sunday.
Often, Gregory-Davis will find himself preaching about Black Lives Matter, LGBT rights and other causes championed by the church to nodding heads from the audience.
“The challenge now is ‘OK, let’s not just nod our heads. Let’s actually do something,’ ” he said.
The push to make Meriden a sanctuary church was the result of several different factors, Gregory-Davis said, dating back to when he was a seminarian in the 1980s.
Then, there was an ongoing sanctuary movement to protect Central American immigrants in churches throughout the South and Midwest. The Hanover Friends Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends also participated by taking in a refugee.
“At the time, I thought, ‘wow, that’s what the church should be doing,’ ” Gregory-Davis said.
The Meriden church also has a connection to an ongoing immigration story.
Currently, Granite State politicians and lawyers are working to prevent the deportation of 69 Indonesian Christians, some of whom have been in the country for 20 years or more.
Many of the Indonesians are part of the Maranatha Indonesian United Church of Christ, a sister church based in Madbury, N.H. They’ve visited Meriden several times, Gregory-Davis said, including one child was even baptized here.
“When we baptize a child, we say ‘that child is a part of us and we will be here for them,’” he said. “What are we doing? How are we living that out?”
Providing sanctuary does come with legal risk, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
It’s a federal crime to conceal, harbor or shield undocumented immigrants from authorities when that immigrant’s unlawful status is known. There’s also a federal law that forbids moving an undocumented immigrant from one place to another, if the transportation helps that immigrant stay in the U.S. unlawfully.
To mitigate the church’s risk, the ACLU recommends it openly declare to officials when it provides sanctuary.
“So if we were to hide a person here, that would be breaking the law. But the way it works is we’re not hiding them because we’ll be very visible about it, very open about it.” said Rod Wendt, executive director of the United Valley Interfaith Project, a coalition of religious groups who helped the Meriden Congregational Church form its sanctuary policy.
However, the ACLU warns that move could put immigrants seeking protection at greater risk of arrest.
Churches are also partially protected as a “sensitive location” under a 2011 U.S. Department of Homeland Security memorandum, which was extended to include Customs and Border Protection and ICE officials in 2013.
The memo directs federal immigration officials to seek prior approval before carrying out actions in areas such as schools, hospitals and places of worship.
Although congregants aren’t sure what will happen legally, Gregory-Davis still believes providing sanctuary is the right move. He compared the move to that of the French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, which provided refuge to roughly 3,000 Jews during the Holocaust.
“When the folks at Le Chambon protected the Jews at great personal risk, when the people in that church were asked ‘How could you do this?’ they said ‘How could we not?’ ” Gregory-Davis said.
He admitted undocumented immigrants and his congregants aren’t facing the same extreme threat that the French did during WWII, but asked how people could stand aside today.
“Yes, it’s about taking sides. Yes, it’s about taking a risk,” he said. “But there’s risk to not doing it as well.”
Many of those attending services on Sunday said they were supportive of the vote last week, including Joan Burch, who attributed strong feelings to the current political climate.
“It’s so painful to watch what’s happening in our country and what’s happening to people who came here in good faith to a life that this country has always promised our people,” she said. “It’s inspiring to be in a congregation that actively works to change that.”
Richard Atkinson said he was also happy to vote “yes,” saying it contributes to the atmosphere that “all are welcome.”
“I would say that we’re; unabashedly a spiritually progressive church and I think this is something that we’ve been building up toward for several years now,” he said.
However, the church isn’t quite ready to begin taking people in, Wendt warned. His group is still looking to build a support network with other churches, helping provide food, transportation and other forms of aid.
“If an immigrant were to call today and say ‘We need to go into sanctuary’ our response would be ‘We’re not quite ready yet.’ ” Wendt said. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”
Gregory-Davis said his church will also look to the Dover (N.H.) Friends Meeting both as a model and collaborators in the sanctuary movement. The Seacoast Quaker society has also voted to offer sanctuary and formed a group of congregants to draft policies.
That’s the next step for Meriden, he said, adding it could be months before they begin to accept people.
Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamer firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3223.