In January 2017, when the Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs, New York, introduced a proposal to provide safe haven to immigrants, some congregants were skeptical.
“There was a reluctance among some members to get involved in a political issue,” says Terry Diggory, coordinator of the church’s Welcoming Immigrants Task Force. “We made the point that this is not a partisan issue in terms of favoring one party over another. Yes, it’s political — but political in the sense that the gospel of Jesus Christ is political and on the side of justice for the poor and those who can’t speak up for themselves.”
Both the Hebrew scripture and the Christian New Testament emphasize bringing welcome to the stranger as a key value.
Any controversy was put to rest quickly. That June, one week after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested 16 undocumented workers in the area, the church formally adopted a resolution to provide housing in the church’s sanctuary residence to immigrants while they sought a stay of removal, order of supervision, or some other form of administrative relief from immigration authorities.
Diggory says that anti-immigrant rhetoric emanating from Washington, D.C., served as the catalyst for sanctuary, because it compelled congregants to think deeply about their responsibility as followers of Christ. “It grew out of a general commitment on the basis of our faith to be welcoming,” he says. “Both the Hebrew scripture and the Christian New Testament emphasize bringing welcome to the stranger as a key value. As we heard the increasing voice of rejection of immigrants, we reminded each other that here are strangers in our midst, whom our faith taught us to regard as our neighbors.”
The Saratoga church is part of a national movement of faith-based organizations that have pledged to protect their immigrant neighbors. More than 800 faith-based communities have joined the Sanctuary Not Deportation movement, and a petition supporting the sanctuary movement has garnered more than 40,000 signatures from members of the faith community.
Diggory stresses that his church does not intend to hide anyone or to break any laws; the congregation will publicly disclose the names of anyone taken into the residence. The intention, he says, is to slow down a process that, in the church’s opinion, has been wrongfully accelerated. Previously, individuals who had pending visa applications with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services were not an enforcement priority for ICE. But now they are more likely to be targeted.
“People have been deported while they have a visa application or other aspect of the immigration-review process pending. We want to make sure that all of those channels have time to get fully pursued,” Diggory says.
In addition to providing sanctuary, Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church works with other local organizations to host soup kitchens and provide English as a second language classes. Diggory says these efforts have received a number of inquiries and a lot of gratitude. “People have told us they feel grateful for the material support and are also just glad to know that there are people in the community who sympathize with them and genuinely welcome them,” he says.
Though he is heartened to see members of the community gathering together and honoring their common values, he says that the country needs to see reform at the national level. “The kinds of things that we are able to do immediately are stopgap measures to help people caught in the system,” he says, “but the system itself needs to be thoroughly revamped.”
Diggory would like to see political leaders work to align the needs of immigrants with those of employers. He notes that Saratoga Springs is a small city in an agricultural region, and dairy farmers in the area are frustrated that they do not have a means of hiring migrant workers on a year-round basis.
“People are taking large risks to enter the country and obviously feel a desperate need to be here,” he says. “Employers feel a need to hire these folks and want to do that legally. So we really need to match the needs of employers and workers so that we can furnish them with the proper visas.”
Such measures, Diggory believes, could help end much of the rancor currently dragging down our civic discourse. “We should find ways in which we could recognize that we have common ground,” he says. “It would not only benefit our economy, it would benefit our quality of life to live in a community where people truly welcome each other rather than needing to be suspicious and fearful of each other.”