By Benjamin Perry 2-28-2017

“If someone is in need, you help them.” Rev. Glenn Leupold’s simple declaration cuts to a principle at the heart the Sanctuary movement. He said the words at a recent training on sanctuary practices for churches in Stony Point, N.Y., earlier this month.

The weekend was hosted by the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.’s Synod of the Northeast, and attended by more than 80 ministers and other faith leaders from around the country. Alarmed by President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and draconian immigration policies, participants gathered to discern how they might reduce the human suffering such laws necessarily entail. The training provided a space for participants to reflect on the violence of borders and deportations, and to begin planning actions they felt called to take in their home communities.

Leupold, co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Albany, N.Y., traveled to the conference because he is alarmed “as a moral agent in our country at this time.”

“Even if you’re not a Christian,” Leupold said, it should concern everyone “that we have moved to proto-fascist, race-based decision making.”

As much as he sees Trump’s enthusiasm for deportation as a universal source of disquiet, Leupold said that Christians, in particular, should feel compelled to act in light of the Bible’s clear message: “Jesus said, ‘go out and love one another,’ he didn’t say, ‘go and seek racial purity in your community.” The parable of the Good Samaritan, he noted, didn’t include a section where “the Samaritan went up and checked the ID of the guy laying by the side of the road.”

Event organizers created the training to help focus and amplify the righteous outrage that has unfurled in the wake of Trump’s election. Shannan Vance-Ocampo, staff member at Synod of the Northeast, said it quickly became apparent that there was widespread thirst throughout the Synod for this type of training.

“People are feeling this urgent sense of call right now,” she said., “There were a lot of people starting to ask questions about sanctuary and we needed to do something rapidly to address this issue.”

It’s not surprising, Vance-Ocampo said, given the close relationships many churches have with undocumented immigrants. She said she’s hopeful the training helped participants, “realize the power that they have in their community … the ability that they have to be seen as a safe space.”

Joseph Paparone, who presented at the event, said churches are ideally situated to engage with the Sanctuary movement. “It’s rooted in our deep moral and ethical values of hospitality and welcoming the stranger,” he said, adding church communities also bring the logistical support of buildings, space, and resources.

“We already form an organizing base,” he said.

Emily Brewer, executive director of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, echoes that sentiment:

“Churches are often the ones to show up when somebody has died. It’s often the churches that bring food to the family so that their basic needs are taken care of. In this context, those same skills of taking care of one another and hospitality might look like showing up at a detention hearing, or visiting somebody at a detention center, or housing somebody in a church space. We have those skills of hospitality already, we’re just being called to use them in new ways.”

Many churches around the nation have already begun preparations to house undocumented immigrants. The push from the PC-USA holds particular significance since it is the denomination to which President Trump claims membership. This irony was not lost on one participant, who said pointedly, “as part of [Trump’s] community of origin where he allegedly was baptized … all Presbyterian churches, all Christian communities with which he is aligned need to put pressure on him.”

Though the new president’s rhetoric and actions provided impetus for the training, organizers were quick to note that Christian objections to U.S. immigration policy transcend political party.

“Before the election, President Obama deported 2-3 million people,” Paparone said. “Before the election we had 700+ miles of wall and border fencing. These are not partisan issues.”

Still, he concedes that something has changed since November: “Thankfully,” he concludes, “people are waking up.”

Benjamin Perry is a Presbyterian minister. He received his Masters of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, where he works as the Assistant Director of Communications and Marketing. Follow him on Twitter at @FaithfullyBP.

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