Volunteers at Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church removed Christmas decorations, old china and other items from the church’s small attic this week. They were readying the storage space to become two bedrooms and a living room where immigrants at risk of deportation could temporarily seek safety.
“There are a lot of things we can’t offer because we’re not a huge [congregation],” said Pastor Beth Brown. “But one of the things we can offer is space — we do have space.”
Brown said she hopes to have the space ready around Easter. She doesn’t know how many immigrants might live there — or for how long — but her congregation is committed to helping people who need refuge while seeking legal status in the U.S. She said the effort has given the church a renewed sense of mission, even as it struggles with dwindling membership. It’s a mission that very few other faith groups in Chicago have been willing to adopt because of the significant responsibilities and risks.
“This congregation has always been on the leading edge in a risky way of some really hot issues,” Brown said.
The church, a cavernous structure built in 1888, is home to a congregation of only about 90 people, Brown said. She described the group as “gutsy,” and in near full agreement on theological and political matters. Brown said those factors have allowed the church to act boldly in the past on hot button issues, such as welcoming gay clergy.
According to the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America (CRLN), an organization working to support and expand the sanctuary movement locally, only two churches in its network are currently providing physical sanctuary to undocumented immigrants in the Chicago area.
“It’s a difficult time for a lot of congregations to want to come out publicly,” said Cinthya Rodriguez, an immigration organizer with CRLN. “Especially a lot of congregations [that] are immigrant-majority.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security considers churches, schools and hospitals to be “sensitive locations” where immigration raids should not occur. But Rodriguez pointed to a controversial 2015 case, where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents lured a man out of a Schaumburg church and detained him in a neighboring parking lot.
“The risk that congregations have to take is to be ready to defend their sanctuary spaces,” Rodriguez said. “Sanctuary spaces don’t just become created when you declare them to be sanctuaries, but they’re something that have to be actively organized and defended by the community.”
Brown said that if her church becomes a refuge for undocumented immigrants, the congregation will have to be trained to know, for example, what to do if ICE agents come knocking on church doors.
Worth the risk?
Other faith leaders have openly declared that their congregations will not provide physical sanctuary.
In a letter to archdiocese priests earlier this year, Cardinal Blase Cupich said the Catholic Church would not be naming churches sanctuaries “because it would be irresponsible to create false hope that we can protect people from law-enforcement actions, however unjust or inhumane we may view them to be.”
But Brown thinks it is her church’s responsibility to help those in need.
“Can we keep somebody completely safe? Maybe, maybe not. We don’t know that,” Brown said. “Will we do everything in our power to try? Absolutely.”
Already, some risks have become apparent. Earlier this week, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo urging federal prosecutors to pursue cases that involve the “harboring of aliens.”
And Brown said she received hate mail soon after the congregation announced it would provide physical sanctuary to undocumented immigrants.
“[It] came from somebody in Michigan, and it was horrible,” she said. “The last words were ‘Enjoy hell.’ ”
Fernando Carbajal, the church’s maintenance technician, said they’ve been surprised by unusual and suddenly frequent visits from city inspectors. He questioned whether it was a harassment tactic originating from neighbors who might oppose the sanctuary plan.
“Probably someone called just to check so we can let them inside and take a look,” he said.
Carbajal said the inspections also felt unusual because the inspectors did not ask for him by name, as they have in the past. He added that the inspectors did not leave any paperwork behind to indicate what repairs he needed to do.
“What kind of city inspector is that?” Carbajal said. “I don’t take that as a valid inspection.”
A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Buildings said that the department has “completed approximately 30 inspections (at the church and shelter) from 2007 – 2017,” and said that visits have not become more frequent. She noted that the department has also recently added many new inspectors, who may conduct their visits differently.
The congregation has previously had to fight lawsuits before about how it uses its space. In 2005, neighbors sued over the church’s decision to allow a homeless shelter to operate from its basement. The case was settled out of court.
Brown said the congregation thought carefully about whether they could be sued again over the creation of a sanctuary space for immigrants, or whether it could lose its non-profit status.
“To the best of our knowledge, we would be OK legally,” she said. “We hope people won’t sue us. We hope the administration doesn’t send people after us.”
Brown said she realizes that providing refuge to one or two immigrants may look like nothing against the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., but she said that part of providing sanctuary is to share the stories of those who are fighting deportation. Her hope is to highlight what she calls the “unjust” immigration policies of the U.S., and to change the laws.
She added that the congregation decided long ago that their actions on social justice issues like immigration and racial equality supersede any concerns about their dwindling numbers. That decision, Brown said, has given them great freedom.
“We don’t feel desperate to save our life. We will live fully with the life that we have,” Brown said. “If there’s a point at which we need to merge with another congregation, or close the doors in order to free up ministry and space and money for the next iteration, we will do those things. But for now we feel deeply called to what we’re doing.”
Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her at @oyousef.