Episcopal Church expands its stand with refugees, immigrants and the undocumented

January 31, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church and Igelsia Episcopal de la Trinidad of Los Angeles pose with signs to show their support for immigrants and refugees. Their signs read “Stand with Refugees. #GreaterAs1.” Photo: Trinity Episcopal Church via Facebook

[Episcopal News Service] Even before President Donald Trump upended a major part of U.S. immigration policy, many Episcopalians were recommitting to support refugees and finding new ways to extend their advocacy. And those efforts are expanding.

The Diocese of Los Angeles overwhelmingly approved sanctuary status in early December after an impassioned plea by the Rev. Nancy Frausto.

“At 8 years old, I crossed the border with my mother and brother. I have stayed in this country, living in the shadows for most of my life,” said Frausto, a priest who serves both Trinity and St. Mary’s churches in Los Angeles.

“It was the church (that) gave me hope,” she said. “I am one of over 700,000 DACA  (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients. It is such a scary position to be in right now. I could lose my work permit and be deported back to a country I do not know.”

The Rev. Francisco Garcia, rector of Holy Faith Church in Inglewood, said that at least 50 congregations have expressed interest in and requested information about a sanctuary designation or how to support the vulnerable.

During a Jan. 18 webinar, Garcia, who co-chairs the sanctuary task force Episcopal Sacred Resistance – Los Angeles, said the effort comes straight out of the baptismal promise to resist evil – in all forms including racism, sexism, homophobism, Islamophobia and any institutionalized structures targeting the vulnerable.

Holy Faith Episcopal Church in the Los Angeles-area community of Inglewood has long been involved in immigrant justice work. Photo: Diocese of Los Angeles via Facebook

Garcia was joined by the Rev. Canon Jaime Edwards-Acton, rector of St. Stephen’s Church in Hollywood and task force co-chair, and United Church of Christ pastor Noel Andersen, grassroots coordinator for immigrants’ rights with Church World Service. Andersen said the number of sanctuary congregations, representing a broad range of faith traditions, has nearly doubled nationally, to about 800, in recent months.

Acton said sacred resistance can take many forms, depending on local context. “There is no cookie cutter model. … Sanctuary will be different for different congregations.”

Garcia said that the work of sanctuary extends “to stand with anyone who is under attack” to be aligned with the Baptismal Covenant to persevere in resisting evil … and “all systemic evils that oppress others.”

Andersen said that in other instances, activists have trained as rapid-response volunteers in a kind of “Sanctuary on the Streets” preparation to respond immediately when notified of a deportation raid, often in the middle of the night. “In Philadelphia, it’s been very successful.”

“We have seen when allies show up to a raid, it can deter” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from proceeding with the deportation process, he said. “They don’t want to be seen deporting people.”

Exploring next steps to protect refugees, undocumented persons

While protestors were gathering at airports Jan. 28, including nearby Newark International Airport, Diocese of Newark convention delegates overwhelmingly supported a plea from a group of 24 laity and clergy for the diocese to study the sanctuary church movement. The group called for Newark Episcopalians to explore what others are doing and to begin to engage in immigrant justice as a diocese, as congregations and as individuals.

Membership in local churches includes both immigrants and the undocumented who are at increased risk of deportation, the Rev. J. Brent Bates, rector of Grace Church, Newark, told the convention. “It doesn’t matter who we voted for,” Bates said. “We believe the Holy Scriptures tell us we are to respect and to treat with respect the alien, because we too were once aliens in a foreign land.”

Newark Bishop Mark Beckwith applauded the effort. “This has been framed as a political issue,” he said. “I don’t see it that way at all. It is a moral issue and we need to be a moral voice in the world.”


Among Episcopal congregations reacting to the changes in U.S. immigration policies is St. Mark’s Church in New Canaan, Connecticut. On Jan. 29 it helped launch a community-wide refugee resettlement program through “neighbor-to-neighbor work and community gathering,” according to the church website. St. Mark’s is the first sponsor of the program that began with more than 100 local mothers organizing on Facebook.

