Three UU congregations sheltering immigrants

Three UU congregations sheltering immigrants

At least twelve other congregations are preparing to offer sanctuary.

Elaine McArdle
Alirio Gámez at First UU Church of Austin, Texas, which offered Gámez sanctuary.

Alirio Gámez at First UU Church of Austin, Texas, which offered Gámez sanctuary. (Courtesy Grassroots Leadership)

Courtesy Grassroots Leadership


Three Unitarian Universalist congregations took undocumented immigrants into sanctuary in August to protect them from deportation. Twelve other congregations are preparing to offer their spaces for sanctuary in response to increasing efforts by the Trump administration to target immigrants.

In recent months, dozens of UU congregations across the country have joined interfaith teams supporting families in sanctuary and are working on expanding sanctuary policies in their communities, said Susan Leslie, UUA Congregational Advocacy and Witness director.

On August 6, First UU Church of Austin, Texas, took into sanctuary Alirio Gámez, a 40-year-old Salvadoran man who fled extreme violence in his country. Gámez is appealing a denial of his petition for asylum. Through a translator, congregant Carol Edwards, Gámez told UU World that he came to the United States “because I have a right to live.”

On August 21, the UU Church of Akron, Ohio, took in a Central American man and his young son. The man, who does not want his name released, will likely be killed if he is deported home, said the Rev. Tim Temerson. For years, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) allowed him to remain, “but something radical changed at his ICE check-in a couple of months ago,” Temerson said.

On August 29, All Souls UU Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, took into sanctuary Elmer Peña Peña, 37, and his three-year-old son. Peña, who has worked in Colorado for sixteen years and has three children, all American-born, is attempting to get asylum to avoid being returned to the life-threatening violence he escaped in El Salvador.

UU congregations have been a part of the New Sanctuary movement that sprang up as the Obama administration deported a record number of immigrants. In 2015, the Austin church hosted a Guatemalan LGBT activist for three months until she won relief from deportation. The Rev. Meg Barnhouse said the reasons her congregation chose to become a sanctuary included the opportunity to “shine a light on a broken system” and “because it saves somebody’s life.”

Last February, First Unitarian Society of Denver, Colorado, took in a mother of four until she was granted a stay of deportation. In 2014, the congregation kept a man in sanctuary for nine months until ICE said his deportation case was not a priority. The UU Fellowship of Northern Nevada in Reno took a man into sanctuary in 2016 and another this year until both cases were successfully resolved with ICE.

The UU College of Social Justice, the UU Service Committee, the Unitarian Universalist Association, UURISE (UU Refugee and Immigrant Services and Education), and Standing on the Side of Love have created a toolkit for congregations looking to become sanctuary congregations or support the movement. It includes online workshops and a list of upcoming events to assist congregations, state action networks, and activists.

It’s essential to work with interfaith partners and coalitions for practical support and to help evaluate the persons seeking help, including ensuring that they are not violent criminals, ministers say.

All Souls in Colorado Springs works with the Colorado Springs Sanctuary Coalition. In May, 91 percent of the congregation voted in favor of becoming a sanctuary. When first asked to take Peña into sanctuary, the church wasn’t yet prepared. But when an immigrant woman, a member of the coalition, said she would “live in a closet” if it meant staying with her family, the Rev. Dr. Nori Rost vacated her office for Peña and his son to live in, and she fashioned a shower above a drain in the church’s furnace room.

On September 5—the day that Trump officials announced their intention to end DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals)—members of the Austin Sanctuary Network stood with Gámez and the Rev. Chris Jimmerson, minister for program development, at a press conference at First UU Austin committing their support.

For seven years, the UU Church in Akron has partnered with the Immigrant Worker Project in Canton, Ohio. In 2014, the congregation received the UUA’s Bennett Award for Congregational Action on Human Justice and Social Action, in large part for its immigrant justice work. In April, the congregation voted 150–0 to become a sanctuary, and it relied on the Immigrant Worker Project to help select the man now in sanctuary, who is so respected by his employer that his job is being held open for him.

“I fully expect that after this family leaves we’ll take another family in,” said Temerson, adding that his congregation is committed to sanctuary “throughout the duration of the Trump administration.”

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