The First Unitarian Universalist Church in Rochester is considering whether to declare itself a “sanctuary congregation,” making it the first Rochester area church to reveal that it is actively exploring the option.

Such a designation, if approved by a vote of the 370-member church, would be a declaration of its intention to offer emergency haven for undocumented immigrants facing deportation. Similar discussions are occurring in churches across the state, including Red Wing, St. Cloud and Duluth, according to church and Christian leaders.

“Part of the reason we are doing this at all is to make the public aware that we — a faith institution — have objections to the way things are going with immigration law,” said Phil Wheeler, one of a group of church members pushing for the declaration.

Last month, President Trump directed his administration to enforce the nation’s immigration laws more aggressively, broadening the scope of people subject to arrest and deportation to include undocumented individuals who have not committed serious crimes.

Advocates say the sanctuary movement has been picking up steam in recent months in response to President Trump’s election and a crackdown he ordered that could lead to many more deportations.

Growing network

So far, a network of 28 churches have emerged in the state as either a sanctuary congregation or “sanctuary supporting.” Most are in the Twin Cities, but a few are in Greater Minnesota cities. An equal number of churches in the state are said to be actively discussing the idea, officials say. So far, no Rochester area church has made such a declaration, but that could change.

Wheeler said a 14-member group has begun drafting a resolution that could make it Rochester’s first sanctuary church. A vote by the full congregation could come as early as the end of April or as late as June. The Rev. Fritz Hudson, First Unitarian Universalist Church’s interim minister, noted that three UU congregations in the Twin Cities have already declared themselves sanctuary congregations, “so we have good guidance from our colleagues up there.”

The Rochester church’s decision to consider such a declaration comes after representatives and leaders of 10 Rochester area churches gathered at Peace United Church of Christ March 16 to learn more about the sanctuary movement — and what it means to become a sanctuary church. The meeting was attended by the Rev. Grant Stevenson, a clergy organizer for ISAIAH, a Twin Cities faith-based group that has been spearheading the sanctuary movement in the state.

“We’re convening a movement of the spirit that’s out there,” Stevenson said.

The Rev. Paul Bauch, senior pastor at the church that hosted the meeting, said the meeting was informational only.

“It wasn’t even a discussion. It was just to get information only,” Bauch said.

It’s not entirely clear how many Rochester churches are actively considering becoming sanctuary congregations, but First Unitarian Universalist is reportedly not alone. At the meeting last week, it was evident from the comments that two other churches “were ready to move forward with this” and were further along than the UU church, officials say. People either declined to name them or didn’t know which churches they were.

Difficult discussions

Some churches are discovering that consensus isn’t always easy or automatic. While some see such civil disobedience as consistent with what the gospel teaches, the discussions within these churches have revealed a diversity of opinion, including some that oppose the idea.

“I know there are congregations where people are really wanting to move in this direction. And they’re surprised that it’s a more difficult conversation than (they imagined),” Stevenson said.

Wheeler said he was unable to predict at this point how church members would react to the resolution. The draft will be presented to the social justice council on April 5. From there, it would go before the entire congregation. To pass, at least 60 percent of the members must vote, and of those, 60 percent must vote in favor of it.

Wheeler said he expects talks to focus on the risks the church will be undertaking if it becomes a sanctuary congregation, and when does unjust enforcement of the law justify civil disobedience.

“We’re still exploring the ramifications,” Wheeler said. “That’s why I’m cautious. If it comes to vote tomorrow, I’ll vote in favor, but I don’t know if that’s true of the majority of the church.”

Historical precedent

Sanctuary movements come in waves. One of the last ones was in the 1980s. Back then it wasn’t Mexicans who were seeking protection, but people from Central America. Such churches agree to provide housing for undocumented people under a deportation order or while they work out their legal issues.

The protection afforded undocumented immigrants by churches is not something that is guaranteed by law. But it has been a practice generally observed by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement division not to storm or invade “buildings of faith communities” for the purpose of apprehending such immigrants.

The First United Church of Christ in Northfield voted to declare itself a sanctuary church in December, a month after President Trump’s election.

Senior Pastor Todd Lippert said the 450-member church has a long history of working on social justice issues. And as fears of mass deportation have risen, particularly among members of the city’s Hispanic community, “we wanted to say, ‘our church could be safe place (for those) who are facing that threat.'”

Lippert said the vote in support of a sanctuary declaration was “overwhelming.” Many were animated by a desire to live up to the gospel, which calls upon people “to be caring for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in the land,” Lippert said, quoting from the Bible. He noted that right before the vote, a church member stood up to tell the congregation that “this Christianity thing is coming to life for the first time for me,'” Lippert said.

“There was a strong feeling in the congregation that this was something that we should do,” Lippert said.

Going public

He said the church has made a point of being very public about its decision. It contacted ISAIAH, which has been working to connect these churches into a network, to let them know it now was on the list.

Lippert said since the decision, a team of 10 to 12 members has been working to prepare the church to serve as host to an undocumented person. An all-purpose room has been converted into living quarters. Contacts have been cultivated with groups in Northfield “that are very closely connected with the Hispanic community.” The church also has access to a network of immigration lawyers.

Despite the strong support in favor of sanctuary status, Lippert said he understands how such a discussion can create tensions in a church.

“Declaring sanctuary is a significant step,” he said. “There are many churches that are really wrestling with this conversation now. Churches are bringing it up and talking about it.”

The Rev. Thomas Parlette, minster of the First Presbyterian Church in Rochester, said he attended last week’s meeting as someone wanting to learn more information about sanctuary congregations. A few people had approached him, curious about the effort and wanting to know more. Parlette said he will probably bring the topic up at a church committee to test interest in the idea.

“I bring up lost of things that people aren’t necessarily interested in pursuing, so we’ll see what happens,” Parlette said. “I kind of have to go with what strikes a chord. And we do have lots of people who are very concerned about the way the wind is blowing in our country right now.”


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