Next steps: education, discernment, local connection

Lacy Broemel, a refugee and immigration policy analyst with the Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations in Washington, D.C., said that becoming a sanctuary diocese or congregation involves legal, theological and material consideration as well as individual discernment.

For example, Broemel said hosting an undocumented person to protect them from deportation in a parish building would require such considerations as: “Does your church have a shower, a bed, a way to provide them food and clothing during the time they will be in sanctuary?”

“If your congregation cannot provide physical protection to have someone living in the parish, there are other ways to stand with the undocumented,” she said.

Members of St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Los Angeles proclaim their solidarity with Muslim immigrants. Photo: Diocese of Los Angeles via Facebook

A church could offer legal clinics, ‘know your rights’ workshops, advocacy training or language classes, said Broemel, whose office is offering webinars on advocacy.

UCC Pastor Andersen agreed. He said food, clothing, legal fees and other kinds of support are always needed, especially in fighting deportation cases.

An estimated 11 million undocumented persons live in the United States. During a Nov. 13 “60 Minutes” interview, Trump vowed to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and to immediately deport or incarcerate some 2 to 3 million undocumented persons he called criminals. These vows have prompted activists to intensify organizing efforts, Andersen said.

In some cases, Broemel said, advocacy could include simply talking about concerns for the undocumented with local, state and federal governmental officials, and neighbors and friends, holding vigils, and registering for legislative and policy updates from the Episcopal Public Policy Network.

EPPN on Jan. 31 announced a “2×4 Fight for Refugees” campaign, challenging Episcopalians to call national, state and local elected officials at least four times in the next two months to voice opposition to President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

A resource for congregations interested in providing sanctuary is Sanctuary Not Deportation.

The local connection is vital, Andersen said. Congregations need to become aware, educated and discern how they may participate.

“It’s always transformational for the church and the families” impacted, he said. “The family is astounded by the love and welcome they are given. It is something formational for person going into sanctuary.”

With so much uncertainty, activists must be fully prepared, he said.

Speaking out against Trump’s actions

Bishops, clergy and laity are urging reconsideration of Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order, which halts refugee resettlement for 120 days and bars Syrians from being resettled in the United States for an unspecified amount of time.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry on Jan. 25 urged Trump to reconsider his then-anticipated order on immigration, calling refugee resettlement “God’s work.”

Curry added: “We ask that we continue to accept as many refugees as we have in the past, recognizing the need is greater than ever. We ask that refugees from all countries receive consideration to come to the U.S. and not to ban those who come from countries most in need of our assistance.”

House of Deputies President Gay Jennings said Jan. 31 that she was “particularly horrified by the ban on refugees signed by President Trump on Friday evening.”

“It is quite simply an act of malice, particularly toward our Muslim sisters and brothers, and Christians must oppose it loudly and with strength. Many of you are doing so, and I am grateful for the statements and sermons I have seen and the photos in my Facebook feed of Episcopalians gathered at airports and other protest sites to express our church’s commitment to welcoming the stranger.”

The Rev. Canon Mark Stevenson, director of Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM), has said that the rationale given for taking the action was “to make us safe. Yet, isolating ourselves from the world does not make us safer, it only isolates us. Being afraid of those who differ from us does not make us wise, or even prudent; it only traps us in an echo chamber of suspicion and anger, and stops us cold from loving as Christ loved.”

Episcopal News Service has posted a number of responses here.

Stevenson said that EMM will continue to minister to those who have fled their homes because of persecution, violence, or war. “Through our network of affiliates across this country, and with the help of the wider Episcopal Church, we will welcome these men, women and children who did not choose to become refugees. In partnership with the other resettlement agencies, we will work with our government and local communities to provide a place of welcome.

“We can make a difference in these days. We can save lives. We can answer the cry of the persecuted, and the call of God.”

– The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.