By Patricia Geenen, Immigration Issues Action Group
A subset of the Immigration Issue Action Group at First Church has begun a discernment process to consider becoming a sanctuary site for undocumented immigrants under threat of deportation.
As part of our research about what is termed “New Sanctuary,” I met with the Rev. Joseph and the Rev. Joyce Ellwanger, who were active in the Milwaukee Sanctuary movement of the 1980’s and led their congregation, Cross Lutheran Church (ELCA), through a similar discernment process.
When the question of becoming a Sanctuary site for political refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala arose in 1982, a Milwaukee Sanctuary Committee was already educating the community about our government’s support of repressive governments in these two countries. In December 1982 two Milwaukee Catholic parishes declared themselves sanctuary congregations, and Cross Lutheran Church began consideration of providing physical sanctuary, a much bolder step.
The discernment process Cross pursued between 1982-83 included discussion by the church council and at small group meetings of interested members. Discussions raised some of the following concerns:
- It would be both unpatriotic and risky to defy the law and the federal government.
- Potential fines or lawsuits could jeopardize the financial security of the church.
- Too much of the pastor’s and members’ time and effort could be channeled away from the central mission of the church to serve its inner-city congregation and community.
Ultimately the church council voted in favor of becoming a sanctuary site, basing their decision on a parallel made to the Underground Railroad as civil disobedience.
In September of 1983 Cross publicly announced their protection of a Guatemalan refugee whose union activities caused his life to be threatened in Guatemala. During the two years, he was in sanctuary at Cross, there were no attempts to arrest this undocumented refugee, nor any intimidation of the church.
Please look out for future articles for continuing information.