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By Nancy Haught
PORTLAND, Ore. — Jean Bucciarelli remembers the Sunday last May when someone urged her congregation to become a sanctuary church — to actively support illegal immigrants who want to stay in this country.
“Someone said, `Let’s just do it,”‘ she recalls. Some members of Ainsworth United Church of Christ were ready, but Bucciarelli wasn’t.
Like most Ainsworth members, she still had too many questions.
“It is naive to go into something without knowing what you’re getting into — except that it sounds like a good Christian thing,” says Bucciarelli, 68, a charter member of the church, which describes itself as a “multicultural, multiracial, open and affirming (of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people) just peace church.”
The congregation decided to slow down but continue the conversation.
Congregants talked through June, when news broke of an immigration-enforcement raid on a local Fresh Del Monte Foods Inc. plant. They wrestled with many questions any religious group would:
Would sanctuary conflict with other church ministries? Would members be pressured to open their homes? Would they be breaking the law? What were the legal consequences?
The nationwide New Sanctuary Movement is about six months old. Its roots, however, go back to the Bible, where passages prescribe offering refuge to people unjustly accused of crimes. The movement last surfaced in the United States in the 1980s, when some churches sheltered Central and South Americans denied political asylum.
The most visible symbol of the New Sanctuary Movement has been Elvira Arellano, a Mexican woman who spent a year sheltered in a Chicago church to avoid deportation. She was deported last month after she embarked on a nationwide speaking tour; her son, Saul, 8, a U.S.
citizen, has joined her in Mexico.
Today, loosely organized religious groups and individuals in about 50 cities support families who risk separation if members here illegally are deported. The movement is public in its efforts and encourages immigrants to tell their stories.
In cities like Portland, New Sanctuary has not meant — at least so far — that churches or church members provide shelter. So far, leaders and people from about 20 congregations accompany immigrants to court and help them keep body and soul together.
Several local churches have supported “women of the bracelet,” about 25 mothers arrested in recent raids, including from the Fresh Del Monte plant, and then released wearing electronic monitoring bracelets. The women may not work, must spend at least 12 hours a day at home and must check in regularly with authorities. They support their children with donations they receive for serving homemade enchiladas and tamales at church events.
The Rev. Mark Knutson, pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church, says his congregation raised about $1,500 for the women during its summer festival. Others have also organized baby showers for women who were pregnant or were new mothers.
Maria del Pilar Delgado of Mexico City, who’s living in Northeast Portland, wore an electronic ankle bracelet after her arrest. On a recent evening, she sat at her kitchen table and went through bills. She needed $2,000 to appeal her deportation, $550 for rent, $200 for other bills and an undetermined amount for her American-born children, ages 7 and 9, for school.
“To tell the truth, I have lost sleep thinking about it,” she says through an interpreter.
Women like her were on the minds of the people at Ainsworth as they debated whether to join the New Sanctuary movement. The people the church would help, the congregants agreed, would have to have a good work history and not have a criminal record — aside from their immigration status. While some members did volunteer their homes, there would not be pressure on others to do so. If the church’s actions were open, if they didn’t hide immigrants and if they helped them follow immigration requirements, the legal consequences would probably be minimal, an attorney advised them.
Bucciarelli, who says she’s used to living alone, was relieved. “I do think immigration is a mess,” she says, “but at the same time, I’m not willing — and most people would not be willing — to risk a huge fine or big jail sentence. That continues to be a concern.”
The question came to a vote at Ainsworth in July. Bucciarelli thought about abstaining. But after airing her concerns and listening to others, she voted to be a sanctuary church, as did a majority of the voters.
The Rev. Lynne Smouse-Lopez, pastor at Ainsworth, feels good about the decision because it was thoughtful and prayerful.
“I’m encouraged by their compassion for immigrants,” she says. “It is a little overwhelming; we have so much on our plate already. But it feels good to say that I am a pastor of a sanctuary congregation.”
Ainsworth is the second local church to formally join the New Sanctuary movement; Augustana Lutheran Church renewed its 1997 pledge in June.
Some churches have decided not to get involved for a variety of reasons: resources are stretched too thin or they believe that the New Testament calls them to support civil law whether they agree with it or not.
Knutson, the pastor of Augustana whose congregation has occasionally included undocumented workers and who welcomes immigrants to the church almost daily for social services, sees the movement in terms of priorities.
“Everybody wants a compassionate and fair immigration policy,” he said. “But our first obligation is to the most vulnerable people, to extend hospitality to those who are new to the land.”
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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