Congregational civil disobedience
The New Sanctuary Movement comes to Cal Lutheran
By Joan Trossman Bien 10/25/2007
Three clergy leaders spoke to a mostly sympathetic group Oct. 18 at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks in an effort to build public understanding and support for the New Sanctuary Movement, offering explanations of and arguments for providing church sanctuary to certain undocumented immigrants.
The leader of the movement, Bishop Dean Nelson of the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, spoke to a nearly full room of approximately 50 people. He said the influx of Central American refugees to the United States in the 1980s sparked the original Sanctuary Movement. Many of those refugees were fleeing persecution and death squads but were not eligible for legal protection because the refugees were emigrating from countries which were allies with the United States.
“A congregation that chooses to allow a person who is undocumented to stay in their church is, in fact, engaged in civil disobedience and is breaking the law,” Nelson said.
An anti-undocumented immigrant protest at a Simi Valley church triggered the New Sanctuary Movement’s recent high profile. The City of Simi Valley had demanded a reimbursement of $45,000 from the church for the cost of law enforcement during the protest. The city has since backpedaled on that issue.
Nelson said confrontation with opposing groups is counterproductive.
“Our goal is eventual dialogue about these issues, because only when we have dialogue about the issues are we going to find a workable solution,” he said.
Another speaker, Rev. Jim Oines, a veteran of the original Sanctuary Movement for refugees from El Salvador, also said providing sanctuary is illegal and warned the congregation doing so must cooperate with the government. Oines said the churches notify officials as to the name of the person and their location.
“We must practice civil disobedience,” Oines said. “We are not hiding people, we are not harboring people. We are telling the public and the government where these people are.”
The final speaker, Rev. June Goudey of the United Church of Christ of Simi Valley — the church which was the target of protests in September — said the most vocal and disruptive groups on the issues of immigration and sanctuary are not strangers to each other.
“There are certain groups which give titles to themselves which sound wonderful, but their intentions are otherwise,” Goudey said. “It seems that these groups know each other. They know each other by name and they feed off each other.”
Goudey told the audience about a young woman receiving sanctuary from Goudey’s congregation. When she was a teenager in Mexico, her family moved to the United States. She stayed behind to finish high school. By the time she herself could immigrate, the laws changed, barring her from entering legally. She crossed into the country illegally, married and had children. Now she is being actively sought for deportation by the government.
“Migration is a human reality,” she said. “There is no part of the system that is working.”
Goudey said her church is the only sanctuary church in Ventura County because “there is a great deal of fear” about providing sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. The immigration office in Camarillo is particularly stern, she said.
Goudey said the subject of immigration is riddled with ignorance and a lack of knowledge about the issues.
“People who are against immigration use the worst kind of language,” she said. “If more people understood the complexities of the situation, they would change their language.”
Blythe Cherney, a political science student from Visalia, has researched the reasons behind the church sanctuary movement.
“Social activism is one thing for an individual to decide to become a participant,” Cherney said, “but for a whole congregation to come to that decision, to put themselves on the line, is something I think isn’t very common.”
Cherney said the discussion did affect her personally.
“I feel more committed,” she said, “realizing that there’s a face behind immigration.”
Another student, Christine Gaal, a math major from Fenton, Miss., said she also felt that knowing detail about an individual who is taking sanctuary made the issue more tangible.
“The more I find out about the New Sanctuary Movement, the more I support it,” Gaal said. “I believe what they’re doing is right.” n