Give me shelter

Give me shelter

How my congregation in Austin, Texas, decided to give sanctuary to an LGBT activist facing deportation.

Meg Barnhouse
The Rev. Meg Barnhouse, Sulma Franco, the Rev. Chris Jimmerson celebrate after Franco was allowed to stay in the U.S., ending her sanctuary stay at First UU Church of Austin

The Rev. Meg Barnhouse (left) and the Rev. Chris Jimmerson (right) celebrate the government’s decision to allow Sulma Franco (center) to remain in the United States. Franco spent months in their UU church seeking sanctuary from deporation. (© Cristina Parker, Grassroots Leadership)

© Cristina Parker


Sulma Franco, an LGBT activist from Guatemala, needed sanctuary. She and her partner had a food truck here in Austin, and she’d been here four years, meeting regularly with immigration officials as her plea for asylum was processed. She’d had good hope of a visa, but her lawyer messed up the paperwork and she’d ended up in detention for seven months. Her partner had managed somehow to raise the $15,000 for her bond. With the bond at risk, still with a good chance of being granted a visa, it seemed there was no way her paperwork would be completed within the time she had left: her deportation date was in ten days.

The call for sanctuary for Sulma Franco came to First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, where I’m senior minister, because we have the reputation of being welcoming to LGBT folks, and because the Rev. Marisol Caballero, minister of religious education and congregational engagement, had been doing antiracism work within the congregation and beyond. Word had gotten out in the immigrant community.

Could we help?

A regular board meeting was scheduled for that night. I told the board I felt rushed by this request, pushed, that I didn’t like doing things without knowing what I was doing—that I didn’t have enough information. None of us liked that. It was scary. We all preferred knowing what we were in for before we decided anything. What would the legal ramifications be? Could she not just stay in someone’s home? No, sanctuary was an ancient tradition, dating back centuries, where soldiers would not come into a holy place and drag someone out. A church was the only place that would do.

Why was Sulma in trouble? She had been organizing LGBT groups at a university in Guatemala, and had been attacked and threatened. She had ridden north on top of the train called “The Beast,” tying her belt to the roof rail so she wouldn’t fall off. It wouldn’t be safe for her to return to Guatemala. But if she missed her deportation date, she and her partner would lose their $15,000. And if she went back to Guatemala, there was no way she would be allowed to pick up her case for asylum where it had left off.

Suddenly, a man at the end of the table said, “I think we should do it!”

A thoughtful and lively conversation ensued. Each of us struggled more within than with one another. A man at the other end of the table said, “This fits perfectly with our mission that we say together every Sunday. If we don’t do this, what do we do?”

Silence. I told the board that they had preached to me, that my mind had been changed. We should do it. “I have a shower in my office across the street,” one member said. I don’t know why that is the thing that made my eyes fill with tears.

In the ten days that followed, a man came to install a shower. We sent out an email call for furniture, and had all we needed within a couple of hours. The minister of a nearby Presbyterian church called to say his congregation wanted to partner with us. The Sunday after Sulma moved in, I talked to the congregation about offering help to this one refugee. I told them about the board meeting. I told them about the Presbyterians who were willing to stand with us, and that their minister was preaching about us that very morning, telling his folks that the UUs had “seized the prophetic moment.” When I introduced Sulma to the congregation after the sermon, the people rose as one, applauding in welcome. She spoke to us in Spanish about her gratitude, and about wanting to be a contributing member of the community.

The summer passed with lots of meetings and strategizing, emailing, phone calling, and fundraising. Marisol was her main contact, as she spoke Spanish and the rest of us did not. The Rev. Chris Jimmerson, minister of program support, met with the White Allies group and the coalition of organizations supporting Sulma. We practiced being allies, resisting our urges to take over the campaign, letting Sulma run things, which she and the coalition did to good effect.

Immigration officials, promising she would not be arrested at their office, requested an August meeting in San Antonio. About fifty of us accompanied her. Chris and I locked arms with her as the others stood in the hot sun singing. The TV cameras were out in force. The three of us, alongside Sulma’s new lawyer, sat as lengthy paperwork got filled out. She was granted a stay of removal. “People all the way to Washington know about this case,” the agent said.

A whoop of triumph arose as we came out, Sulma holding her paperwork high. We celebrated with Tex-Mex food and mariachi music.

We hope that 1,000 churches of all denominations will become sanctuary churches, that 1,000 lawyers will work on the cases, and that the immigration system will feel the pressure of 1,000 sturdy sanctuaries surrounded by busy people of good will who resist the system in order to bring transformation and greater justice.